Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Two Not So Fitting Farewells - Part One

You could take two recent decisions involving the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as good signs. As indications that we are big time now, that we make heartless decisions based on what we think is best for our programs, nothing more and nothing less.

Or you could see it as the passing of an era, from a time when our national soccer teams, perhaps to a fault, recognized past service or gave longer leash to a coach because it was the right thing, even if it wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the team (Briana Scurry starting in the 2007 World Cup semifinals instead of Hope Solo comes to mind, but perhaps then-coach Greg Ryan would disagree, since the fallout from that determination cost him his job).

The first decision involved the "shocking" dismissal last month of Women's head coach Tom Sermanni. Unlike Pia Sundhage's last game, there was no celebration after Sermanni's last match as coach, in which the U.S. beat China 3-0. In fact, other than Sunil Gulati and perhaps handful of others, no one knew that it was Sermanni's last match.

That victory came on the heels of a disappointing performance by the squad in the Algrave Cup, an annual women's tournament held in Portugal. The U.S. drew with eventual runners-up Japan in their first group match before losing to Sweden 1-0 and to Denmark by a shocking 5-3 score. Sweden is now coached by Sundhage, adding insult to the injury of a seventh place finish.

Sermanni coaching during the match vs. Japan at the Algrave
Cup. The team's performance at the tournament was at least a
part of his undoing. (photo from soccerblog.dallasnews.com)

While the team's performance in Portugal was admittedly underwhelming, it did not seem to be sufficient justification for a change. The termination came as a shock to Sermanni who is universally beloved by his players and seemingly deserved better, or, at the least, some notice that a change was being considered.

In the aftermath of the firing, pundits offered varying theories on the reasons for and the timing of Sermanni's departure. With CONCACAF Wold Cup qualifying set to take place in October for the 2015 Women's World Cup to be held in Canada, time is short for another coach to impose his or her vision on the team.

Gulati denied that a player revolt provoked Sermanni's dismissal, but it's hard to believe that the veterans of the squad were happy with Sermanni's habit of thrusting players new to the national team into starting spots (and, in particular, leaving Abby Wambach on the bench for the entire match against Japan and for all but five minutes against Denmark). Gulati did admit in his press conference that he gained information from "people in and around the team" that played a role in the decision, along with an assessment of "where the team's going and heading," and the performance in Portugal.

It's inconceivable that the decision was made with anything other than the best of intentions - clearly, Gulati and others in the U.S. Soccer brain trust thought the team was headed in the wrong direction (or, more likely, in no particular direction). With a qualification tournament upcoming that was nearly the team's undoing four years ago (remember the loss to Mexico? the play-off matches against Italy?) surely part of what played into Sermanni's firing was that if a change had to be made, it had to be made soon.

So, Sermanni wasn't the answer. Fair enough. But who is? The anticipation was that a new coach would be named by early May, but it's nearly the middle of the month and still no new coach. The list of candidates, frankly, isn't that inspiring (although Sundhage's former assistant, Tony Gustavsson, is an intriguing option). And time is growing short.

One thing is certain: if we are in a new, cold world of soccer with our women's national team, the choice this time had better be the right one. Or heads other than just the next coach's ought to roll.

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