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.

Pellegrini looks to road record before UCL second leg at the Bernabeu

during a training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Academy Training Ground on May 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Gael Clichy says Manchester City wants to make history on the road at the Bernabeu, and his manager is hoping to rely on a shorter-term vision of the past to guide them there.

[ PL PLAYBACK: What does Leicester’s title say for the future? ]

Manuel Pellegrini and his club enter Wednesday’s match at the Bernabeu with an impressive road mark in the UEFA Champions League and the advantage of not having allowed a road goal in a 0-0 first leg at the Etihad Stadium.

From MCFC.com:

“This team in three seasons has done very well away – last season we beat Roma in Rome and Bayern away,” Manuel said.

“This season, especially in the quarters we had a very good draw against PSG and we continued. We beat Sevilla, Kyiv and Borussia Monchengladbach.”

Yaya Toure returns and has plenty of familiarity with Real Madrid, having won two La Liga titles and a Champions League title with Barcelona between 2007-10.

David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta are out for City.

Premier League Playback: What does Leicester’s title win mean for PL’s future?

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They did it. They actually did it.

Leicester City, the 5000-1 shots to win the Premier League, won the 2015-16 title on Monday and it’s been one big party in the Midlands city ever since.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

Following the initial euphoria questions such as “what does this mean for the future of the Premier League?” have now arisen. Was this a fluke, a one off we will never see again? Was it down to so many big boys going through transitional periods at the same time and creating a “perfect storm” for somebody else to prevail? Perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, this Cinderella story is reinforcing the growing parity levels in the PL.

Up until recently many journalists and pundits (including myself) here in England didn’t believe Leicester could get this done. The established giants getting over the line time and time again have meant that there’s hasn’t been a first-time top-flight winner since 1978 when Nottingham Forest prevailed. Logic told everyone that Leicester couldn’t do this.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate ]  

Now, though, it’s all changing. Everyone is being forced to rethink what is believable. What Leicester has done has given belief to the rest of the Premier League that they can challenge the big boys.For the time being the perennial powerhouses have lost their fear factor, that indestructible aura which held them in such good stead for so long.

It shall return, right? Hang on. What if doesn’t? Those are the kind of questions Leicester’s success has produced.

Certain bookmakers will no longer be offering odds of more than 1,000-1 for teams to win the PL title. Newly promoted Burnley were listed at 5000-1 on Monday after being promoted but now their odds have been slashed to 1000-1 and given the events of this season there will be plenty who will put a fiver on that. Why not? Lightning can struck twice…

[ MORE: Story of Leicester’s season, game-by-game ]

It has, briefly, in the past as Nottingham Forest and Derby County — ironically very similar sized cities located very close to Leicester in England’s East Midlands — both pulled off remarkable title wins in the 1970s. One manager, Brian Clough, masterminded those triumphs and even though you had giants of the game in Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal around then, this was before the days of the mega-rich clubs owned by wealthy foreign investors.

The achievements of Derby and Forest were fantastic and are widely lauded to this day, especially as Forest went on to win the European Cup, twice, during that purple patch.
Will Leicester follow suit? Can they even dare to dream of that?

Manager Claudio Ranieri has only set a top 10 target for next season and doesn’t believe his team will repeat their title win. Then again, this is the bloke who was talking about only focusing on survival when Leicester was clear at the top of the PL in January…

“We want to continue to build,” he told Sky Sports’ Rob Dorsett. “When I came here, the project was to build a very good foundation and slowly, slowly to grow up together in three to four years to fight for the Europa League and slowly come to fight for the Champions League.”

They’ve reached the UCL and won the PL in his first season in charge. The goalposts have moved considerably.

We will watch on with intrigue this summer as the big boys dust themselves off, ready their check books and aim to blast the less powerful clubs to one side once and for all. The real difference now is that even if they spend big, it won’t be easy to widen the gap once more. The PL is without financial restrictions a la the salary cap we see in American sports and even with financial fair play rules limiting the expenditure on wages, the big boys can still pretty much spend whatever they want.

[ VIDEO: Fans react in Leicester to winning the PL

The problem is, they’ve been spending money lazily and they seem to have given up on recruiting talent from lower levels and giving younger players or second chancers, a chance. Leicester, and others, have been smart in how they’ve spent their money and the Foxes’ squad cost just $79 million to assemble in transfer fees. Manchester City’s squad cost $606 million to put together in transfer fees alone. Not to mention that Leicester is in the bottom five of wages paid, their success has proven that it’s not all about money. Which is hugely refreshing with plenty of cynics out there believing only the “super clubs” can succeed.

Premier League Schedule – Week 36

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 1-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham Recap, watch here
Everton 2-1 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Man Utd 1-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
Newcastle 1-0 Palace Recap, watch here
Saints 4-2 Man City Recap, watch here
Stoke 1-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Swansea 3-1 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Watford 3-2 A. Villa Recap, watch here
WBA 0-3 West Ham Recap, watch here

Leicester will net a cash windfall from the PL alone of $36 million in a merit payment for winning the title. On top of the equal share of TV money, $81 million, and facility fees, $21 million, the Foxes will bring in $150 million from TV money and award fees alone this season.

Next season their revenue will continue skyrocket with UCL money, commercial revenue, sponsorship and increased TV revenue from being among Europe’s elite. In 2014-15 English clubs made $38 million each despite not advancing past the UCL’s Round of 16 and Deloitte, which ranks the top 20 richest teams in the world based on their revenue in their rich list, believes Leicester will be among their top 20 clubs next year.

The Foxes are now with the big boys, just 12 months after it seemed like they were going to be relegated from the PL. It is a remarkable story.

[ MORE: The day Leicester (pretty much) won the PL ]

This huge cash injection — as Ranieri has stated numerous time recently — means that they don’t need to sell their best players to be financially sound. The same can be said for the other small to medium teams in the PL. They can afford to pay higher wages to their players and in Leicester’s case, their owner is a Thai billionaire who can pump plenty more money in. That’s the game changer here. Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante will be chased by bigger, wealthier clubs this summer but if Leicester doesn’t want to sell, they don’t need to.

In an era where other PL clubs are only starting to begin to explore the force of their improved financial strength, Leicester rolls up and does this. They’ve made the most of a season of struggle for the big boys and given everyone else hope that maybe this season isn’t just a one off. Maybe the landscape of the Premier League really is changing.

Fans of the likes of Swansea, Southampton, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Everton and West Ham will be publicly lauding Leicester’s achievements and rightly so. Most of those teams are of a comparable size or if not bigger in terms of fanbase, resources and historical stature. But behind closed doors many fans of those teams will be saying: “damn, that could’ve been us.”

Chairmen of those clubs will be downplaying their answers when asked “well, can you ‘do a Leicester next season?'” because it would be foolish to suggest anything like this will happen again. However, don’t overlook a glint of envy in their eyes. Every PL club will now be hoping they can ‘pull off a Leicester.’

It’s not only in the PL that the rise of the underdog is being talked about. Top European teams in leagues which aren’t as competitive from top to bottom are getting worried, very worried, about the strength of the PL. The president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, recently shared his concern at the upcoming TV cash windfall for PL clubs for the next three-year cycle.

He believes “the Premier League could become the NBA of football” and a league where all the best players automatically flock to, leaving giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich scrambling for the rest. We are a long way off Barca and Swansea battling for the same players but it’s getting closer than you think. Take Stoke for example. Bojan? Shaqiri? Afellay? What are they doing there?

Recently I spoke with Stoke’s CEO Tony Scholes about how the PL is changing.

“What Leicester has shown this year is how great this league is,” Scholes said. “On any given day in the Premier League either team can beat the other one. Everyone knows that. That is what makes this league unique. What Leicester have done of course, people were saying that is wasn’t possible anymore, for anyone other than the big six clubs to win the league. Well Leicester have shown it is possible.

“Even West Ham this year have had a great season and might end up in a Champions League place. In many ways West Ham might be more of an indicator of what’s to come in the next few years than Leicester. Next year a few of the bigger clubs will strengthen. We know that. But there’s a great chance that one of the rest of us gets into the Champions League places.”

The signs are there that the playing field is leveling out in the PL.

You can point to Leicester’s title win being lucky or inspired by a greater power at work – many are pointing to 14 one-goal wins as proof of that — but overall it’s not hard to see that the gap between the top and bottom clubs in the PL is closing at a rate of knots

New TV deals kick in next season with domestic and international contracts bringing in roughly $13 billion between 2016-19. The gap will continue to grow smaller as the majority of that money is dished out evenly to each PL club.

That’s the most exciting thing about this. The big boys don’t just seem scared; they’re already on the hunt for who could be the next Leicester.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

World Cup winner Luca Toni to play his final match on Sunday

VERONA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 20:  Luca Toni  of Hellas Verona applaud fans after the Serie A match between Hellas Verona FC and AC Chievo Verona at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on February 20, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)
Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images
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After 15 clubs and 300-plus goals, Luca Toni is calling it a career.

Saying “Verona made me once again feel like a major player,” Toni released a statement on the Hellas Verona web site.

Toni tied for the Serie A lead in goals last year at the age of 38, and has represented Palermo, Fiorentina and Bayern Munich along the way.

[ MORE: Atleti reaches UEFA Champions League final ]

He was also capped 47 times, scoring 16 goals for Italy and winning the 2006 World Cup.

Toni will play his final match at home against Juventus on Sunday. Verona has been relegated to Serie B, and finishes on the road at Palermo.

Ranieri won’t sign superstars to strengthen Leicester squad

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester City fans react to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
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LEICESTER, England (AP) Claudio Ranieri is sticking with Leicester’s title-winning blueprint and said the club won’t be in the market for established, expensive talent to strengthen the Premier League champions.

“We don’t need the superstars,” Ranieri said Tuesday, a day after the trophy was clinched with two games to spare. “I want to improve the squad without big stars, but the right players.”

With a squad that cost less than $80 million to assemble, Leicester completed one of the greatest transformations in sporting history. From being relegation candidates and 5,000-1 outsiders for the title, Leicester won the biggest prize in its 132-year history.

[ MORE: Game-by-game breakdown of title run ]

But it was achieved without the midweek demands of European soccer, which Leicester will have next season after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time.

No wonder, Ranieri is significantly lowering expectations for next season.

“For us it is important to stay in the 10th position around there and try to fight to go into Europe,” Ranieri said at Leicester’s modest training ground.

Leicester’s eye for bargains has won admirers throughout the game.

Top-scorer Jamie Vardy was talent spotted while playing outside England’s four professional leagues four years ago. The striker’s 22 goals this season saw him voted player of the year by the Football Writers’ Association this week.

Riyad Mahrez, who has scored 17 goals and provided 11 assists in the title charge, won the same accolade in a vote by his fellow professionals. The Algeria winger was an unknown when he joined Leicester two years ago from second-tier French side Le Havre for less than 500,000 pounds (then about $820,000).

Ranieri’s biggest task in the summer transfer window could be keeping hold of his players while trying to avoid upsetting the balance of his squad with new recruits.

“It is too early to say we need five, six, seven or eight players,” Ranieri said. “If one of my players says to me I want to go … I try to keep him. I suggest to everybody this is a fantastic club.

“We won the title. We can do something good in our few years. If you go away, you don’t know what happens, here you are the king … it is much better to stay here one year more and look what happens. Then maybe you can go anywhere.”

Although wealthier rivals could offer Leicester’s stars bigger salaries, the central England club appears to offer more stability for now at a time when Chelsea – and potentially Manchester United – will be out of the Champions League next season.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate

“The Champions League is another important league to compare yourself to the other champions,” Ranieri said in a public message to his players. “Maybe you change team and go in the big teams, maybe you don’t start very well and stay outside the first eleven, you slow down.

“It is important to choose very well for the lads because now, for me as well, the lads are my sons. If they come to me I say this, `Be careful.’ Leicester in the long-term will go in a very high position.”