Coach’s Corner: A Chat with USWNT Head Coach Tom Sermanni

Thursday night, Glenn had the opportunity to interview the new head coach of the U.S. Women’s National team Tom Sermanni who is in Houston this weekend for some Q&A sessions and a soccer clinic with the Houston Aces.

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GD: Let me take you back to when you first find out that you got the job of being the U.S. Women’s National Team coach. I know it was a competitive thing to get that job. What’s the first thing that crosses your mind?
TS: Probably a little bit of the sense of being surreal. I had been in the Australian job for so long and was very much attached to that and then certainly to get the offer to come here it felt very surreal at the time. And obviously it was very competitive with a lot of very good coaches and managers in the mix so it was also a little sense of disbelief that I managed to get over the line.

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GD: You know, I liken you to Pep Guardiola because Pep Guardiola has taken over the Bayern Munich side after they’ve just won the Treble including the Champions League. You take over the Women’s National Team after winning a gold medal. When you sat back and assessed that, how do you look at that team and say “ok, how do I come in and put my stamp on this without maybe disrupting this machine that just continues to forge forward”?
TS: Well that’s exactly what you try to do,I think, and I’ve said this to the players and I think I’ve said it publicly. It’s not often you come into a job where you come into a team that has been very successful, very well coached, very well managed, you tend to come into an opposite situation where you have to make changes. So coming into this position, I think the first key thing for me was to make sure I didn’t try to come in and make all these changes. So basically it’s just business as normal and then as you grow into the job, you start to put your own personality, your own plan, you own coaching philosophy, and your own managerial philosophy into the mix. But the last thing I wanted to do when I came into this job was to make any significant changes.

GD: Tom, was there a time period when you have to earn the respect of these players or was that instant?
TS: I don’t think it’s ever instant. You know, sometimes you come into a job as a relative unknown and that’s a bit tougher but probably the slight benefit I had coming into this job was that I knew quite a few of the players. I had been in international women’s football for a considerable period of time so I was already a little of a known quantity. In some ways that makes it good and in some ways perhaps not so good, but that helps you when you come in initially. And then its about how you do the job. You know, players judge you very, very quickly and when you’re in the job and you really get your feet on the ground, that’s when you really have got to earn their respect and earn their trust.

GD: When you watch the Olympic Games and when you see them win the gold medal, I know you’re looking at it in a variety of different ways and directions and then you relate the U.S.’s performance based on the growth of the women’s game and the rest of the world, are there areas you see that we certainly, I guess, the technical side of it is one thing we’ve certainly been impressed with a number of other national teams over the last couple of years.
TS: Yeah and I think that’s probably it. I think the U.S. are in a sense unfairly [just pigeon holed] as a team that has a great winning mentality, great physical strength, great power, etc. What I’ve seen since I came into the job, and before I came into the job, is that there are some very good soccer players on this team. So I think that one of the things I would like to do, like to enforce, is that the team gets appreciated for how it plays soccer as well as for being a winning team.So I think going forward, obviously teams need to continue to grow, teams need to continue to refine how you play because the game is getting much closer, there is much greater competition in women’s soccer now. Countries are putting a lot of finances into their national teams now and into development so we need to keep pace with that. So I think that, as well as those great strengths we’ve got, we’ve got to keep adding away and chipping away at how we actually play the game.

GD: Do you actually believe we can ever change the ideology and the mentality at the grassroots level where people equate success in youth soccer with young soccer players strictly with winning? Can we change that mentality or can we chip away at it?
TS: I think we chip away at it. I think the problem you have in the U.S. is the opposite of any country with women’s soccer, is that there are so many girls playing, the game is so big, to be able to control all of it is impossible. But I think that if you go around clubs and see the developmental structure that U.S. soccer is trying to put in place, you know I think there are making inroads into that bond development between the winning mentality, which you’re is still trying to keep, but the importance of development in relation to that winning mentality at all costs Now they’ve got a technical director in Mike Hamrick and an assistant technical director in Jill Ellis, a full-time coaches for under-14, 17, and 20 levels so there are resources put in and great emphasis on the technical development of our national team. And once clubs start to see the type of player that is being selected for the national team then I think that will start changing peoples focus and their development and how they coach their players.

GD: I’ve gotta ask you this question: it’s incredible the amount of great coaches that come out of Scotland.
TS: Yeah, its good and people keep asking me that question and I don’t [know]. Perhaps its the upbringing. You know people in Scotland, I think that most of us who have come into the coaching community have come from a working class background, very similar backgrounds, and are generally well grounded. So I don’t know if thats the main thing, but I think there’s a common denominator there.

GD: I think this is a great connection here: the Houston Aces women’s professional soccer team bringing in the U.S. women’s national team coach. The fact that you’re coming here too I think says a lot about you and a lot about you on the grassroots level and your overall interest in the game in this country. All in all, I just see this as a great winner. Can you expand on that?
TS: Yeah, well I mean, I just see it as, well I say it’s part of my job but it’s not part of my job. To do this kind of thing, I see it as something that is important, as the national team coach in some ways, you’re often the focal point and I think it is important to be available to answer questions and to give some insight into what happens at the national team level. To be able to express my opinions on what I think should happen in women’s soccer so for me it’s certainly something I enjoy doing and I think it’s something important. We are all in the same game. The coaches that are out there at the Houston Aces and other clubs and the parents who are getting their kids along and the girls who are out there playing, ambitious to become a national team player, we are all part of the same system and if I can help contribute to that it is something I would like to do.

GD: A little remark on being around Abby Wambach now and her breaking Mia Hamm’s goal scoring record.
TS: It’s fantastic. I mean it’s one great player breaking another great player’s record and it’s very fitting because Mia very much was a mentor to Abby in her early professional career in the old WUSA. I think the fantastic thing about [that] night was the way that she did it. There was always the concern in the back of your mind that she would break the record with a deflected goal or a last minute penalty in front of a few hundred people but to do it in front of 19,000 people, an incredible crowd on a Thursday night at Red Bull Arena, to do it in the style that she did it, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.

GD: Alex Morgan is, in some ways is she redefining the U.S. national team, and I say that will all respect.
TS: In some ways she is. She’s redefining the women’s game to be honest. Not just in America but worldwide. She’s just burst on the scene and become the face of the women’s game over a very short period of time. She’s become a very important player for her national team on the field and a very important person and player in women’s soccer. Off the field as well, she’s a great role model for young female players who want to emulate someone like her and she’s also helped to bring the focus and the popularity back to the women’s national team. She’s an incredible player and an incredible athlete and considering how quickly she’s come from being sort of a no-name to the most famous name in women’s soccer, she handles it extremely well and extremely professionally.

GD: Alright so if we look for 2 or 3 little Tom Sermanni touches on the U.S. women’s national team currently or that you are trying to implement what would they be?
TS: I think, looking at one of the strengths of the U.S. team is that we feel we want to put more pressure on opposing teams and actually play the game more in the opposition’s half and from the defensive perspective we are looking a playing a much higher line than we’ve been playing and really force the other team into mistakes. The second thing is that we want to be confident, and confident to play the ball from the back through the midfield into our forward line rather than just looking to go from back to front. The third thing would be that we’re looking at, particularly from midfield forward, having players play a little bit more closer together so that there’s more chance of combination play and support play so that’s kind of the three things that we’re focusing on at the moment.

GD: Excellent. Now if I gave you a magic wand that you could wave over the youth soccer community and you could change 3 things right now, what would they be?
TS: First thing would be that every training session that you go to you focus on playing soccer. That would be the first and the most important thing. The second thing would be that part of every training session the would be some technical elements, some skill practice, particularly with younger players from the ages of 11 to 14-15 I think is really important. The third factor is having some game related practice as part of every practice as well. It’s all got to be about soccer, there’s got to be a skill element in there, there’s also got to be game elements.

GD: Does the American female player create their own training environment enough? Are they supplementing their training sessions with just free-play on their own?
TS: I think that’s a great question because I think in the western world that is a problem all over. When you see, when you go back to, I’m giving my age away, but back when I was a young player, for example, you went out and played in the street between the lampposts and all that, played around the cars if there was a car there so you made up your games, made up your rules. The reality is that these days in western societies its very difficult to do that, you know, for safety factors and all sorts of other reasons. So most of the practices in pretty much all sports are all organized and controlled practices so I think it’s important at a young age that there’s three [things]. That when you actually go to training, you actually don’t do too much coaching, particularly young age groups. That you actually give them time to play, give them time to develop, give them time to think for themselves. And that is a problem, you know that in poorer countries that still happens, in Brazil, in the African countries, you know, kids are out kicking a ball made out of paper, or they’re out playing in the streets, playing in between cobblestones, etc. etc. But that doesn’t happen in western society.

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