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.

Martinez “thought about dancing” after Everton thumped Stoke City

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Roberto Martinez Manager of Everton looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Everton at Britannia Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Stoke on Trentl, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Everton is finding its form, and that has Roberto Martinez with half a mind to keep dancing.

Martinez admitted his Jason Derulo fandom after video surfaced of the Spaniard dancing in a suite this week, and had to admit he felt like continuing the show after Everton crushed Stoke City 3-0 on Saturday.

The Toffees climbed above Merseyside rivals Liverpool on goal differential and into eight place in the Premier League. They are finally looking like the club supporters expected to see this season.

[ MATCH RECAP: Stoke City 0-3 Everton ]

Everton has back-to-back 3-0 wins in the Premier League. Before that was a loss to Swansea City which followed a trio of draws against Man City, Spurs and Chelsea.

Martinez’s club looked fit to score even more after Romelu Lukaku, Seamus Coleman and Aaron Lennon scored first-half goals on the road at the Britannia Stadium.

Look at that face… a living dance hall. Of course we kid, and are even more grateful for Martinez’s personality.

Pochettino on Tottenham winning title: “If we believe, it can happen”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Mauricio Pochettino Manager of Tottenham Hotspur looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Watford at White Hart Lane on February 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is playing it cool, but Tottenham Hotspur has a real chance of winning its first-ever Premier League title.

[ MORE: Foxes beat City to stay top ]

Following Spurs’ 1-0 win over Watford at White Hart Lane on Saturday — the scoreline doesn’t reflect how dominant Tottenham were — optimism levels were high.

Four Premier League wins on the spin and six in all competitions will do that.

With Tottenham now second in the PL table and five points behind surprise leaders Leicester City, are they genuine title contenders?

“I feel very proud of the players,” Pochettino said. “We need to be calm. We are in a very good position in the league but the philosophy from the beginning of the season has been to go step by step. We are a very young squad so it is important to keep going and take every game and competition and be ready to compete.

“We need to be careful and always work in the same way. In football you can never stop. You always need to improve and fix a different situation. We still need to be more clinical, we created a lot of chances today but need to score more.We have a good idea of how we want to build the squad for the future and it is important to take this philosophy and deliver it.”

More tellingly Pochettino was also quoted as saying: “In football belief is the most important. If we believe, it can happen.”

In a season where Leicester City top the Premier League, why can’t Spurs launch a serious title challenge of their own with 13 games to go?

[ MORE: 3 things we learned as Leicester demolished Man City

As Pochettino mentioned, scoring more goals should be the main aim for Spurs as they had 26 shots against Watford and 66 percent of the ball but only scored once. But with the best defensive record in the PL and the best goal differential, Spurs are right in this title race.

Agbonlahor says Villans prepared to produce great escape

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Gabriel Agbonlahor is feeling quite buoyed by his first goal of the season.

The 29-year-old striker helped ensure his side would keep its early lead with a second half goal, and hopes the 2-0 win over Norwich City is just the latest step in the quest to avoid Villa’s first ever Premier League relegation.

[ MATCH RECAP: Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City ]

Villa is now eight points back of 17th place Newcastle, and seven of the Canaries. It’s still a 4-point journey to 19th, but Agbonlahor and company are taking it proverbially: one game at a time.

From the BBC:

“We are going to keep fighting till the end. That is all the club expects from us. Take it game by game. There is no reason why we cannot escape. We showed fight today. We had a game plan: we defended well and attacked well.”

The Villans are facing a relatively tough stretch of matches with Liverpool, Stoke City, Everton and Man City on the docket.

What odds would you give Villa of pulling off the latest in a long line of Premier League great escapes?

Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion: Mitrovic pushes Magpies to 17th

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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  • Magpies climb out of relegation zone
  • Baggies continue to struggle under Pulis
  • Mitrovic gets winner as hosts control match

Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s first-half goal gave Newcastle United a week above the drop zone in a 1-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion at St. James Park on Saturday.

The Magpies leapfrog losing Norwich City for 17th place in the Premier League with 24 points.

West Brom is now winless in five and sits five points ahead of Newcastle, good for 14th place.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Magpies provided an inspired start to the match, piling on pressure and winning a pair of corner kicks. Aleksandar Mitrovic was saved at the goal line by Boaz Myhill in the most clear-cut opportunity.

Craig Gardner won a free kick on the edge of the 18, but Georginio Wijnaldum leapt off the wall to help deflect it out for an eventually unsuccessful corner.

Cheik Tiote scored from close to 40 yards out, but Lee Mason consulted with his linesman before disallowing the goal because Aleksandar Mitrovic was in the flight of the ball and offside.

Mitrovic had the next laugh, though, sprung on a break by Jonjo Shelvey and deservedly finishing his chance past Foster. Newcastle owned a 1-0 lead.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Wijnaldum flashed a header over goal of Townsend’s cross from the right, and it was still 1-0 in the 66th minute. Townsend then poked a low shot off the right post moments later, and Moussa Sissoko flashed a prime shot wide.

The Magpies were leaving themselves open to an equalizer, and it’s not as if the Baggies didn’t find a chance or two (though mostly through set pieces).