By now, you should know a little more about Tom Sermanni, the 58-year-old Scot who has been chosen to guide the U.S. Women’s National Team toward Canada 2015. What we’ve yet to cover are the challenges he’ll face trying to get the team to move forward, something that must happen if the USWNT’s to stay on (or near the) top of an increasingly competitive international soccer landscape.
Increased competition is not the only external issue facing Sermanni. As World Cup 2011 showed, the women’s game is evolving, quickly. France, Japan, and the changes we see in Germany’s approach provide a glimpse of a faster, very technical future. While the U.S.’s style has remained relatively static, rivals have been absorbing and implementing the game’s broader tactical innovations. Combined with countries’ improved development, the U.S. is facing significant challenges to their perch atop the women’s game.
While that’s incredibly exciting for the sport, it also depicted a landscape that could envelop the U.S by 2015.
How does Serrmani keep the U.S. at the forefront? Here are the issues (in no particular order):
1. What course with the fullbacks – Pia Sundhage converted Kelley O’Hara from attack to defense and started pool midfielder Meghan Klingenberg down the same road. Serrmani could elect to continue with these progressive options or go back to natural defenders, a choice that would leave central defenders Amy LePeilbet, Whitney Engen, and Rachel Buehler as options at left back. Right back Ali Krieger, the best at her position at World Cup 2011, should be back by the time the U.S. plays its next important game, solving the problem on the opposite flank.
2. Centrally, the defense – In their last four (all at home) games, the U.S. has allowed six goals. Granted, they’ve scored 11, but their defending continues to be a cause for concern, particularly given Christie Rampone’s uncertain future. Thankfully, it looks like the captain’s sticking around. The 37-year-old is still one of the best defenders in the world, but who do you play next to her? Buehler’s confidence appears to be shaken. Becky Sauerbrunn would add some needed class on the ball, while LePeilbet was twice chosen WPS’s best defender. There are options, just a lack of answers.
3. Middle of midfield, too – Increased use of three-woman midfields presents a huge problem for the U.S. By formation, they’re often outnumbered, leading to large spans where they fail to control games against elite competition. By personnel, they’re thin. Carli Lloyd got redemption in this summer’s gold medal game after losing her place in the team, but questions reamin about her consistency and defending. At 35, Shannon Boxx isn’t expected to make it to Canada 2015 (and could retire at any time). Lauren Cheney’s conversion to central midfield remains a work in progress. As the rest of the world is bolstering in the middle, the U.S. is in need to new options.
4. Heath, Rapinoe, O’Reilly … Rodriguez, Cheney – No team has better wide play than the U.S., but there are decisions to be made here, too. Tobin Heath’s been starting wide left opposite Megan Rapinoe, with Heather O’Reilly unable to reclaim a consistent starting spot after her leg injury. Though she has her best days ahead of her, Heath has failed to match O’Reilly’s effectiveness, and it’s unclear she’ll ever be as good on the flank as the player she’s replacing. The U.S. has a couple of years to find out, with Cheney and Amy Rodriguez also factoring into the equation.
5. A future without Wambach – Abby Wambach will be 35 by the time 2015 starts, and she’s starting to wear down. What does the U.S. do if their focal point can’t play 90 minutes come Canada? Sermanni has to come up with a plan. It’s not enough to rely on Alex Morgan, a completely different type of player. How does the U.S. rebuild when the center of their attack moves on?
6. Bringing in new blood – Among the few complaints about the Pia Sundhage era was her inability, at the end, to bring new players into the team. While the likes of Cheney, Rapinoe and Morgan were able to crack the starting XI, we’re not seeing a lot of new blood on the bench. Kelley O’Hara and Sydney Leroux have gotten time, but it took far too long for Ali Krieger to unseat Heather Mitts at right back. As we see with the situation in midfield, there aren’t a lot of options waiting in the wings. Sermanni has to change that.
7. A team and a product – We take the iconography of the USWNT for granted, but if you think about a world where the team isn’t at the top of the game, it’s easier to see success as a huge part of this program’s identity (even if they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999). As he makes tough calls on these issues, Sermanni has to keep the team at the top of the game, even if the speed at which the world’s improving makes it inevitable that the U.S. lose its spot. Unfortunately for Sermanni, there’s no tolerance for that happening over the next four years.