Gulati: Sermanni’s firing based on ‘underlying issues,’ but questions remain

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Tom Sermanni is as surprised as anyone by his dismissal from U.S. women’s soccer head coaching duties.

He was, after all, 18-2-4 in his 15-month tenure at the helm of the world’s No. 1 team. But results weren’t the heart of the issue, according to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. A difference in philosophies on where the team is headed ultimately cost the Scotsman his job, which is what caught him most off-guard.

“I wasn’t aware of any major issues around the place, and perhaps that was my lack of insight,” Sermanni told NBC Sports. “I don’t know; it wasn’t something that I had on the radar. I thought the team was headed in the right direction and we were building up a strong squad.”

Gulati, however, said U.S. Soccer “needed to go in a different direction.” The news was delivered shortly after the U.S. women defeated China 2-0 on Sunday in the first of two friendlies this week. It comes a month after the Americans saw their 43-game unbeaten streak snapped, and endured their first three-game winless streak in 13 years after an ugly display at the Algarve Cup.

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Tom Sermanni had no idea he was even on the hot seat. (Getty Images)

But that tumultuous week in Portugal – which included a historic 5-3 loss to Denmark – wasn’t the problem, Gulati said Monday. There were “underlying issues” that were both stylistic and personality-driven.

Sermanni guided the team to an unbeaten 2013 record, but more importantly gave young players – and previously uncapped veterans – chances that they previously didn’t get. He was willing to make changes consistently and try new pairings and formations.

And ultimately, that could be what cost him his job.

“Change can cause discontent, generally, of course,” on an individual level, Gulati said.

He says that there was no player uprising nor one specific event that led to Sermanni’s firing, and reiterated praise for Sermanni’s upstanding character.

“This isn’t a group of players coming and seeking us out.”

The U.S. women excelled under former coach Pia Sundhage, whose greatest trait was managing a group of superstars and maintaining just enough collective chemistry to make them all gel. Gulati reiterated that Sermanni is a “class guy.”

Sundhage was a free spirit, and there was a perception that players, on the whole, admired her as more than a coach, but a friend. There was camaraderie and chemistry. Sermanni is laid back as well, but in his own way.

“Tom does have a unique style and Pia’s is very different,” Gulati said. “What I would say is the demand both of all of us for the women’s program, and in some way of the women’s team itself, fits very well with certain styles and not so well with, perhaps, other styles.

“But that’s also individual players. It’s rare that everyone in a particular team finds a style that they buy into, but it’s important that they collectively buy into the direction and how you are moving forward, and we had some concerns there.”

Somewhere along the line, though, the powers that be – Gulati, USSF CEO Dan Flynn, and at least some players – lost faith in Sermanni’s still-developing vision.

Sermanni’s implementation of new talent like 21-year-olds Crystal Dunn and Morgan Brian look like they will both pay immediate dividends at the 2015 World Cup and in several cycles to follow. One eye on winning now, one eye on development – that was the message when Sermanni was hired, and that was what, on the surface, he was doing.

“We wanted someone who could continue to guide the women’s national team at a high level and keep us at the right place internationally, which is right now at the top, and also to become involved in a broader scope on player development,” Gulati said on Oct. 31, 2012, when Sermanni was announced as the new U.S. coach.

Those comments came after a two-month search that involved over 30 qualified candidates.

Gulati on Monday didn’t deny that player development is always part of the job, regardless of who is coaching or when. The search for a new coach is already underway and could take several weeks or more. Just as she did when Sundhage left in 2012, Jill Ellis will serve as interim coach, starting Thursday when the U.S. plays China again in San Diego (11 p.m. ET, NBCSN & Live Extra).

Sermanni said he was previously unaware of any discontent among players, but he “would doubt if it was just solely Sunil” who made the decision to fire him.

“I stand to be corrected, but I’m an open communicator with players over the last 16 months or so, whether in individual meetings or casual meetings. I’ve certainly stated from Day 1 that if players did have any issues, whether they be soccer-related or other, that my door was always open.”

Players have been noticeably silent since the coaching change, with only goalkeeper Hope Solo tweeting a departing thank you to Sermanni as of Monday afternoon:

ESPN’s Julie Foudy reports that players were instructed not to use social media to address the firing.

Seven or eight players visited Sermanni after the news dropped, the Scotsman said, and a few others sent emails.

The United States women’s program continues to be a paradox. “Win now” will always be a priority, and that’s how it is for any of the world’s best teams, male or female. The team’s No. 1 priority is to win the 2015 World Cup. That’s been the goal since the U.S. women walked off the field on July 17, 2011, after losing to Japan in the World Cup final. The Olympics, which the Americans have championed three consecutive times, pale in comparison to the World Cup.

But this is a team in transition, marked by a core group of veterans and a promising batch of early-20-somethings who continued to get looks under Sermanni.

source: Getty Images
Tom Sermanni talks to Jill Ellis, who will serve as interim USWNT coach. Could she take over permanently? (Getty Images)

When games kick off in Canada next summer, it will have been 16 years since the U.S. last won a World Cup.  Yet this team, by however funny a system, has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the last six years.

Without a doubt, the recent small stretch of results raised concern for how 2015 would play out.

But struggles will happen within any team – “there are bumps in the road,” Sermanni reasoned Monday after a short few hours to sleep on the news – and they happen to even the best. That 2011 U.S. team was the last of 16 to qualify for the World Cup after lethargic performances throughout 2010 gave way to a qualifying mishap (Sundhage kept her job then, by the way).

Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and two-time World Cup winner, doesn’t make much of her American rivals’ recent struggles.

“The first eight teams in the world, they are so close, everybody can beat everybody — [it is] details that decide winning or losing,” Angerer said last week. “So the U.S. didn’t have a good tournament; in 2007 we finished in eighth place at the Algarve Cup and won the World Cup so it doesn’t matter.”

Sermanni is moving on graciously, returning to his home in Los Angeles to figure out what’s next. He calls himself a “philosophical person,” and says he’ll evaluate what he could have done better in his year and a half at the helm of the U.S.

“The reality of a head coaching career is that tomorrow you could be out of a job and there might never be another job that props up for you. This is the first time in 25 years that I’ve ever been let go from a job. It’s a new experience for me.”

What’s next for the U.S. women will be a highly-scrutinized 14-month build-up to the World Cup in Canada, under a yet-to-be-determined coach. Whether or not this decision pays off won’t be known until July 5, 2015 – the World Cup final in Vancouver. But the ramifications will resonate well beyond that, for better or worse.

Brazilian league filled with possible transfer targets

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SAO PAULO (AP) While soccer takes a rest in Europe and the Brazilian league gets going again, many local players have already caught the eyes of foreign clubs.

[ MORE: Confed Cup scenarios before final group stage matches ]

A few of them are already in Brazil coach Tite’s plans for next year’s World Cup in Russia, and signing them now instead of next season could be a real bargain.

Here are some names to know:

LUAN

A 24-year-old striker at title-favorite Gremio, Luan has yet to play abroad and his coach has already said it will be hard to keep him in Brazil until the end of the season. After eight matches, Luan has scored four goals. Gremio executives have said they won’t take less than 24 million euros ($27 million) for him. Luan was part of Brazil’s gold-medal winning team at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He began the tournament on the bench, but eventually took a place in the starting lineup alongside Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. Ronaldinho said Luan deserves to be at Barcelona. “Luan would fit in perfectly there, he is very creative,” Ronaldinho said.

GUILHERME ARANA

More than 20 percent of the goals scored by Corinthians this year have come from the left foot of 20-year-old defender Guilherme Arana. An excellent Brazilian-style dribbler, Arana had several assists in the derbies against the team’s three Sao Paulo city rivals. Arana has yet to make his international debut, but he believes his short time with Tite at the club could help him get to Russia next year. Many in Brazilian media have dubbed him “the new Marcelo.”

LUCAS LIMA

A close friend of Neymar, 26-year-old midfielder Lucas Lima has been frequently linked with a transfer to Barcelona. In the first 100 days of 2017 he had 10 assists – the same number he produced all of last season. He is in top physical shape, something that has earned him praise from coaches and a series of callups from Tite to play with Brazil. Lima has rejected a series of offers from Chinese clubs because he wants to play in Europe.

GUSTAVO SCARPA

Fluminense midfielder Gustavo Scarpa is classy and cerebral, traits he tries to mirror from his hero Andres Iniesta. But the 23-year-old Brazilian can also provide some stunning shots from long distance, like the goal he scored from his own half in February in a Brazilian Cup match against Globo. Scarpa likes to play as a left winger, but he can also be used in a central midfield position and as a left back. Tite called on him for a friendly against Colombia in February. In the 2016 Brazilian league, he scored eight goals and had 10 assists. He has just finished recovering from a right foot injury.

DUDU

A fan-favorite at defending champion Palmeiras last season, 25-year-old striker Dudu has yet to score in this year’s competition. Still recovering from injury, Dudu is fast and often runs right at goal. He played at Dynamo Kyiv without much success from 2011-14, and he admits he was not very mature when that transfer happened. In March, he was part of the Brazil team for World Cup qualifying matches against Uruguay and Paraguay, as a replacement of injured Douglas Costa.

RODRIGO CAIO

A 23-year-old Sao Paulo defender who has frequently been called up by Tite, Rodrigo Caio has played more than 200 matches for his club. Caio wants to go to Europe after a first attempt at Valencia fell through — he failed a medical check because of a now-healed knee injury. Also a gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics, the defender can play as a defensive midfielder. Although he looks a lot like Kaka, his style is more like Dunga’s: great tackles, accurate passing and leadership.

Red or Blue: Revisiting the first two years of the Hudson River Derby

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When two sides meet at Red Bull Arena on Saturday afternoon the tension between players will be high and even more so when the supporters cross paths.

It may be nearing the end of June, but the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will meet for the first time this season in MLS play on Saturday as the two clubs renew their Hudson River Derby (New York Derby, for some) rivalry.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 17: East leads way at the top ]

Some still question the validity of the rivalry given the brief history in which the two clubs have faced off against one another, but that little percent of the population is completely outweighed by those that really follow MLS.

Now entering the third year in which the Red Bulls and NYCFC meet, there’s more dislike between the two clubs, the players and certainly the managers as well.

Albeit a lopsided first six encounters, five wins to one in favor of the Red Bulls, every time the sides meet is another opportunity to not only build the rivalry but also expand on the question: Is New York red or is it blue?

This has become a popular topic between supporters of each team and subsequently turned out to be a marketing dream for the clubs and MLS as a whole.

When it comes down to the on-field play, many of the same faces are still intact with their clubs from when the teams met a little over two years ago. David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips spearhead the attacks for their respective sides, but the star strikers have performed in very different manners in the previous derbies.

Wright-Phillips has scored an impressive eight goals in six MLS meetings against NYCFC, while Villa — who has 51 MLS goals — has just found the back of the net once against the Red Bulls.

Outside of the Red Bulls’ 7-0 thrashing last year, the majority of the matches between the two teams have been close encounters. And this time around should be no different.

The teams met just a week-and-a-half ago at RBA in a U.S. Open Cup match that saw the hosts narrowly come away with a 1-0 victory, which has been the story of the Red Bulls season thus far.

Only four Red Bulls players have scored goals in 2017, which in comparison to NYCFC’s 10 players is a stark difference. Patrick Vieira’s side has scored 12 more goals this season as well, which certainly plays into NYCFC’s hands, however, when these two clubs get together there’s been a noticeable struggle for NYCFC in the attacking third.

Vieira’s men have scored just five goals over the first two seasons of this matchup, while the Red Bulls have found the back of the net 18 times.

Here’s a brief breakdown of results when the two sides have met since 2015. (Winner in bold)

May 10, 2015 — Red Bulls 2-1 NYCFC
June 28, 2015 — NYCFC 1-3 Red Bulls
August 9, 2015 — Red Bulls 2-0 NYCFC
May 21, 2016 — NYCFC 0-7 Red Bulls
July 3, 2016 — NYCFC 2-0 Red Bulls
July 24, 2016 — Red Bulls 4-1 NYCFC
June 14, 2017 — Red Bulls 1-0 NYCFC (U.S. Open Cup match)

MLS at Week 17: New York Derby headlines host of intriguing fixtures

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It’s hard to believe the MLS regular season is already halfway done, but that’s the truth.

Two Eastern Conference sides continue to dazzle in the Supporters’ Shield race, and while one of them was expected to have success in 2017 the other is putting on a surprise performance for the ages.

The Texas Derby will kick off one of several rivalry matches this weekend, while will be headlined by Saturday afternoon’s clash at Red Bull Arena between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC.

The weekend will come to a close late on Sunday night when a Cascadia rivalry is renewed as the Portland Timbers host the Seattle Sounders in a critical Western Conference bout.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here’s a full look at the MLS docket ahead of a busy weekend.

Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution — 8 p.m. ET Friday

The Revs spoiled TFC’s impressive unbeaten run just two weeks back but Toronto is back on track and once again looks like the best side in MLS. Jay Heaps and Co. will likely have a difficult time north of the border when these sides meet at BMO Field.

Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET Friday

The first rivalry matchup takes place down in Texas this weekend and few would’ve thought that Houston would be sitting above Dallas in the Western Conference standings to this point. Led by goalscorer Erick “Cubo” Torres and his 10 finishes this season, the Dynamo have been one of the most potent attacks in MLS in 2017. Dallas’ backline has been a stalwart though through 15 matches, with the club only allowing 14 goals (second-fewest in MLS).

New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

NYCFC has undoubtedly been the better of the two sides as the MLS season nears the halfway point, but to say this rivalry has been one sided in its now third year is an understatement. The Red Bulls have won seven of their eight matchups against their Bronx foes across all competitions, including last week’s U.S. Open Cup win at Red Bull Arena. Patrick Vieira and Co. will be seeking their first win at RBA on Saturday, while also attempting to create some separation from the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference table.

Atlanta United vs. Colorado Rapids — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

This matchup is a tale of two very different teams. Atlanta continues to bounce up and down in its debut season, although largely impressing in the attacking third in many of its matches. Meanwhile, the Rapids are struck at the bottom of MLS on 16 points, and there’s little sign of improvement from Pablo Mastroeni’s group.

Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

Something has to give when these two clubs meet. D.C. is coming off of a nice home win against Atlanta, so advantage to Ben Olson’s group despite the club’s poor goalscoring form. The ninth-place side has just 12 goals this season, which is three less than the next worst team in MLS.

Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

The Crew have reverted to their defensive tendencies from a season ago, allowing the most goals in the Eastern Conference so far (29). The Impact, however, are finally finding their groove after going unbeaten in their last four.

Minnesota United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 8 p.m. ET Saturday

The Loons have had a rough go of it so far in MLS, but the good news is the club is certainly improving. Wednesday’s performance against the Timbers was a real bright spot in the team’s inaugural season, and now they can look to follow up that effort with their second consecutive win, which Minnesota hasn’t done in 2017. Vancouver has shown its own improvements recently, going unbeaten in five of its last seven matches.

Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

When these two sides met a few weeks ago, all we had was an uneventful 0-0 draw. Expect something much different this time around, particularly from the Fire, who have built up a full head of steam as they enter Saturday’s contest unbeaten in their last eight matches.

LA Galaxy vs. Sporting KC — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

This has the makings of a quality playoff matchup down the road, especially given the Galaxy’s resurgence as of late. Like the Fire, the Galaxy have their own eight-match unbeaten run to boast and it has propelled them up to fifth place in the West. Sporting KC continues to run the Western Conference with 27 points and a stingy backline that has only conceded 11 goals in 17 matches. That’s pretty unheard of stuff.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Neither side has managed to find a rhythm this season, but with seven teams separated by six points in the Western Conference playoff race it’s a match like this that holds extra weight.

Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders — 10 p.m. ET Sunday

The Cascadia battles have become some of the best in MLS, and while the Sounders are still struggling to find their form from a season ago this one has all the makings of another massive clash. Neither side enters Sunday’s matchup in the finest form, but there’s nothing that could be more beneficial for either club than a rivalry victory.

Portugal considers resting Ronaldo ahead of group stage finale

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Portugal is on the verge of reaching the semifinals at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup, and the reigning European champions could be set to rest their biggest star ahead of their group stage finale on Saturday.

[ MORE: Confed Cup scenarios before final group stage matches ]

The team currently sits tied on four points with Group A leaders Mexico through two matches, and with New Zealand — who is already eliminated from advancing — left on the docket for Portugal, manager Fernando Santos is prepared to rest Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Everybody wants to watch Cristiano Ronaldo, even I want to watch Cristiano Ronaldo,” Santos said on Friday.

“I don’t know if I’m going to play with Cristiano or without Cristiano. Obviously, rotation will take place, that I can tell you.”

Portugal will be playing its third match in a seven-day span on Saturday, which certainly warrants a rest for Ronaldo and possibly some others for Santos’ side.

Hosts Russia sit one point behind Mexico and Portugal though, so it would be a bit of a gamble for Ronaldo to miss the New Zealand match, which will be played at Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg.