Eyebrows were raised in surprise when Tom Sermanni was named coach of the world famous USA women’s national team earlier this year. The Scotland-born tactician is known for turning Australia from easy-beats to overachievers in his long tenure in charge of the Matildas, but the USA, twice winners of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and Olympic Gold medallists on four occasions, are no middling team. They are expected to win everything, all the time.
“I’ll admit I was nervous, thinking about the job,” admitted the 58-year-old Sermanni, his accent part-Scot, part-Aussie, but all-energy and bonhomie. “I was leaving a job in Australia that was very comfortable, to do something totally different,” he added in an interview with FIFA.com. “But I began to realise that players are players, no matter what the team, the same characters and the same personalities.”
Sermanni took over the post from Pia Sundhage, the former Swedish playing legend and first foreign boss of the US Women’s national team, who currently and often occupy first in the world ranking. They are big boots to fill as the Swede guided the Americans to the Final of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2011 and left with an Olympic Gold medal in her pocket from last year’s London Games.
Pressure, what pressure?
You’d think the pressure would weigh heavy on the new man, but Sermanni has a warm and well-honed everyman philosophy that hides a keen tactical sense and vision. “Everyone always asks me about the pressure, but I don’t give it a thought really,” scoffed Sermanni, a former professional midfielder in England and Scotland. “There’s a lot more pressure when you’re coaching a team against the USA and trying to do something about the likes of Abby Wambach flying at you and Carli Lloyd pushing up through midfield. Now, that’s what I call pressure.”
With some of the top players in the world amongst his new charges, he speaks highly of them. “There are a few things that really stand out here in States,” Sermanni said, referring the level of support his team receive, financial and otherwise, that is sorely lacking almost anywhere else in the world. “There is an intensity to how the team plays, a maturity. A depth in numbers and ability and an overall quality that is just so impressive. The US are at the top."
“This is a team that will always be judged by whether they win or lose,” added Sermanni, whose greatest achievement coaching Australia came when he guided them to two consecutive quarter-finals at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2007 and 2011. His first order of business with USA was a trip to the Algarve Cup in southern Portugal, the prestigious annual tournament that the Americans have won nine times – five more than anyone else. In the job only six months, the pressure was on, but Sermanni came through with flying colours, Alex Morgan scoring twice in the final to beat Germany, the tireless Megan Rapinoe voted the tournament’s top player.
“We need to keep that winning mentality alive; that’s what this team is about,” he said. “It was also a good tournament for us because we made significant changes from game to game and the players never missed a beat.”
Sermanni experimented with new players and used established ones out of position in the Algarve, and it is clear the new coach means to usher in change. “You don’t make changes to a winning team just for the hell of it,” said Sermanni, who has previous experience coaching in the States at club level with the now-defunct WUSA. “But change is always important. I like to fiddle around a little more than Pia [Sundhage] did, and some of the players might find that a little challenging.”
Some of the areas where he believes his Americans, whose last FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph came way back in 1999, still need to improve are their abilities to control a game. “We still have to be able to change the tempo of how we play,” he said, his voice suddenly serious, criticising his team as readily as he compliments them. “A lot of teams are afraid of us, so they set up a defensive wall to keep us from scoring. We need to work on breaking that down. We are vulnerable to counter-attacks, so we need to focus on defending well even when our defenders only have one thing to do all day.”
The watchword for Sermanni is improvement. “Once you think you’ve done all you can do as a coach, you’re through. You need to move in a specific direction,” he said. And that direction clearly aims toward the next Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015.
“The process of qualifying for the World Cup is less stressful this time around with 3.5 spots available,” he said, knowing the US have never failed to qualify for the tournament, and have won it twice. “But we still have to make sure we get the preparations right."