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.