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U.S. WNT Head Coach Tom Sermanni on the Course of His Coaching Career

Tom Sermanni came to U.S. Soccer with an extensive background in both the men’s and women’s game, having coached all over the world after the end of his professional career. Sermanni recorded over 50 goals in more than 300 professional matches before embarking on a career path that has seen him coach in two Women’s World Cup tournaments and now take the helm of the world’s top-ranked women’s national team.

After retiring from playing, Sermanni began his coaching career in Australia on the boy’s side. He eventually switched to coaching women when he was offered the opportunity to essentially start an Australian women’s program from scratch. He quickly achieved success with the Matildas and was named the 2007 Asian Football Confederation Coach of the Year. Sermanni also spent time coaching in Japan and Malaysia, but even before he became head coach of the U.S. Women, he was no stranger to American soccer. He coached all three seasons of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) from 1999-2001 before returning to Australia when the league folded.

Sermanni took over as head coach of the WNT in January of this year, replacing Pia Sundhage. The early part of his tenure has been business as usual for the U.S. team as Sermanni led the squad to the championship at the 2013 Algarve Cup in Portugal, defeating Germany 2-0 in the title game. A soft spoken and humble man, Sermanni recently spoke with about the “meandering river” of his coaching career which has brought him to his latest port-of-call with U.S. Soccer. You’ve had a successful career as a player and a coach, when did your passion for the game of soccer begin?

Tom Sermanni: “It started at a very early age in Scotland. When you’re brought up in the sort of environment that I was brought up in, you basically play soccer in the streets, you play soccer at school, and you play soccer in the clubs. So from the ages of 7, 8, 9, 10, you start playing soccer and as everybody does, you dream of being a professional soccer player.” You did play professionally for many years in Scotland, England, and Australia and compiled an impressive record of over 50 goals in 300 professional matches. Can you describe what it was like playing soccer professionally in the 70s and 80s around the world?

TS: “As a professional footballer, when I think back on it, when you were full time you actually wasted a lot of time. Once you had finished training for the day you really had nothing else to do. I was fortunate in the sense that before I went in to playing full time I actually finished a teaching degree. So I at least had an education background to fall back on. But a lot of guys that I played with in the UK at that time came from a working class background so they didn’t have a great education. Then you finish playing soccer at 30, 32, 34, or whenever, and you haven’t thought ahead. One thing that stands out to me is that given my time again, I probably would have done a little bit more outside of just playing.” Describe the transition from playing to coaching. Was that a difficult move for you or a natural progression?

TS: “I suppose it was just a natural thing. When I finished my playing career I was in Australia. I went there when I was about 29, only intending to be there for a couple of years, and then ended up staying nearly 30 years. Going from the UK to Australia as a senior player, I started to take on a bit more responsibility in the team environment out there. I became the team captain then a player-coach and then retired and went straight in to coaching. It just seemed like a natural progression and it was a good way to stay in the game.

“My career has just moved along from there with no particular path; it’s probably meandered like a slow moving river. I’ve kind of gone in different directions and have been very fortunate to have had a lot of different opportunities. I sort of fell in to coaching but then once I started I’ve never really had a plan. Things have just happened.”  You first started coaching on the men’s side in the 1980s. What led you to eventually switch to coaching women?

TS: “It was interesting. I never had a plan when I took up coaching. If jobs cropped up that interested me, I took them. At the end of 1993, I was coaching in the men’s program at the Australian Institute of Sport, which is essentially an Australian youth team. At that time, women’s soccer was going to become an Olympic sport. As soon as it became an Olympic sport, it became eligible for government funding in Australia. Up until that time, women’s soccer was a fairly low key sport. There was not a lot of money in it. Virtually overnight the sport became eligible for quite significant funding.

“I was approached by the Australian Institute of Sport to see if I was interested in starting a women’s program. I basically had to start a program essentially from scratch. It included an international program, it included setting up institutes in various cities around the country and setting up a domestic camps program. What really appealed to me about the job was actually setting up a program and starting something from scratch and putting my footprint on it. It was very hectic. It was very different from anything that I’d done before. But it was really a rewarding job on a lot of fronts. The programs that we set up there are still running in Australia. They’ve been tweaked along the way but the essential foundation and fundamentals of those programs have still kept on. That’s what first took me in to women’s soccer.”  You coached the Australian Women’s National Team in two different stints and had a great deal of success with that team. You brought them to their first World Cup in Sweden in 1995 and helped bring them into the top 10 in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings. What was your proudest accomplishment from your time with that team?

TS: “If you look at specific results, winning the Asian Cup in 2010 was probably the best achievement. But I look at it slightly differently. Not long after I went back to the job, the Australian Federation moved in to Asia. Qualifications for World Cups became exceedingly more difficult because we were competing against China, Japan, and the Koreas. At that time, 2004, 2005, those countries were ranked above us and had better programs. We had to change fundamentally how we thought about playing the game and how we thought about our development. We had to go from a team that was competitive and went out not to lose games to a team that went out to win games. A fundamental turning point in that was the 2007 World Cup when we won our first game and got through the first round for the first time. That laid the cornerstone now for Australian teams who now go out to actually win the game. So if I look back on what I felt I brought most to the program, I think it was changing that dynamic within the team and within the program.”  You coached all three seasons of the Women’s United Soccer Association, serving as an assistant for the San Jose CyberRays and then the head coach of the New York Power. What did you learn from your time coaching in this league?

TS: “That league was something that started new and fresh and I got the opportunity to come in and it was terrific. I thought the league itself was a fantastic competition. The concept was great. I think if it had gotten to year four, which it almost did, I think it would have stabilized and would be continued today. It was the beginning of the professional environment for women’s soccer and probably the catalyst for the leagues that are now throughout the world and the number of females that are playing professionally.

“From a coaching perspective I learned that you have the same dynamics probably in every team you coach. You have a mix of players anywhere you coach. In that league there was a great mix of international players and domestic players. I think it helped me appreciate quality players week in and week out. The thing that I enjoyed was just being in the environment of U.S. players and how they approached playing the game with focus, commitment and professionalism.”  A new women’s professional league was started earlier this year in the U.S. with the National Women’s Soccer League. As the head coach of the Women’s National Team, how do you feel the new league impacts women’s soccer in the U.S. and specifically, the WNT?

TS: “I think a national league is very important from a lot of aspects. From the current national team perspective and as the national coach, the benefits are that players are playing week in and week out and training in a soccer environment on a full time basis when they’re outside the national team system. That is a real benefit because that match practice is really important.

“Another benefit it gives is that now we’ve got eight teams out there so the pool of players in view is far greater. There are now more players who have the opportunity to play against national team players and to make a mark and get selected to the national team. From a national coach perspective, it gives me the opportunity to go out and watch players that I never would have seen. It will become more and more important going forward as players come out of college and into the national league.

“It’s also important for soccer culture. The national team can only play at home so often, so to keep the profile of women’s soccer in the eye, it’s important to have a domestic league. Players need somewhere to play every week and young up and coming players and supporters and young girls playing soccer need somewhere to go to see the best players in the country playing the game. It’s important to build that culture up.

“The other thing is that there are only so many players that can play for the national team. You need other layers in your program. At the moment we have a terrific youth national team structure in place and we have a college system in place. The next step is having something between those systems and the national team. That’s where the national league becomes very important because it gives players longevity in the game. It gives them careers. It means when players come out of college they don’t just suddenly give up playing the game.”  You took on the role of head coach for the WNT starting in January of this year from Pia Sundhage. Pia was known for her laid back and charismatic style. What do you feel is your style of coaching and approach with this team?

TS: “She is much more charismatic I think than me but I think our styles are not dissimilar. I’m a pretty relaxed kind of guy. I don’t get too outwardly stressed. I’m a great believer in self-responsibility amongst players. I’m not big in to putting lots of rules and regulations in place.

“I think it’s important to learn your coaching style as you go. You go in to coaching with a certain idea of how things have to be. Ultimately through time and experience, I found that you really need to be who you are. You can’t be somebody else. You have to manage your team and the job from within your own personality and beliefs.”  Although new to your role, you have coached in the U.S. before and have an understanding of the youth and college landscape. Are there certain messages you would like to share with youth coaches on how we can continue to develop?

TS: “I think it’s getting the balance right. When people talk about the U.S. teams they talk about the pace, the physical qualities, and the determination to win. You don’t want to lose that; it’s a huge asset. But coaches need to know the way the game is progressing. Those qualities have to be balanced by the technical development of players. We need balance between the importance of winning and the importance of developing. Everybody wants to go out and win but you want to do it with a focus on development and a focus on making players technically better and giving them a better understanding of playing the game.”  Abby Wambach recently reached a major milestone in your game vs. South Korea in Harrison, N.J. as she beat Mia Hamm’s previous record and now is the all-time leading scorer in women’s soccer. What did it mean to you to be part of that night?

TS: “I think everybody was extremely proud of Abby, and certainly I was. I felt privileged to be there because other coaches have been there for a lot longer and have seen Abby put the foundations down for breaking the record. I was just the fortunate one that was there when she did it. It was a proud moment for her. I just think it was a great night and I think the way that she did it, you couldn’t have scripted it any better. It was a great environment, a fantastic crowd. The goals that she scored were outstanding. The whole night and the environment and the way she did it was very special.”  The U.S. WNT is currently ranked by FIFA as number one in the world in women’s soccer. What are your goals for the WNT moving forward?

TS: “The goal obviously is to stay at number one but we don’t just want to cruise along. We want to try to move forward from number one and actually try to create a point of difference between us and other teams. Our aim is to extend that position of dominance. We can do that by continuing to win games and tournaments but also by trying to improve the way that we play the game. I think that’s important because everyone’s catching up; nobody’s standing still. Countries are putting far more resources in to development than they ever have. The game is taken very seriously now in a considerable number of countries. We need to continue to strive to improve how we do things. The goal is to remain number one and make the gap bigger.”