The fallout after Sermanni's dismissal
If Twitter had an audio component, I am certain we would have heard collective gasps as the tweets on Tom Sermanni's dismissal came flying in Sunday night.
It was stunning news to so many, including the U.S. women's national team coach. "I did not see it coming," Sermanni told me over the phone Sunday night, adding in his typical self-effacing fashion: "Maybe I should have been more perceptive ... or maybe they were just tired of my clichés."
With the news, three questions immediately came to mind:
Where did the move come from?
And why now?
We don't have all the answers yet, but let's start with the first question. This decision could not have been made in a vacuum. Although the Twitter-verse would love for this to be labeled as a player revolt, I do not think that is fair or accurate. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati consulted with some players (as he should), and those players likely had opinions (both good and bad -- you can blame my era of teammates for that gene).
The decision had to be multipronged -- the U.S. Soccer staff, and people in and around the team, weighed in. And for all those talking about the two Algarve Cup losses on social media, I don't think the firing was results-driven. Those were the only two losses of Sermanni's tenure, and the team played fairly well by all accounts, even if the score line did not reflect as much. If that were the case, many more coaches would have been fired after our Golf & Wine Cup ... er ... I mean Algarve Cup.
Now to the why.
This dismissal was style-driven. Sermanni's style was too casual -- or, in layman's terms, the opposite of Pia Sundhage.
Sundhage, Sermanni's predecessor, led the team to two Olympic gold medals during her four-year tenure, and did it while singing and dancing from the sidelines, guitar in hand. Those were hard shoes to fill by any standards. (Add in the musical component, and forget about it.)
What worked for Sermanni in Australia as its head coach didn't work here in the U.S. And it's not a question of not liking him as a person; the adoration for him as a human being is pretty much universal with those who know him. This was more about the way in which he led. Coaching the U.S. women's team requires a benevolent dictator, and Sermanni was more of a laissez-faire leader. Right or wrong, it just didn't seem to fit.
So, why now? This is really the question that haunts me. It is not as if Sermanni's style changed in the 17 months since joining the U.S. team; if U.S. Soccer had an issue with his style, which it clearly did, why not address it properly months ago? Why not have repeated conversations about their concerns regarding his approach? Sources close to the situation told tell me U.S. Soccer did have these conversations, but not repeatedly.
Sermanni eluded as much when I spoke to him. "I did have some formal and informal meetings with players and the federation, but nothing to this extent," he said. "This came out of the blue."
Sermanni's low-key style has been a topic of discussion from the early days of his time with the U.S. team. Back then, his contrast to Sundhage, and even April Heinrichs, was seen as a potential positive. So how is your coach "stunned" by a decision as bold as this? That just should not happen. There will be those who say sport is a brutal business. My reply? As a matter of good business (and leadership), that should not happen to any coach in any sport. This should have been addressed early and often. After repeated conversations, if it's still not working, then you make a change. I hope the coming days provide more clarity on this, because it just doesn't seem fitting treatment for a man with such class.
So the obvious next question will be: Who's next? Gulati is not the type to make this decision without a backup plan, so here is my best guess at his short list, in this order:
• Tony Gustavsson, current coach for Swedish club Tyreso: Gustavsson is the former USWNT assistant coach under Sundhage. The U.S. players have always liked him and were vocal to U.S. Soccer about hiring him for the head-coaching position after Sundhage stepped away in 2012. U.S. Soccer was concerned he didn't have the résumé yet. But Gustavsson's team is in the semifinal leg of the UEFA Champions League, and many think Tyreso can win it all. Résumé issue solved. Tyreso is also reportedly in financial trouble and headed for bankruptcy. If I were a betting woman, I would put my money here.
• Randy Waldrum, current coach for NWSL expansion team Houston Dash: Waldrum recently jumped to the NWSL after 15 seasons and two national titles with Notre Dame. It is no secret Waldrum's dream job is the U.S. women's national team. He was on the short list for the position when they gave it to Sermanni. The question now is: Would he leave Houston, after literally just being hired, to take the U.S. job if asked? I think he would.
• Jillian Ellis, interim head coach for the USWNT: Ellis had the same interim position when Sundhage stepped down in 2012. At that time, Ellis told me she was not interested in the position full-time. She is the former head coach at UCLA and current director of development for U.S. Soccer. Have her interests changed over the past few years? Perhaps, and the players like Ellis, as well.
• Someone who will probably not fall into Sunil's top three (but I hope will be strongly considered) is our 1996 Olympic gold medal-winning and 1999 World Cup-winning coach, Tony DiCicco. Enough said.
In the meantime, the U.S. women have a World Cup to get ready for ... it's just a little over a year away. A new coach will need to be hired quickly. Meanwhile, I know Sermanni will land on his feet somewhere. He is too good a coach and person not to get snapped up quickly. Maybe even back Down Under. Good on ya.