With the shock dismissal of Tom Sermanni from the helm of the U.S Women’s National Soccer Team, coaches around the country and the world will be interested in filling the vacancy.
The National Women’s Soccer League kicked off its second season this weekend. Does that automatically rule out any of the league’s coaches? Or can someone take on their club coaching duties along with the USWNT’s — and would it actually be better for the next coach to come from the league?
When the dust had settled after Sermanni’s firing on April 6, two names in particular, both in their first season as coaches in the NWSL, were floated about: Paul Riley of the Portland Thorns, who was recently in the running for the England Women’s National Team head coaching position and widely believed to be a finalist for the U.S job before Sermanni’s hiring. Randy Waldrum, who leads the expansion Houston Dash after a successful 15-year head coaching stint with Notre Dame, has been also been mentioned.
Although both coaches are preparing for a season-opening fixture against each other, the thought of taking over the USWNT could very well be a thought in the back of their mind. Riley admitted as much last week in a media conference call.
“Obviously the U.S. job is the number one job in the world and anybody who says they wouldn’t be interested then they’d be lying. It’s a great job to have, but I’m under contract with Portland,” he said.
“I’m very happy in Portland, but you’d have to say you’d be interested, wouldn’t you?”
Although Riley may have interest in an international coaching job, and specifically the USWNT job, he said he’s not about to just jump ship, leaving the Thorns twisting in the wind as they get set to defend their NWSL crown.
“I’ve got great ownership here, we train in probably the best facilities in America every day and I’ve got great support from Merritt [Paulson], Gavin [Wilkinson]. We’ll be treated like any MLS team will be treated,” Riley said.
The USWNT has just one friendly coming up before Women’s World Cup qualification begins in October, a May 8 road match vs. Canada. Could Riley, Waldrum or another coach finish the NWSL season and then shift focus to qualifying for the Women’s World Cup? Both Riley and Waldrum believe so.
“I think it is yeah, certainly in the short term. Obviously our season’s finished in September so I think that it’s something definitely that is feasible. It’s done in other countries. I don’t know whether, obviously it won’t be done in this country, but it has been done in other places…but again I’m not the decision maker on things like that. I’m just the coach in Portland,” said Riley.
Said Waldrum: “I think anything is possible depending on the direction Sunil [Gulati, U.S. Soccer's president] wants to take things. I think those things are certainly doable. There are a lot of great coaches in the league and there’s a lot of great coaches that aren’t coaching in this league. I really don’t have an idea of the direction that he’s wanting to take, but I think in our sport, probably unlike any other sport, many of us have worn many hats over the years.
Riley noted he didn’t believe it will be done with the USWNT. But should one of the NWSL coaches take over?
A coach in the NWSL will have a great vantage point on the sidelines week in and week out to watch players in the international pool, not only in terms of the U.S. Women, but also those who will wear the colors of their opponents in CONCACAF qualifying and beyond.
This could be a major advantage. An NWSL coach will already have a working relationship with players that will make up the USWNT roster and by coaching against other potential roster members, the next coach would know their strengths and weaknesses, and what styles work for and against them.
And it’s important to remember that the league was created (and is still operated and partly funded) by the federation, for the explicit purpose of helping the USWNT retain their place as the world’s top womens team.
One criticism for pulling double duty is whether a coach can focus enough attention for both. If the U.S. had a busy schedule over the course of the NWSL calendar, it would give more credence to that notion.
“Playing in the league is an important part of preparation of our players and the team for next summer,” said Gulati in the same conference call. “The balance between club responsibilities and national team responsibilities changes in the course of the calendar year. Certainly in the next six months, the emphasis will be on the league as we get closer to qualifying we’ll play more games with the national team and prepare for that.”
Just as the players will shift focus, a coach in the league can do the same. With the players developing in the league, why not have a coach continue to hone his or her craft in the league as well? When a national team coach’s sole role is at the international level, they are almost never coaching on a day-to-day basis. With a coach taking the job concurrent to the NWSL season, the coach’s mind will remain sharp with the league matches.
Also, anyone taking over the USWNT job would almost certainly have a general idea of which players would be taking part in qualification in October.
The new coach will need time to impart their own philosophy and coaching style, but that process would begin during the next international training camp and the friendly against Canada. That needs to take place for a coach anyway, whether they are from the NWSL or elsewhere.
One of the reasons cited for Sermanni’s exit was that his coaching philosophy wasn’t the right fit for the USWNT players. However, if a coach proves his style within the league with national team members, there will already be voices in favor of the new coach. Also, if that NWSL coach leads his/her team to the championship or produces quality soccer over the course of the season, that will earn even more respect in the locker room.
That could also work against a NWSL coach, though. Will the players feel that the particular club’s players are being favored in training and in the lineup? Although a coach may have some favorites at any level, in order to be successful any great coach knows the best players will need to play, whether or not they come from that coach’s club team.
In the end, it certainly doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution, but it could be one that very well could work right now. At the NWSL’s season end, one potential scenario could see the new coach take over the USWNT on a full-time basis and leave their club duties to a new coach.
Gulati noted in the press conference discussing Sermanni’s exit that he will choose the best coach to guide the USWNT, whether that be a woman, man, American or a foreign coach. If Gulati feels the best candidate is currently coaching in the NWSL, the federation’s president can’t hesitate to explore that option.