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.

Chelsea-Man City: Five stars who shone (and five more who went dim)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea celebrates his team's third goal scored by Eden Hazard (not pictured) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Selecting Chelsea’s best from an all-around strong game was a struggle, certainly harder than identifying the men who hurt Manchester City’s chances of going atop the Premier League in a 3-1 match at Stamford Bridge on Saturday .

City had a lot of passengers, to be sure, as Antonio Conte got the better of Pep Guardiola in their first ever match-up (one that tactically delivered even if City’s players didn’t hold up their end of the bargain).

[ MORE: Match recap | Chelsea’s decisive goals ]

Forgive us for not going 22-deep with the player ratings this fine American morning, but here are 10 players who sincerely impacted the match for better or worse.

Stars who shone…

Diego Costa — Chelsea’s big forward was an absolute force, and would deserve his shine on the basis of his goal alone. His classy chest trap of Cesc Fabregas’ fantastic long offering allowed him the moment to boss Nicolas Otamendi, and the finish past Claudio Bravo was no problem. Then he turned well to play Willian in for the second goal, completing his day with an assist before walking off injured.

N'Golo KanteWe’re unsure the Chelsea engine has truly poor games, to be honest, and the French midfielder again showed his class (even if there’s some debate as to whether his risky but successful first-half tackle on Ilkay Gundogan could’ve been ruled a penalty). This is the sort of player who bears watching off the ball, because he’s likely going to where the opposition is trying to place it.

Cesc Fabregas — Set up Costa’s opening goal, and could’ve easily had a second assist when Eden Hazard darted around Bravo only to opt for a pass rather than a tight-angled shot on goal. Conte’s inspired decision to start him will be lauded in the fallout.

Cesar Azpilicueta — The least heralded of Chelsea’s backs was lively in the win, and had spells in which he was in charge of his side of the field. Well done, Dave.

Kevin De Bruyne (for 89 minutes and 59 seconds) — Hear me out… Can one moment quash a match with plenty of bright moments? The Belgian star was very good for Chelsea, apart from missing a sitter on the doorstep. De Bruyne’s lunging effort could’ve made it 2-0, as KDB was inches from scoring but couldn’t keep his body forward enough during the lunge. He’s gotta slide, unfortunately, and doesn’t (doubly so).


 

…And those who went dim

Nicolas Otamendi — He’ll need to turn the page on this one in a hurry. Otamendi was victimized by Costa on the first goal, and then caught in no man’s land on the second. A rough day for a strong player.

Gary Cahill — Yeah, it’s a bit easy to call out a man who scored an own goal, especially one who cleared a later effort off the line, but the Englishman’s finish behind his keeper was a poor decision to use the wrong foot. And it put his team down a goal.

Sergio Aguero — Far too little to like from the Man City man, who added a heaping of injury to his insulting night when he committed a horror tackle on David Luiz late. Sent off, this means a chance for Kelechi Iheanacho to shine in perhaps several matches. A striker of his quality has to find a goal in matches like this, or face criticism.

Fernandinho — On the same note, here’s a man who didn’t have a poor match on the pitch but cost his team big with a hands to the throat of Fabregas and a shove over the advertising boards that made the red card unavoidable for Anthony Taylor. These next few games will be difficult for City.

Claudio Bravo —  Perhaps a bit harsh, but City wants to win the Champions League and Premier League. A top-end goalkeeper has to find a way to stop that second goal. Dare-we-say that Joe Hart is a better shot-stopper than the Chilean?

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Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Man City

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Chelsea beat Man City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday with Antonio Conte‘s men putting down a big marker in their title push.

[ MORE: Recap as Chelsea win ]

Diego Costa, Willian and Eden Hazard scored Chelsea’s goal as the Blues have now won eight-straight games and in turn they put Pep Guardiola and City in their place.

Here’s what we learned from a gripping, absorbing encounter.


WING BACK BATTLE

Both teams opted for wing backs and the result was a bit chaotic.

For Man City they had attacking wingers in Jesus Navas and Leroy Sane in the wide position and they just looked so uncomfortable in those defensive positions. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses grew in stature as the game wore on, although they had plenty more defensive work in the first half than they’ve had in recent months since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation.

Guardiola has switched between a three-man central defense and four at the back and it’s quite clear his players aren’t comfortable with either as of yet.

After making uncharacteristic mistakes in the first 50 minutes, Conte’s Chelsea looked very comfortable in the second half and Moses and Alonso both surged forward and looked much more adept defensively.

Guardiola’s gamble to match Chelsea’s wing backs backfired. Out of the four wing backs on the pitch, there’s no doubting that Chelsea’s two prevailed.


COSTA PUTS CHELSEA ON HIS BACK

With Chelsea trailing 1-0 at half time and barely having a sniff at goal in the first half, plus struggling defensively, it was time for Diego Costa to step up. He did. Big time.

The Spanish striker chased, harried and bullied his way into the game and Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones had no answer for his clever movement, persistent pressure and rambunctious behavior.

Costa has quality too.

The 28-year-old latched on to Cesc Fabregas’ perfect through ball (is this the 2014-15 season!?) and chested down before finishing to make it 1-1 and less than 10 minutes later he played in Willian to put Chelsea ahead. Costa has now scored 11 goals and added five assists this season as he continues to be Conte’s main man.

Late on Costa had to come off injured with what looked like an injured lower back and the Spanish international will be nursed back to fitness as his importance to Chelsea is clear.

If Costa goes down injured or gets suspended — he’s been on four bookings for quite some time and a fifth will mean a suspension, but he seems more controlled and mature this campaign — Chelsea will be struggling. If he stays fit and in form, they will continue to be favorites to win the league.


CITY NEED NEW CENTER BACKS

Quite simply, Man City were all over the place in defense.

With Otamendi, Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov pushed to play from the back by Guardiola, they never looked comfortable on Saturday and with two wingers playing at full back, they didn’t have the cover they needed when they pushed forward into midfield when on the ball.

Tactically, Chelsea got at City’s defense in the second half and with Otamendi on a yellow card for scything down Costa in the first half, he was walking a tightrope for the rest of the game. Stones was subbed out with 15 minutes to go and without Vincent Kompany in central defense, City couldn’t stop Chelsea flooding forward and getting in-behind them.

This game had everything. City could’ve scored more goals with Kevin De Bruyne somehow hitting the bar from four yards out and Sergio Aguero being denied by Thibaut Courtois and goal line clearances, but the biggest issue for Guardiola is sorting his side out defensively.

With all of their spending on forwards and midfielders over the summer, it’s clear City need to spend big in January on a center back (or find a better solution from within) if they’re going to finish in the top four and challenge for the title. City are just four points off the top but they’ve lost to Tottenham and Chelsea this season in a very similar fashion.

Man City 1-3 Chelsea: Eight-straight wins for table-topping Blues

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  • Cahill own goal gives City the lead
  • Costa, Willian, Hazard scores
  • City finish game with nine-men
  • Chelsea win eight-straight in PL

Chelsea passed their biggest test yet as Antonio Conte‘s side fought back from 1-0 down to beat nine-man Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday to seal their eighth-straight Premier League win.

An own goal from Gary Cahill right on half time gave Man City the lead but two goals in 10 minutes from Diego Costa and Willian turned the game on its head as City squandered chances and Chelsea put in a perfect away display with Eden Hazard adding another in stoppage time, plus Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho were both sent off in stoppage time as tempers flared.

With the win Chelsea remains top of the PL table on 34 points, while City remain on 30 points after they suffered a second defeat of the season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

City had a penalty shout early on as David Silva tried to squirm free of Cahill and the Chelsea defender knocked the ball with his arm, but referee Anthony Taylor waved away the claims.

Chelsea then went close as Hazard curled a low shot just wide and moments later the first booking of the game arrived as Nicolas Otamendi clattered into Costa and received a yellow card.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Aguero then went close as he took two touches to settle himself and smashed a high effort in on goal but Thibaut Courtois pushed the effort over.

The game then exploded into life as Fernandinho finished Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick but he was in an offside position and the flag went up. Seconds later Hazard raced clear and took the ball past Claudio Bravo but instead of shooting into an empty net from a slightly tight angle, he instead tried to pick out a teammate and City cleared.

A controversial moment than arrived as Aguero and David Luiz collided with the Chelsea man the last line in defense but Taylor didn’t award a foul. Aguero was denied from close-range by Cesar Azpilicueta’s block and before the break City were ahead.

Jesus Navas’ cross from the right was hooked towards his own goal by Cahill as he tried to clear with his right foot and it flew into the opposite top corner of the net. 1-0 to Man City.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At the start of the second half City had a good chance to double their lead as Leroy Sane surged forward and set up De Bruyne but his shot was blocked down low by Courtois. Then at the other end a mistake by Sane allowed Costa to run into the box but his shot went wide of the near post.

At the other end Aguero nipped in to seize on a moment of hesitation between Cahill and Courtois but Cahill then cleared Aguero’s effort off the line. De Bruyne then somehow hit the crossbar from four yards out with the goal gaping after a flowing City move and that miss was to prove costly.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

In the 60th minute Chelsea were level as Cesc Fabreags (only in the team because Nemanja Matic was injured) sent through a perfect long ball which Costa chested down and fired home. 1-1.

Aguero was denied by Courtois once again soon after the scores were level as Chelsa continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes at the back but they broke with pace and punished City to take the lead.

Costa’s hold up play was sublime, once again, and Willian raced clear drilling home a low shot to put Chelsea 2-1 ahead.

Chelsea continued to live life on the edge in defense with Luiz and others making blocks and last-ditch tackles in the box. However, Conte’s men held on comfortably for the win and added to the scoreline as Marcos Alonso‘s long ball forward set free Hazard who raced clear and finished emphatically. 3-1.

Late on Aguero was red carded for a horrible challenge on Luiz and in the melee which ensued Fabregas was pushed into the stands by Fernandinho who was also sent off and City finished the game with nine-men.

All of that nonsense aside, this was a stunning second half display from Chelsea which keeps them top of the Premier League and underlines their title credentials, plus it left Guardiola and his players with plenty of work to do.

WATCH: Brazilian-born Chelsea stars score, honor Chapecoense

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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A day that began with a unified moment of silence for the victims of the Chapecoense plane crash was finished by Chelsea’s Brazilian-born stars.

Diego Costa pointed to his black “Forca Chape” arm band after scoring his equalizer against Manchester City, before David Luiz and Willian held theirs high after putting the Blues ahead.

[ MORE: Cahill’s own goal ]

Here’s the first, supplied by a pinpoint diagonal ball from Cesc Fabregas. Costa chests down the ball before taking care of Nicolas Otamendi to finish past Claudio Bravo. The forward was born in Lagarto, Brazil, and represented the country twice before switching allegiances to Spain.

Then came another terrific bit of service combined with Otamendi problems.

Then Costa sprung his national teammate Willian, whose blaze of speed set him 1v1 with Bravo.

The keeper probably could’ve done better, but the goal set up a poignant moment from the two members of Tite’s Canarinho.

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