With Thursday’s ill-timed friendly out of the way — a 3-0 victory over China in a result that was never in doubt — the focus of the United States women’s national team is now solely on finding a new coach.
Tom Sermanni’s abrupt firing on Sunday night shortly after the United States’ first victory over the week of China left the team in disarray. Sermanni, who was 18-2-4 as U.S. coach, said he was “completely blindsided” by the news. Midfielder Carli Lloyd said she and other players were “as shocked as everyone was.” And U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati only vaguely alluded to “underlying issues” being the reason for Sermanni’s demise, noting that it was a “style” issue.
Details remain elusive. But players will now quickly board flights to catch up with their National Women’s Soccer League teams for the opening of the 2014 season this weekend, and they won’t meet again as a U.S. team until the days ahead of their May 8 match against Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That gives Gulati and U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, along with whomever may be assisting in the process, a month to dig in on the search without any distractions of on-field performances. Gulati admitted Monday that the process could stretch into the summertime.
What kind of coach the United States women really want remains about as vague as what went wrong for Sermanni. The candidate is almost certainly going to come from within the small group of coaches extremely familiar with the team and the player pool, given the short, 14-month buildup to the World Cup.
Lloyd told NBC Sports as much on Tuesday, saying that the players have faith in U.S. Soccer bringing in someone ready for the job.
“I’m sure it’s not going to be somebody who has no idea about our team and the players. I think it would most definitely be somebody who has got to be familiar with the system, the pool to make that transition a little bit easy.”
Lloyd proceeded to tell NBC Sports postgame that “this team just needs somebody to steer us in the right direction.”
Heather O’Reilly said in Thursday’s pregame show that the U.S. women need a coach who can “that’s going to blend this team — blend the old, blend the new,” she said:
What’s ironic is that Sermanni did exactly that: He brought in and developed young talent while still evaluating how his squad could look in 2015, where anything short of a World Cup title will be a failure. The very objectives that U.S. Soccer officials and players seek are some of the core philosophies of Sermanni, which is why he was hired in the first place. An eye on winning now and an eye on development. A win, two losses and a draw at the Algarve Cup didn’t help Sermanni, but Gulati says it was about more than that week gone wrong in Portugal last month.
Sermanni was too laid back, it keeps being said, but laid back isn’t the right way to put it. His predecessor, Pia Sundhage, was laid back, just in a very different, more upbeat and care-free sort of way. But she was also very clear that her team was her team, and changes would be made only by necessity or extremely poor performance (which didn’t even really happen after the U.S. nearly failed to qualify for the World Cup).
So it seems that what U.S. Soccer really wants is someone to stamp some authority into a team that already has an overflow of talent. They want disciplinarian with a clear, firm message on what he or she envisions for the team. As NBCSN analyst Kate Markgraf says below, the shortlist at this point is likely current Tyresö boss and former U.S. assistant (under Sundhage) Tony Gustavsson, plus Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley and Houston Dash coach Randy Waldrum, both of whom said on Tuesday that they think it’s possible to coach club and country at the same time, effectively tossing their names into the hat. Both were finalists for the U.S. job in fall 2012.
And then there’s current interim coach Jill Ellis (pictured above), who improved to 6-0-2 as temporary U.S. boss with Thursday’s win after also guiding the team in fall 2012. Last time around, when Sermanni was ultimately hired, Ellis withdrew her name from consideration. Ex-U.S. assistant and Penn State coach Erica Walsh could also be in the mix.
At the end of the day, the basic ideals the U.S. Soccer officials and the women’s national team players are looking for were all right there with Sermanni. What’s really desired is a personality that fits with the squad, and an authority to manage the world’s No. 1 team for six years running.