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.

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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.

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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.

Bravo fit again, but will he start Chile’s Confed Cup group finale?

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MOSCOW (AP) Claudio Bravo is fit again and could start in goal against Australia at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Saturday.

Bravo – who is Chile’s joint most-capped player with Alexis Sanchez – hasn’t played since April 27, when he injured his calf for Manchester City in a derby game with Manchester United.

“Claudio is fit, he’s managed to train the last couple of days just like his other teammates,” Pizzi said. “He’s ready and available to play.”

Pizzi brushed off concerns about a lack of match fitness, saying that “quite obviously we take into account that factor” but players like Bravo are “are of such good quality that it isn’t that important they haven’t played in the last couple of months.”

Stand-in Johnny Herrera played in Chile’s 2-0 group stage win over Cameroon and Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Germany.

Gary Medel was substituted with a minor injury while playing in defense for Chile against Germany. Teammate Francisco Silva said Saturday that Medel had complained of “a very small muscle contraction issue” but was now fit.

Pizzi said he will aim to tire out Australia with Chile’s trademark all-action style, even though his team struggled for energy in the latter stages against Germany.

“This energy drop we had in the second half didn’t damage us too much because the opposing team couldn’t maintain a high pace because of the demands we’d imposed on them,” Pizzi said of the Germany game.

“We’re going to try to get (the Australians) tired as well and use this to beat our opponent, and we hope this is going to translate into goals.”

USMNT’s Wood extends Hamburg contract through 2021

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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) American forward Bobby Wood extended his contract with Bundesliga side Hamburger SV on Saturday to 2021.

Wood, who joined Hamburg from second-tier Union Berlin, scored five goals and set up two more in 28 Bundesliga games. He had 17 goals in 31 second-division games for Union the season before.

“Not only his goals count for us, but his readiness to run and challenge,” Hamburg sporting director Jens Todt said. “Bobby is a key player for our offense and a real team player.”

Wood has eight goals in 32 appearances for the United States.

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

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Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.