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.

Exasperated Klopp: “We were not physical enough” vs Leicester

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Liverpool players make their way back to the half way line after they let in their first goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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A desperate Leicester City battered Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Monday, leaving Reds boss Jurgen Klopp to question how his side lost to another relegation candidate.

That’s four teams in the Bottom Seven to beat the Reds this season, and the fifth is 11th place Burnley.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

Klopp said he could explain the loss in German, but the challenge of doing it in English was proving difficult.

“The language issues always come a little bit more when you have to explain defeats and it’s really difficult to find the right words. It was not an over aggressive game from Leicester. Even for this level we were not physical enough today.”

Liverpool did look soft without midfielder Jordan Henderson, and did have multiple midfielders in the back line with Lucas Leiva at center back and James Milner on the right.

But moreover, the players failed to follow some of Klopp’s guidelines. For example, Christian Fuchs was able to launch several of his big throws into the 18. One helped Leicester to a goal.

“We gave throw-ins away like we never spoke about it. It does not make much sense to give away 20 throw-ins to Fuchs from that position.”

It wasn’t good enough, and it’s baffling to see Liverpool this season. A club that took four of six points from Chelsea has lost to a quartet of relegation battlers. This isn’t good.

Liverpool continues to wilt against lesser lights

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool reacts during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Plenty will be said about Leicester City’s performance in Monday’s 3-1 defeat of Liverpool at King Power Stadium, but the visitors’ problems are screaming at a similar volume.

The Reds play a bit like a team expecting it to be easier, which is baffling given its struggles in 2017. When the calendar turned, Liverpool had just toppled Manchester City 1-0.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

It’s been a horror story this new year. The Reds needed a replay to beat Plymouth in the FA Cup en route to being bounced by Wolverhampton in the fourth round. They lost 2-0 to Southampton in the EFL Cup semifinal. And as for league form? Woof.

Liverpool in the Premier League, 2017
Jan. 2 – at Sunderland, D 2-2
Jan. 15 – at Man Utd, D 1-1
Jan. 21 – vs. Swansea City, L 2-3
Jan. 28 – vs. Chelsea, D 1-1
Feb. 4 – at Hull City, L 0-2
Feb. 11 – vs Spurs, W 2-0
Feb. 27 – at Leicester, L 0-2

In total, that’s two wins and four draws in 12 matches. The Reds have allowed two or more goals on five occasions, and four times they’ve been held off the score sheet.

The answers weren’t there. They haven’t been for most of the year. Nathaniel Clyne‘s bright work on the right rarely found a willing receiver, as Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum failed to make much of an impact. Yes, Jordan Henderson was missing but that shouldn’t sink a side into the abyss.

The Reds were late to the party, though at least they bothered to show up unlike the 2-0 loss at Hull three weeks ago. Liverpool has lost at Hull, Bournemouth, Burnley, and Leicester this season, with an additional home loss to Swansea City.

Those are 15 points surrendered to the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 19th place teams, plus recently promoted Burnley (11th). For good measure, the Reds drew 2-2 at 20th place Sunderland. That leaves Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough as the lone members of the Bottom Seven to not take a point from Liverpool.

The Reds have been the team version of Moussa Sissoko, well up for the big boys but yawning at the task of playing lesser lights (Granted Monday’s match was under the bright lights). How else do you explain a team with the record above also boasting an unbeaten mark against the Top Seven (5W-4D)?

Liverpool needs a change in attitude. And don’t be fooled if they beat Arsenal this weekend or Man City in two weeks. See if they show up at home to Burnley on March 12.

Leicester City 3-1 Liverpool: Champions Awakened

Leicester players celebrate after Leicester's Daniel Drinkwater scored during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Liverpool at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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  • First match since Ranieri firing
  • Vardy nabs brace
  • Coutinho ruins clean sheet

Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater helped the King Power Stadium to a taste of the Leicester of old, as the Foxes opened the post-Claudio Ranieri era with a 3-1 defeat of Liverpool on Monday.

Philippe Coutinho scored the lone goal for the visitors.

Leicester climbs back out of the drop zone and into 15th with 24 points. Liverpool remains fifth place with 49 points.

The two goals were Vardy’s first time on a Premier League scoresheet since netting a hat trick in a 4-2 win over Man City on Dec. 10.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Robert Huth flicked a long Christian Fuchs throw towards the frame, and Simon Mignolet leapt to corral the goal-bound ball.

Another big Fuchs throw led to a corner when Mignolet denied Shinji Okazaki‘s flying header.

Vardy then forced Mignolet into a close-range save when the Leicester striker bodied Lucas Leiva and beat Joel Matip to attempt a shot.

Vardy found his mark with a long ball from a field player. Marc Albrighton spied an opening from his own half and played Vardy on goal, with the English striker beating Mignolet to the near post.

The danger wasn’t over. Vardy lost his dribble and backheeled to Wilfried Ndidi for a shot that Mignolet stopped in the six.

Drinkwater made it 2-0 with a volley from outside the 18 that sent King Power Stadium into bedlam. Commentator Arlo White noted that the press area was shaking following the celebration.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Liverpool looked gun shy well into the second half, with Philippe Coutinho giving the hint of urgency on a 55th minute rip corralled by Schmeichel.

The Reds then allowed Riyad Mahrez and Christian Fuchs to work the left side before the latter crossed in front of Emre Can, where Vardy flew to power a header home.

Coutinho made it 3-1 on a layoff from Can to give Liverpool a bit of life and the Brazilian his first Premier League goal since Nov. 6.

The Reds didn’t quit, though they found it hard to invade the Foxes’ 18. Leicester wasn’t much help in the matter, doggedly staying with their marks and spaces as the match edged toward stoppage time.

WATCH: Drinkwater rocket doubles Leicester City lead

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Leicester City’s first half of Premier League play without Claudio Ranieri has gone very, very well.

Marc Albrighton set up Jamie Vardy for an early goal before Danny Drinkwater scored a beauty of his own, and the Foxes have a 2-0 lead over Liverpool at King Power Stadium.

LEICESTER-LFC LIVE ONLINE, HERE

The Foxes got a roar and a standing ovation from the KP at the break, as the champs look prepared to make their stay in the drop zone a brief one.