U.S. Soccer

So Says Sermanni

Heading into the second NWSL season, and after an unusual Algarve Cup, U.S. head coach Tom Sermanni speaks on those topics, as well as his expanding player pool, performance vs. results, style of play and setting a formation and lineup.

After 15 months on the job, 23 international matches and at least five times as many trainings, U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Tom Sermanni has a firm grasp on the players that should feature in Women’s World Cup qualifying this fall. He’s also developed a vision of where he wants to take the squad.

Sermanni has compiled a record of 17-2-4, called up around 50 different players and given 12 players their first caps. Now comes one of the most interesting and productive laboratories for player evaluation: the NWSL season.

Suffice it to say, Sermanni and his staff will be watching closely.

“What I expect from the regulars (in the NWSL) is to see leadership from them on and off the field and to consistently see the quality performances we know they can produce,” said Sermanni. “I was really pleased last year, particularly with the way our senior players performed in the NWSL and I’m hoping for a repeat of that this year.”

He won’t be wasting any time. Sermanni will travel from the April 10 game against China PR in San Diego to watch matches on the first weekend of the season, and from then on, he and his staff will traverse the NWSL cities to keep tabs on the regulars and see how young players are progressing.

“I would also be delighted to see some new players shine through to continue putting pressure on the established players in the squad,” he said. “Overall, I really want the players to stand up and be counted and to really take the league by the scruff of the neck.”

Heading into two matches against China on April 6 in Commerce City, Colo. and April 10 in America’s Finest City, the U.S. team will be looking to find its goal scoring legs that somehow were absent in their first two Algarve Cup games. Japan and Sweden combined for just seven shots on goal over the two games, but the USA could only find the net once in 180 minutes while drawing Japan 1-1 and falling to Sweden 1-0. The USA rebounded with three-goal performances against Denmark and Korea DPR, but unfortunately Denmark put on a finishing clinic and scored five times.

“The Algarve Cup was probably the strangest tournament I’ve been involved with as a soccer coach throughout my career,” said Sermanni. “It’s my job to get results, so obviously I’m disappointed not to get results…but overall when I look critically at our performance at the Algarve Cup, I thought we played very well. I actually thought we played better than we did last year when we won the Algarve Cup and I believe we played significantly better than our game early in the year against Canada and games at the end of last year against Brazil, New Zealand and Australia when we scored four goals in each game.”

Sermanni knows that two losses after a 43-game unbeaten streak will raise some eyebrows, but it’s nothing he’s too worried about, especially as teams around the world continue to improve and get more sophisticated and patient in how they design tactics to face the Americans.

As long as the team is making progress, and Sermanni feels it is, he will also be patient.

“Quite often, results can mask performances and performances can mask results,” said Sermanni. “So, I was particularly pleased with how we played against Japan and Sweden. We dominated both of those games, created lots of chances and we played the type of soccer that we’ve been working hard at trying to play. But, on those days, uncharacteristically we didn’t score goals and that set the tone for the tournament.” 

And against Denmark? Full credit goes to the Danes, but also kudos to the USA for coming out down three goals at halftime and making a game of it, almost pulling even before giving up a late counter-attack goal.

“The Denmark game is one of those one-off games that comes along every once in a while in our sport where the opposition scores every time they get a look at goal and Denmark did that,” said Sermanni. “Their goal scoring was clinical. I think they had six chances at goal; they scored five. We got the game back to 4-3 and hit the inside of the post and they made a couple of great saves. But all the games realistically hinge on key moments and they made theirs count. So in regards to performance I wasn’t that disappointed, but obviously disappointed in the results. Going forward, I think we’re on the right track and feel very confident with the way the team is playing.”

Speaking of the style of play, the U.S. Women have always been known for its attacking talents, power and speed, but with the development of the top women’s soccer nations, the need to create opportunities through possession as well as with physical prowess has become increasingly important.

“To simplify, we want to play positive, attacking, possession soccer,” said Sermanni. “We’re trying to pressurize teams higher up the field and we’re looking for better combination play. We’re looking at dominating possession, but while also creating a threat at goal, not just keeping the ball for keeping the ball’s sake. That all fits in well with the U.S. mentality of how we want to play. We have the players that can do that both technically and physically.”

Sermanni was somewhat surprised, but pleased with the comments from Japan head coach Norio Sasaki when both appeared at a coaching seminar during the Algarve Cup following the USA’s matches against Japan and Sweden. 

“Coach Sasaki talked about our game against them and how we dictated possession and dominated the game technically,” said Sermanni. “That’s an indication of how we’ve taken a step forward in the way that we want to play now.” 

But attacking is just one side of the equation and Sermanni is looking for more consistency in the defensive performance. He’s used numerous combinations for the back four, often due to injury and unavailability of players.

“Obviously the back four is where you want to be the most stable,” said Sermanni. “Due to the circumstances, we’ve had to look at changing personnel in those positions. But, we are getting closer to getting settled in those areas.”

Sermanni points to the fact that there has been some stability and continuity within the back line, highlighted by the fact that the same four center-backs (Whitney Engen, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Van Hollebeke) have between them appeared in all the U.S. matches over the past eighteen months. However, there are new challenges to be faced in regards to defending against teams whose tactics are based purely on defending and trying to exploit the U.S. on counter attacks.

“The reality we face now, and I think this showed up in the Algarve Cup particularly against European style teams, is that they aren’t coming out and playing against us, they’re really sitting back and, as we say, parking the bus, while hoping for counter-attacks,” said Sermanni. “That’s a test, particularly for our back four.  We’re unlikely to be a team that’s under pressure for large periods of the game. If you are a team like that, defending actually becomes easier because you usually have lots of bodies behind the ball. What we need to constantly work at is defending in transition, defending when we’re out-numbered and defending breakaways. That’s a little more complex and the decision making a little bit harder.”

That said, a job for any coach is to put eleven players on the field that work best together. Sermanni ascribes to the philosophy that one needs to design a team around the talent and positive characteristics of the players, not force the players into a set system. For right now, that system is a 4-4-2, partly based on the talented flank midfielders and central strikers currently in the pool. 

“We’ve played an orthodox 4-4-2 and a diamond shape 4-4-2 and on one occasion we played 4-3-3 against New Zealand,” said Sermanni.  “One of the parts of my job is to make our team comfortable if and when we have to change formations or if we have to look at being a bit more radical during the game and I believe that we have the playing personnel capable of doing that.”

Sermanni will likely get up to eight more international matches before Women’s World Cup qualifying kicks off in October in Mexico, but for now, he’s looking forward to sitting back and watching as many NWSL games as possible. 

“I’m excited for the NWSL season and to have the opportunity to travel around and see as many games as I can,” said Sermanni. “It’s great that by the middle of the season, we will have our whole complement of National Team players back in our league, which further strengthens the competition and that’s really important. The other significant thing is that the players are excited to go back into the league. It’s no secret there have been a few false starts with national leagues and there was a bit of skepticism when the league started, but to see the enthusiasm of the players wanting to be there with the clubs is a huge plus for the league and a huge plus for the National Team.”

Let the games begin.

More thoughts from Sermanni:

What is the state of the player pool heading into the NWSL season?
TS: “At the moment the player pool is as strong as it’s been since I came on board. We’ve got players coming back from injury who are almost fully fit again and I think the player pool has expanded over the last year. The competition for places has certainly become more intense. Going into this NWSL season the pool is looking really strong and the competition for places is really tough.” 

How do you see the importance of quality performances from the National Team players in the NWSL?
TS: “There are a few reasons why we like them to perform well. One is obviously to keep their place in the National Team. The other is to keep their confidence high because when a player is performing well, that’s great for them. Playing week-in, week-out is fantastic for players and the more they can do that the better they play, the more confident they become and then their performance lifts. I think those two factors become very important in player performance.”

How do you see the value of giving multiple players quality minutes?
TS: “A great example of that is Sydney Leroux. Prior to me coming into the job, she would basically come off the bench for 10 or 15 minutes – probably more often than not when the game was already over and done with. So there was no real pressure on Syd to perform and you didn’t know how she was going to perform in the bigger arena. She’s had quite a few starts over the last year and you see how she’s grown from that. So, it’s really important for me to give players starts in games that matter to see how they’re going to perform, so that when we go into a World Cup I can be confident in putting them in the starting XI.”

Do you prefer a 4-4-2 formation?
TS: “When I look at our team, with the strike force that we have, I think we’re more suited to playing a 4-4-2 because our key strikers are mainly central strikers. If you play 4-3-3 you need two strikers who are comfortable playing in wider roles. If you look at Christian Press, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Abby Wambach, for me, they are predominantly central strikers. It takes away a lot of our strength if we only play one of them centrally. We’ve got wide midfield players in Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Kristie Mewis and really good central midfielders as well. So, the kind of players that we have at this stage for me suits a 4-4-2 formation more than a 4-3-3.”

Take us through what you see for the rest of the year leading up to World Cup qualifying?
TS: “We have the World Cup qualifiers in October, so we’ve planned the National Team Program back from that and the NWSL is an important element of that plan. We won’t be getting together as much as we would if we didn’t have a national league. However the fact we have players playing week-in, week-out in a tough competition makes the NWSL an integral part of our preparation. for World Cup qualification.

Combined with the NWSL we’ll have international games in April, May and June, probably August, perhaps September which together gives us thorough preparation for October. In reality the most critical part is our preparation after the qualifiers (assuming success) through to the World Cup itself. That’s the time when we need to nail all the specifics and ensure we’ve covered all our bases and are ready to go in June next year."