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The Sermanni Dilemma: Where Does The USWNT Go From Here?

posted by All White Kit
Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 7:28am EDT

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Tom Sermanni Courtesy U.S. Soccer

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – For those who have been around long enough to remember the reference, the U.S. women’s soccer team trip through Connecticut had the feel of the old-school Ice Capades last week. You know, when the Olympic figure skating stars came back and tried to make some money (because they were still amateurs previously) by touring the country showing off their routines and signing autographs for screaming fans?

No one really cared how well they did, no one kept score, the people just wanted to see the Olympic stars in action.

There were obviously no triple axels from Alex Morgan – at least not that I saw – and cool costume choices were limited to both teams’ kits (the Where’s Waldos? against a minor league hockey team someone in the press box commented), but although some of the best players in the world were on the field, you had the distinct feel that competition was secondary as the game ended in a 2-2 draw.

As you can probably surmise already, I was torn. For someone who loves tactics and competition, both of which made the World Cup and Olympics an instant hit, I wasn’t going to get much of it here, which was frustrating when the top two teams in the world (at least according to the FIFA rankings) were below me.

But it’s not like I was a victim of false advertising or something, I was attending the “Nike Fan Tribute Tour, presented by Panasonic” for crying out loud. Abby Wambach had a goal (her 148th) and was all smiles afterward, even though the U.S. was generally outplayed (and outshot) and was forced to settle for a 2-2 tie, the first time since 2004 the USWNT failed to win in consecutive home games.

Wambach, like me, seemed a bit torn, mentioning that “this wasn’t our best soccer”, but quick to praise the nearly 20,000 people who braved a fairly hideous weather evening to see her and the U.S. play.  Morgan voiced similar sentiments, and you got the feeling she was a bit tired – mostly mentally – although she did have two assists. She sounded like an entertainer nearing the end of a long tour, but knowing that the people here deserved the same show that the people who came a month ago did.

And the fans that dodged the raindrops in Hartford cannot be discounted when discussing the overall dynamic here. Having lived here most of my life, I can tell you that Connecticut is not a great sports market, and the fact that 18,000+ showed up on a rainy, chilly Tuesday night is a testament to the popularity and success of Morgan, Wambach, and the U.S. machine.

Also, let’s be honest, most of them could care less about tactics, or whether interim coach Jill Ellis is integrating new players into the fold, or even the final score. As a youth coach, the talk at our practice the following day didn’t involve rising German star Dzenifer Marozsan, how the U.S. can stop her, or even why the U.S. doesn’t seem to have any players like her ready to join the USWNT in the near future, but how nice Abby Wambach was after the game, and who got whose autograph.

 

Again, I’m not here to judge, I understand that part of this is a business, and that these crowds dramatically help the relevancy of the product. I remember the three World Cup send-off games – just last year – that drew less than 6,000 people each. And that four of six games in preparation for 2010 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying drew less than 5,000.

But it’s still frustrating to see 10 games that the U.S. could be using to transition to the next World Cup/Olympic cycle with the same lineups and very little experimentation.

(And, no, Sydney Leroux as emergency right back doesn’t count. Although her reaction afterward was typical Leroux: “I’ve never played right back before in my life. I figured I would just run around and slidetackle people and that’s about it. It was fun.” Gotta love Sydney.)

Without a real competitive game to play for nearly three years (the next “big” competition will be CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2014, but with Canada automatically in and the field expanded, the chances of the United States not making it through easily – unlike in 2010 – are approximately zero, so that will be a glorified series of exhibitions that will surely pad people’s stats more than show us how competitive the new-look squad will be), you can’t blame anyone for treating this Tour as they have, though.

One player I had my eye on against Germany was Becky Sauerbrunn, who got a rare chance to play 90 minutes, some of them at outside back. Sauerbrunn is at a crossroads in her career, having come close to being a national team starter (close enough to earn 32 caps), but has never quite gotten there. Now 27, the next cycle is pretty much her last chance to prove herself, this time under a new leader.

“With a new coach, everyone has a new opportunity to prove themselves,” Sauerbrunn said. “Everybody on this team wants to play, you wouldn’t be on this team otherwise. My goal absolutely is to be a regular starter for this team.”

It’s a doubly tough situation for someone like Sauerbrunn, who is not as well known as some of the stars, and would therefore love to have some kind of league to play in (she played in WPS for two years), and would likely be one of the top players in said top-flight league. But, of course, right now there is no said top-flight league.

“We don’t really know a whole lot of anything right now,” Sauerbrunn said. “I guess we’re just kind of hoping all the threads come together and we’ll see what happens. I guess that’s kind of the life of a sportsman. You never know when you’re going to have a job, or when you’re going to have to move on.”

To reiterate, Sauerbrunn is probably in the top dozen soccer players in the United States currently, and should be a fixture at least on the roster – if not in the lineup – going forward for the national team. She probably could go to Europe like some others have done, but it’s not like she’s going to get millions to do it. Kind of sad in a way, isn’t it, as a U.S. national team fan?

Such is the situation Tom Sermanni will take up when he finally steps in for Pia Sundhage at the end of this Tour in January.

Although Sermanni has a very good resume and is certainly qualified for the U.S. national team position, I am somewhat annoyed on two fronts, and they are related.

First, why is the head coach of the U.S. national team not a more desirable job?

Part of the answer to that question is the success the United States has had. Although they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, the U.S. has owned the Olympics, and is still the top historical squad in the world. Pia Sundhage resigned with a gaudy record 91-6-10, hardly a sign of dramatic decline, and a tough act to follow.

Yet the record masks the real struggles that Sundhage had. She came in with the edict that her team was going to play more attractive soccer, be technically better than the one that was wiped off the field by Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals.

And, less than a year later, the U.S. avenged that loss by winning a goal medal in China, although the first game of that tournament was an embarrassing loss to Norway, and it took two extra time games to finally prevail.

With a full three years to prepare, certainly her technical game would be ready to be shown off by Germany 2011, right? But they almost didn’t get there, of course. A loss to Mexico forced the U.S. into a two-legged qualifier with Italy that wasn’t at all pretty, although they survived.

Somewhere about that time, Sundhage – a very smart coach, and being able to be flexible is a big part of that – decided to switch back to the more direct style that seemed to suit Abby Wambach and the rest of the personnel she was dealt. Although Alex Morgan never replaced Amy Rodriguez until this year, and the defense has never really been as airtight as Sundhage would have liked, the U.S. willed its way to the World Cup final and won an Olympic gold medal against technically superior squads.

It was great, a triumph of willpower and mental conditioning, but Sundhage had to wonder how long that could last. Probably not three or four more years. And so, it was back to Sweden, where she can try the technical thing again back home.

You add in a generally aging squad, question marks over the next generation (of the 29 players in the current pool, only Kristie Mewis, Sydney Leroux, and Christine Nairn are 22 or younger – with none younger than 21 – and only Leroux has seen any kind of meaningful minutes with the full team), and an interesting group of locker room personalities (see: Solo, Hope), and coaching the U.S. women’s national team may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

And don’t even get me started on a new professional league. Or any professional league. Tom Sermanni, meet Dan Borislow. Dan, meet Coach Sermanni.

Sermanni obviously knew all this before he took the job. Still, he decided to leave the generally cushy Australian position he had held for a decade, where it looked like he was building (or had built) a program that could become something special, with young talent everywhere and a professional league that seems more stable than anything the U.S. has to offer.

He’s familiar with the U.S. system and surely has a long-term plan to make the most of it. Like me, he probably watched the U-20s a couple of months ago, who ironically, did what the full national team did at the Olympics. Against seemingly better technical competition (Germany), the U.S. found a way to win anyway, taking home the title. If Sermanni was watching the same things I was, he might have been impressed by outside back Crystal Dunn, goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin, Kealia Ohai, Maya Hayes, Morgan Brian, and others. He obviously knows about Lindsay Horan and Morgan Andrews.

But can he integrate them somehow into a system that can keep the ball a little more than in the past few years against teams like Japan, Germany, and France? How long will it take? And what forces on the inside will fight what he wants to do? How long does he stick with it if results start to go against him?

It’s definitely a challenge, one that a now rival coach saw coming two years ago.

The second front has less to do with Sermanni and more to do with the fact that by October of 2012, there isn’t an American woman ready to lead the most important women’s team, well, really in all of women’s athletics in the United States.

How is it possible that four decades after Title IX that there are so few women candidates for this job? Shouldn’t that be construed as a knock on the system? Why aren’t all the players that have enjoyed such success coming back to be coaches?

There were a few female candidates, but the top one – Jill Ellis – took her name out of contention early. Penn St. coach Erica Walsh also showed no interest in the job. I’m a big fan of Carin Jennings-Gabarra, but without real national team experience (and nearly two decades at Navy, which would be tough to leave), this would be a tough undertaking.

It’s been 13 years since the 1999 World Cup, and for whatever reason, very few have gone into the coaching field. The most notable name is obviously Brandi Chastain at Santa Clara. Carla Overbeck would seem like she might have been the name most likely to become the next great U.S. coach, but – with family commitments among other reasons – she has been content to be an assistant at Duke for the last two decades. We all see Julie Foudy and Kate Markgraf on television.

And so here we are. There’s no easy answer, obviously, and it’s not just women’s soccer at the national team level that has this dilemma. Even our local club has started an initiative to find more female graduates to come back to coach the girls teams.

It’s also oversimplifying the problem, though, just to say, ‘There aren’t enough qualified female coaches out there’, and leave it at that. There has to be a, ‘Why?’ that follows. And then maybe by the next time around, after Sermanni has won his second consecutive World Cup in Japan in seven years, there will be an American woman – most likely a former player – that is ready to step in and continue the momentum of the top women’s soccer program in the world.

Oh, and in 2019, Alex Morgan will have led Seattle to its fifth straight WUSA/WPS/WPSL title in front of 25,000 strong, by the way.

For now, the next three years will feature plenty of Soccer Capades, but not much real action on an international scale, which will be very frustrating, but will give Sermanni a chance to fix what needs to be fixed. As unfathomable as that sounds, though, it isn’t as much time as you think. Sermanni basically has only a couple of chances to get it right.

The future of U.S. women’s soccer depends on it.

No pressure, Tom.

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