By CAITLIN MURRAY
In the hours after Tom Sermanni had been fired Sunday from his job as U.S. Women’s National Team coach, the soccer world was stunned. Fans, media and Sermanni himself were all caught by surprise.
And then the speculation began that a player mutiny must’ve been behind the decision. But U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati rejected suggestions of a revolt Monday – even as he declined to specify if any players had approached the federation with concerns or how large of a role player input had in the decision.
“I don’t want to get into specifics of who reached out to whom and so on, but we’ve had discussions with players, with staff, with people around the team, and observed ourselves,” Gulati said in a conference call with reporters. “This isn’t a group of players coming to seek us out and saying there’s something wrong.”
Gulati added that players were consulted in making the decision, but there is always an ongoing conversation between the federation and its senior national team players, although those talks are “sometimes at a higher decibel than other times.”
“This wasn’t a collective group of players coming to us and saying we have to make a change,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
The other bit of popular speculation, however, turns out to be true – the USWNT’s poor performance at last month’s Algarve Cup played a role in Sermanni’s ouster.
The USWNT opened the tournament with a 1-1 draw to Japan and then it went downhill from there.
The USWNT snapped a 43-game unbeaten streak in a 1-0 loss against Sweden, coached by Pia Sundhage, who Sermanni replaced when she left the U.S. for her homeland. Then, the USWNT allowed a record five goals in a 5-3 loss to Denmark – marking the first time since 2001 the USWNT had lost two games in a row.
The process of evaluating Sermanni’s performance and spotting concerns happened before the Algarve Cup, Gulati said, but the tournament seemed to be a tipping point.
“The Algarve Cup obviously, in terms of the actual results, didn’t go the way we wanted,” Gulati said. “It’s been a long time since the U.S. team lost two games in a row or went three without winning. So, that may have brought some of the issues that were of concern to the forefront.”
The timing of Sermanni’s dismissal was somewhat peculiar. The Algarve Cup had ended almost a month before Sermanni was fired. Instead, Sermanni was fired immediately after a 2-0 victory as part of a two-game domestic set against China.
But Gulati said the decision was part of an ongoing process and the result of Sunday’s China match didn’t affect the decision.
“There was no specific event. Both Dan (Flynn) and I think very highly of Tom on a personal level and professional level, so there’s nothing like that whatsoever,” Gulati said of suggestions something had happened forcing a quick removal. “While these decisions always end up coming down and being announced in a specific moment, this has been a process for us in assessing things, watching the team perform and talking to people over time.”
Sermanni had started as head coach in January 2013 with a contract through 2016 and posted an overall record of 18-2-4.
Speaking to SBI after the dismissal, Sermanni said he was caught off guard. Asked if he had been made aware U.S. Soccer had concerns, he said he never thought he didn’t have the federation’s support.
“It came as a surprise to me. I’ll be honest,” Sermanni told SBI by phone Sunday night. “I didn’t perceive that there were issues – I didn’t feel that within the playing group. But maybe my perception let me down and things happened that I wasn’t aware of.”
But Gulati hinted Sermanni should’ve sensed what was coming, even if problems hadn’t been specifically flagged to Sermanni in the lead-up to the dismissal.
“Conversations specifically about X, Y or Z, or ‘We need to change A, B or C’ – did that happen? The answer is no, not in the last few weeks,” Gulati said. “We did have one conversation between Algarve and now. So, I certainly understand Tom’s comments on that.”
“I think he also made some comments that he should’ve seen those issues.”
Gulati declined to describe conversations that had taken place prior to the firing that might’ve outlined specific concerns with Sermanni’s vision.
“I’m not going to get into any previous discussions we may have had with him along the way,” Gulati said. “I think except in situations where a change like this is immediate and event-based – a loss or some other issue based on an event or an episode – there’s always an element of surprise. And that was the case here.”
With the 2015 World Cup looming next summer and qualifiers this October, Gulati said the process to find Sermanni’s replacement has already begun with “a very short list” of candidates being considered.
Director of Development Jill Ellis, who had served as head coach in the interim before Sermanni started, will again fill in when the USWNT plays their second match in the China set on Thursday. Ellis had removed herself from consideration for the permanent job last time around, but Gulati said he had not spoken with her about the position again.