U.S. women's coach Sermanni faces first test at Algarve Cup
U.S. women's national team coach Tom Sermanni rarely has the luxury of a singular focus.
Whatever comes his way -- matches, training sessions, squad selections and otherwise -- is cast in the shadow of the looming, legacy-defining 2015 Women's World Cup that he was hired to win back in October.
"It's an interesting job because you've got one eye on the present and one eye on the future," he said.
The present is the Algarve Cup, a 12-nation annual tournament in Portugal where the U.S. will play three group-stage matches beginning Wednesday against Iceland. Germany or Japan, Nos. 2 and 3 in the world behind the Americans, are potential final opponents. The 12 countries are split into three groups, but only two of the groups (with the eight best teams) are vying for the title.
The challenge of winning the U.S.' ninth Algarve Cup also includes a meeting with Sweden and former coach Pia Sundhage on Monday, but there's more than that on the Sermanni's plate.
His aim is two-fold: continuing a winning culture and assessing the talent pool.
Barely two months into his official tenure and with just two cake-walk friendlies against Scotland under his belt, Sermanni is in the beginning stages of figuring out whom he'll be bringing to Canada in 2015.
"You put your identification cap on and say, 'OK, in two years' time I think she'll be close to a starting player,' or 'She'll be in the mix,'" he said. "You're constantly assessing that, and it's way too early for me to make many definitive assessments on players. I've got a reasonably clear idea on some, and some at the moment I've got not a lot of idea and I need to see a bit more."
That suggests more experimenting is on the way, an area where he differs from the more predictable Sundhage.
Sermanni will be sizing up young talent this week, including three of the four players who earned their first caps in the Scotland friendlies last month: forward Christen Press, midfielder Kristie Mewis and defender Crystal Dunn.
He'll also have two uncapped players on the roster in forward Lindsey Horan, 18, and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Harris is in due to Hope Solo's wrist injury. Horan earned a spot based on reputation.
"I never expected it," said Horan, the youngest national team field player since 2005. "I was hoping that maybe soon I would get an opportunity to come up with the full team, but I never expected it."
Breaking age barriers is nothing new for Horan, whose reported six-figure deal with France's Paris Saint-Germain this summer made her the first American to jump from high school to professional soccer in Europe.
She'll join Press and Sydney Leroux as the forwards gunning for minutes behind Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Sermanni certainly seems willing to settle playing time on the field.
"If you've got Abby Wambach, for example, who continues to deliver when it comes to critical tournaments and critical times, she's probably still the most dominant women's striker in the world," Sermanni said. "It's up to the other ones to displace the players who are already in there, and it's up to me to manage that."
Press figures as the lead candidate after the Scotland matches (4-1 and 3-1 U.S. wins).
She scored in both games, including twice in her debut, to become the first U.S. woman to find the net three times in her first two appearances. What's more, her offseason move to play with Swedish champions Tyresö FF alongside Brazilian icon Marta is a step forward.
Sermanni also came away impressed with Leroux's work during her first start last month, and he'll be keeping a close eye on that next wave of players to find his future stars.
After all, more than half of the U.S. squad that won gold at the 2012 Olympics will be 30 by the 2015 World Cup (Wambach will be 35), meaning there are sure to be changes.
"No doubt at some stage there will be, as in any team, stuff to deal with and decisions you have to make that are probably going to upset people at times," Sermanni said. "That's just part of the job. To be honest, it's a much better job when you're managing players who are exceptionally talented than players who are not so gifted."
With that benefit comes the expectation of success, which follows the U.S. to Algarve. And, of course, the first big measurement for Sermanni will be against Sundhage, whose American teams won two gold medals and finished second at the 2011 World Cup.
"I don't know if they'll be listening to Pia or listening to me," he joked. "It will be interesting for Pia because I would have found it extremely strange if I was standing on the U.S. bench and the Australian bench (his former team) was next door."
Speaking by phone from Portugal on Sunday, Sermanni detailed some of his other thoughts from the first few months with the U.S. team:
• Work ethic and toughness have been the biggest standouts. "I haven't seen many male teams train with quite the same intensity, let alone any other female teams," he said. "In this team, you just don't have to (motivate players). If anything, you need to sort of say, 'Just be careful. I don't want anybody injured in training.'"
• Young players are fitting in nicely. "I've heard stories, to be honest, in the past where young players came in and were intimidated just by the atmosphere, not by anything deliberate. But these young players we've brought in so far have really reveled in the environment and gone in and been competitive. And the senior players have been great in accepting them and helping them in many ways. That has been a real positive."
• Technical development is a focus. "In the past, the U.S. teams could dominate teams by their physicality and strength and power. I think the U.S. team still has an advantage there, but I think the gap is beginning to decrease. In the last three or four years, the women's game has taken an enormous step forward, and now teams are much more tactically aware, technically better and physically better. You have to keep pace with that if you want to keep in front. You can't stand still."
• He isn't picky about his players being in the domestic National Women's Soccer League vs. abroad. "From a practicality perspective, the NWSL is better because it means I can see the players week in and week out in a competitive environment. ... The upside of Europe is they get advantages of playing away from home in a different culture and environment, different coaching, et cetera. There's no one size fits all, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Hopefully the NWSL will develop to such a stage that players will definitely want to stay home and play in it."
• In Hope Solo's absence, all three keepers (Jill Loyden, Nicole Barnhart and Harris) will play.
• The world U.S. all-time goal-scoring record is in reach for Wambach, who sits five behind Mia Hamm's 158. "The thing with Abby is that she's always likely to score goals. When it comes into game time and tournament time, she's likely to pop up with a couple of goals. It'd be nice for her to go close to breaking the record but breaking it in the U.S." Morgan scored five in the Algarve Cup last year, while Wambach had three.