Tom Sermanni was shocked by his firing as USWNT coach. (AP)

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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Pogba’s agent pumps brakes hard on imminent Manchester United move

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Paul Pogba of France wins the ball from Joao Mario of Portugal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Super agent Mino Raiola has injected a ray of light into the hopes of both Juventus and Real Madrid fans when it comes to Paul Pogba.

The terrific midfielder has been widely reported as an imminent arrival at Manchester United, but Raiola has taken to Twitter to blast journalists who’ve reported the move and medical as done.

[ RANIERI: Mahrez will stay at LCFC ]

Pogba was photographed in Los Angeles amid claims he was undergoing a physical at United. Multiple reports have said he passed the medical and that Juventus has agreed to sell Pogba to United for a world record fee.

Raiola says different, though taken with the grain of salt that he’s set to make as much as $30 million on the deal and his job is to squeeze every possibly penny from suitors.

Ranieri says “intelligent man” Mahrez will stay at Leicester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City instructs Riyad Mahrez during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Everton at The King Power Stadium on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri seems to be genuine and honest in his evaluations, as we’ve seen in his dealings with Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante amongst others.

And the manager is making no bones about what he thinks is best for another Leicester City star in Riyad Mahrez.

[ MORE: Gameiro joins new club ]

Ranieri says the Algerian will face far more pressure at a new club then he will face still competing in the UEFA Champions League with the Foxes.

In other words, the 25-year-old should stick around. From Sky Sports:

“I speak often with him and say stay with us, it’s much better for your future, I think he is an intelligent man and he will stay,” Ranieri told Sky Sports News HQ.

“We support him very well, this is important, when you change teams maybe you don’t find team-mates who help you at the same level.

“He improves more if he stays with us for another year, maybe next year he can think about another solution. If he goes for a lot of money, everybody will be expecting something special. He can do something special, but with us.”

We tend to agree. Whereas N’Golo Kante was prepared to use Leicester as a stepping stone — and it seems Ranieri knew it — Mahrez has been with the Foxes since 2014 and seen his stature skyrocket.

Let’s see what happens, Riyad. Cool?

Atletico signs striker Kevin Gameiro from Sevilla

BASEL, SWITZERLAND - MAY 18:  Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Final match between Liverpool and Sevilla at St. Jakob-Park on May 18, 2016 in Basel, Switzerland.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid says it has acquired French striker Kevin Gameiro from rival Spanish club Sevilla.

In exchange, Atletico has agreed to loan Argentine striker Luciano Vietto to Sevilla for one season.

Atletico says Gameiro will sign a four-year contract after undergoing a standard medical exam.

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The 29-year-old Gameiro scored 67 goals during three seasons with Sevilla, helping it win three Europa League titles.

Gameiro will join countryman Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres to form the attack of an Atletico side that reached the final of the Champions League last season.

Atletico did not reveal the financial details of Gameiro’s transfer.

Ex-Guatemalan soccer chief pleads guilty in FIFA bribe case

PRATO, ITALY - APRIL 13: General view during the FIFA Futsal playoff match between Italy and Hungary on April 13, 2016 in Prato, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) A former Guatemalan soccer federation president has pleaded guilty in New York to charges related to a sprawling corruption investigation of world soccer.

[ MORE: Christian Vieri ready for return, pursuing Chinese Super League ]

Brayan Jimenez pleaded guilty Friday to federal racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges, each carrying up to 20 years in prison. It’s unclear when he’ll be sentenced.

The 62-year-old Jimenez is among 40 people from around the world charged in a FIFA bribery scandal over lucrative broadcasting rights.

Prosecutors say Jimenez accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a Florida-based sports marketing company. They say in exchange for the money Jimenez awarded the company media marketing rights to the Guatemalan soccer team’s World Cup qualifying matches in 2018 and 2022.

Jimenez’s attorneys haven’t returned a message seeking comment on his guilty plea.