On Women’s Soccer: After Sermanni, USWNT coach choice is about vision for the future

US Women's National team, USWNT, US Soccer

 Photo by ISIPhotos.com

By CAITLIN MURRAY

When the U.S. Soccer Federation names a new U.S. Women’s National Team head coach, the decision will obviously end up dictating the future of the squad.

But it is the way the decision dictates the future that will matter most.

After giving former Australia coach Tom Sermanni the freedom to bring in an array of young talent, and move the team toward a new playing style, U.S. Soccer officials decided they had seen enough.

Sermanni was unceremoniously fired and U.S. Soccer began searching for a replacement, interviewing three people: U.S. Soccer Development Director Jill Ellis, former USWNT coach Tony DiCicco and former USWNT assistant coach Tony Gustavsson.

A source close to the situation told SBI the decision has been unofficially made and Tony DiCicco is out of the running after being interviewed. Reached Wednesday, U.S. Soccer declined comment, but President Sunil Gulati last month said he expected to have a decision by mid-May.

One thing that DiCicco’s inclusion on U.S. Soccer’s short list makes abundantly clear: U.S. Soccer is not willing to take the chance on another outsider. Ellis, Gustavsson and DiCicco are all familiar entities to both the organization and to the players on the team.

In a way, it is a bit surprising that DiCicco was even a finalist. He hasn’t coached professionally in three years since leaving the Boston Breakers in 2011, and his transition from the USWNT to club soccer did not go so well.

That is not to say DiCicco isn’t a good coach. But the 2014 USWNT is a very different beast than the legendary squad he had coached in 90s. That 1999 World Cup result is not easily replicated, especially when the USWNT’s global competition has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years.

As more countries put resources into their women’s programs, the USWNT’s perch atop the world looks more and more unsteady. Some argue the U.S. women are falling behind in technical ability and relying too much on aging mainstays. U.S. Soccer’s hiring of Sermanni seemed to be a direct response to that.

Under Sermanni, the USWNT found itself with one foot in the past, where direct play and physicality still yielded results, and one foot in the future, where possession-oriented build-up play was introduced and an influx of new players entered rotation. Perhaps it was straddling the line that partly got Sermanni into trouble as some of the explanations for his dismissal hinted at an ideological battle for the direction of the team.

In that sense, whoever U.S. Soccer names as Sermanni’s replacement will be part of a watershed decision – will the USWNT ease back into what the players seem to refer to as “attacking” or “aggressive” direct soccer, or will they continue to forge new ground in technical, possession play?

After Sermanni turned out to be the wrong “cultural fit,” U.S. Soccer clearly needs a coach who has already thrived in the unique culture of the USWNT. There is roughly five months until World Cup qualifiers and little more than a year until the 2015 World Cup.

From that standpoint, Gustavsson is an obvious frontrunner. He served as head coach Pia Sundhage’s right-hand man when the squad won Olympic gold in 2012 and the players reportedly hoped he would stick around.

He has since gone onto become head coach of Swedish powerhouse Tyreso that looks poised to win UEFA Champions League later this month. Unlike traditional USWNT-style soccer, Tyreso is patient and technical. Their speed of play is measured and they pass the ball around a lot.

But Gustavsson has lately been coy about his interest in the position, telling Swedish press he is focused on finishing Tyreso’s Champions League run, which ends next week.

Meanwhile, Ellis is a clear contender due to her experience in the U.S., too. She has loyally served in various roles for U.S. Soccer over the past 14 years, including twice as interim coach. The first time, Ellis said she didn’t want the permanent job – but this time around, she is all in.

She probably has more experience with the direct style of soccer that prevailed in DiCicco’s era and has carried the USWNT forward than Gustavsson does.

At the helm of the post-Sermanni squad, Ellis had two games to show she deserves the job, but a draw in Canada last week didn’t make her case any stronger. That said, U.S. Soccer likely won’t be making a decision based on one game.

After feeling like they didn’t get what they bargained for with Sermanni, the final decision will likely be about two things for the federation: what style of soccer do they want to see and how much do they trust the candidate to execute it.

All signs point to the decision coming down to Gustavsson and Ellis. Both have the strong resumes to lead a team of the USWNT’s caliber, but whichever candidate is selected will be less about their resume, and more about U.S. Soccer’s vision for the future.

This entry was posted in Featured, U.S. Women's National Team, Women's Soccer. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to On Women’s Soccer: After Sermanni, USWNT coach choice is about vision for the future

  1. wood chip zip says:

    And that vision is three forwards so Abby gets what she wants.

    • Rory says:

      Fair or not (probably very unfairly), it seems Wambach has taken a bigger hit to her image from Sermanni’s firing than Sermanni. Would be interesting to hear the inside story about all of that but I don’t think we ever will.

  2. Increase says:

    A draw against Canada? Ew… Ya…. lets not.

  3. Reid says:

    Unless Tony will bring back the ol soup strainer then I say no.

  4. r says:

    what happened to the old coach? why was he fired? and why is there problems with the team? didn’t they only lose 2 games in the past 2 or 3 years?

  5. jones says:

    I was generally unhappy with Ellis’s performance as manager during the 2010 U-20 WWC when we were knocked out in the quarters. She seemed inflexible and lacking vision – unable to make necessary tactical and personnel changes either during the match or from match to match. I personally hope they go with someone else.

    • Rob says:

      I agree. I was not impressed by Ellis’ performance at the U-20 WC nor the 2007 Pan American Games. She definitely seems to be the type to rely on her players’ physical talent with little strategy. I do not like the US’ chances against the better teams if she is at the helm. But only time will tell I suppose.

  6. Alex H says:

    I hope the coaching decision is NOT about a “vision” for the future. The WWC is coming up in a year and what we need is a coach that can look at what he has and put together a team that can win by hook or by crook. The team needs a cold hearted pragmatist right now not a visionary.

    • recovered amishman says:

      paradoxically, the need to win at all cost now is what will keep the USWNT from winning in the future.

      • Alex H says:

        Their is no need to win at all costs now. There is a need to win at all costs during qualification in the fall, the WWC next Summer and the Olympics the following year. Whomever takes over has about 4 months to be a visionary, after that he/she must win.

        • recovered amishman says:

          I’m sure Tom Sermanni would be happy to know that winning right now wasn’t an issue. Between the WC and the Olympics, there will never be enough time for a new coach to incorporate new players, a new system and meet the demands of the fans and the aging stars. TS wasted what, 6-8 months on a victory lap after the Olympics and to give Wambach time to pass Mia Hamm in the record book? It will always be something.

          • DB says:

            Uh, Sundgae and Ellis were the coaches during the Olympic victory tour.

            You are right though, USSF wasted crucial development time with that victory tour.

            • DB says:

              *Sundhage….geez, read your posts, DB.

            • recovered amishman says:

              Thank you for the correction. The actual fact makes it even worse than I remembered.

              • Landy Cakes says:

                either way you can’t get spanked like that by Denmark and expect to keep your job. Denmark for christ’s sake. Also, I don’t think the forwards are the issue. Its the goals we’re letting in that are the problem, the mid field (despite loads of latent) and the defense are the problems.

              • recovered amishman says:

                Thanks for proving my original point Landy Cakes. The US fan base won’t tolerate losing any games. As a result we’ll be stuck with the same long ball, kick and run soccer and the same player base until the wheels fall totally off.

  7. Diane says:

    If I remotely thought US Soccer knew what direction they wanted to go in, I might feel better about this selection.

  8. The Garrincha says:

    Where is Jessica Mcdonald?.
    Looks to be a really good midfield/forward. 3rd in scoring.
    Six feet tall, fast and strong, with good field awareness and presence, athletic, national champion while at UNC. Can she get a look and a run?.
    I am sure there are a lot more out there?…

  9. Melissa Kenny says:

    At this point you’d have to think it’s going to be Gustavsson because if it’s Ellis, why not name her now? You can see why they’re waiting if it’s Gustavsson as his team is still playing for the cup.

    • The Garrincha says:

      Hope Powell, Please!.

    • AMP says:

      I agree, that’s the biggest indicator right now. In addition to that, Gustavsson’s preferred possession-oriented style of play seems to fit the direction that US Soccer is currently leaning.

      • Alex says:

        After firing Tom and interviewing DiCicco you think they want more possession? I really disagree

        • AMP says:

          DiCicco didn’t really have much of a shot, and I don’t think they are going to abandon what they want to do just because Sermanni didn’t end up working out.

          We’ll see, but at this point, it’s looking like it’s Gustavsson’s job to accept or decline.

  10. Liz says:

    Ellis’ management of Canada game was awful. She seemed unable to respond to game as it unfolded, including Herdman’s substitutions. Game management of a competitive match not her strong suit.

  11. Erica says:

    My favorite writer when it comes to USWNT and NWSL. Good reporting. Raises crucial questions.

    • Paul says:

      Glad that Ives has continued to provide quality US women’s and NWSL coverage. Not many websites have the reach and professionalism of SBI, and if Ives keeps promoting his coverage of the women’s game, this site should continue to be a hub for all US soccer coverage. Perhaps it is time to get writers to review the tactics of USWNT games? The women’s game requires tactical analysis just as much as the men’s game, if not more so, given that the revolutions in tactics, started in men’s leagues, are just coming to the women’s game. As the article mentions, the USWNT is being challenged by tactically-aware, skilled opponents.

  12. manny rivademar says:

    Sermani’s firing was a shock to me. I think he was trying to infuse young talent and some of the veterans were not taking kindly to it. He was inserting young players with the vets. and they were not meshing. Ultimately, the team has to get younger to compete with the rest of the world. It has been stated that Germany’s starting X1 average age is 24. Morgan’s injury is taking longer than expected to heal. Once she is back the team will react. Still, the addition of Press and other young players needs to be inserted into the team. How to do this is the trick. Will the new coach continue with this influx of new players or will they continue playing the vets?

    • Alex H says:

      Once the games start to count the coach should play those that can bring victory on that day, be they old guard or young gun. Over on the men’s side Jurgen seems to be doing a good job of cutting to the chase and asking “What can you do for me now?” and the next women’s coach needs to start asking the same questions.

  13. user222 says:

    The elite US team looked bad against Canada… most of the veterans played but the team was unrecognizable…

    Time to fire Ellis the interim coach… fire USSF President, Sunil Gulati as well….

  14. JoeW says:

    I think the “old vs. new” theme is off-base. It’s not about going with results now (i.e.: the older players) vs. building for the future (i.e.: the younger ones).

    Quite simply, the USWNT cut it’s teeth at a time when the better women’s teams played very direct soccer. Long ball, lots of running, very direct, using your physicality and size and conditioning to maximum advantage. Much like a combination of the way England used to play a couple of decades ago and how the Germans were noted for playing (very disciplined, very physical, wearing people down). We devote more resources and (b/c of women’s college soccer) have a bigger talent base than any other women’s side in the world. But I’d argue that on a level playing field (i.e.: teams have preparation so the typical US advantage of longer camps, more games, better conditioning) doesn’t apply, France and probably Japan and Brasil are better than the US women. And a couple of Northern European teams are close to us. US fans get hung up on the Olympics and losing in the final of the last WC. The US women were nearly eliminated in the quarters (but for the stoppage time goal by Wambach). No WC title on foreign soil except for the inaugural cup in China. Don’t get me wrong–the US Women are always one of the top 3-6 teams in the world now. But there are other teams who are better tactically and in terms of technique. And the US always pushing forward will lead to bad results against tactically astute teams who can counter in to the space. Like Sweden did in the Algarve. Like France and Japan can do. This is not about choosing results now vs. building for the future. It’s an argument that unless the US Women become more tactically astute and better technically, we can have another WC where depth, conditioning, and aggressiveness only take us so far…before we lose to a team that is capable of exploiting all of the space we expose with our direct long-ball.

    • recovered amishman says:

      Joe, no argument from me on the tactics question and how the USWNT needs to mature in that regard. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a lot of resistance from players to going down that road with Sermanni and frankly, it’s not apparent that the regulars from the last WC cycle can successfully implement a less direct style. That’s what makes this an old vs. new issue. That transition is going to take some time and there will be some ugly losses while it is happening (witness the Algarve Cup). It’s difficult not to interpret the TS firing as the USSF pulling the plug on the whole project. Whether that was because of team discontent as many speculate or because of a few bad results as Gulati implied doesn’t matter that much. The long and short of it is that the USSF wasn’t willing to withstand a little heat when the going got tough. I doubt the next coach will move so boldly. My bet is that the focus will be on winning every single game and keeping the regulars happy and not on improving the quality of the soccer they play. I hope I’m wrong.

  15. RedCru says:

    Julie Foudy just tweeted it is Ellis
    link to twitter.com

  16. kernel_thai says:

    This decision boggles the mind. If this is the mindset of USSoccer how did Sermanni get chosen in the first place? They could found a coach who favored veteran players and a direct style and not wasted a year and a half on a fool’s errand. Gulati now comes off looking like an absolute idiot. To save any face at all he needed to pick a coach who looked like Sermanni was the right idea but just the wrong guy. Nw he just looks foolish.

    • recovered amishman says:

      Agreed. But why do the all the hard work of rebuilding when you can bamboozle most people with long win streaks in meaningless friendlies? As long as teenaged fans think you are the best, that’s all that matters.

    • BC says:

      Gulati is an idiot! Econ professor in charge of our national team program. Fire Sunil!

  17. The Garrincha says:

    Ellis really?, even the dear writer of this article questioned that one.

  18. The Garrincha says:

    Regarding the article,
    One can have both attractive attacking, offensive, and tactically and technically sound soccer, these things are not mutually exclusive.