In the end, it wasn't who we thought. Not fan favorite Paul Riley, not old standby Tony DiCicco, not obvious successor Randy Waldrum. In the end, Pia Sundhage's replacement was a Scot, coming by way of Australia. On October 30th, U.S. Soccer officially named Tom Sermanni the new head coach of the U.S. Women's National Team.
Sermanni is no stranger to the American game, or at least coaching in America. The 58-year-old Glasgow-native spent two seasons as an assistant with the WUSA's San Jose CyberRays before being named head coach of the NY Power for what would be the league's final season. The bread on this WUSA sandwich was the Australia Women's National Team, which Sermanni coached from 1994 to 1997 and then again from 2004 until he took the job with the USWNT.
Sermanni comes into a team riding the high of [another] Olympic gold, and a popularity not seen in these parts since the days of Mia and Brandi. It's a big change from the team that Sundhage inherited at the beginning of 2008. Then the USWNT was hanging on at the edge of whatever comes after obscurity, an embarrassing World Cup crash-and-burn in 2007 overshadowed by embarrassing behavior from just about everyone, the goalkeeper who publicly called out the coach to the players who publicly called out that goalkeeper. Sundhage inherited this broken thing and bit-by-bit built it back into something to be mostly proud of once again.
The team Tom Sermanni inherits now is a very different one. Even in whatever crash-and-burn this World Cup's ending was, came not despair and infighting, but something else. Bruised but not broken, coming home as runners-up and heroes all the same, embraced, hope and Hope, even as the bottom was falling out on this country's latest try at a league. And whatever bit of despair there was coming back from Germany as second best immediately gave way to [unfortunate rhyme ahead] a new quest. Olympic gold, the second with Sundhage at the helm, coming home again as heroes and this time winners too. But with all the sold-out stadiums and dances with stars comes something else; there is the inevitable march of time and age, and it is coming quickly here.
This is where Sermanni's time in Australia becomes so important. Not for the titles the Matildas won - there aren't many - but because of what this coach built in his time down under. As many of the U.S.'s top players push 30 and beyond, it's not far off to wonder what comes next. The legacy Sermanni leaves behind in Australia, beyond a decent moustache and that Scottish brogue, is youth. The team that Sermanni brought to the 2011 World Cup featured just three players over the age of 25. The U.S. squad currently celebrating Olympic gold? Twelve of the 18 players are over 25, eight are 30 or older. The next major tournament, the 2015 World Cup, is still three years away.
Look at a USWNT roster over the past five years - it doesn't matter which one, or what year, not really. They are, mostly - save an injury or the odd retirement or some craaaaaaazy moment of calling up one of the kids that really never lasted - always the same.
But they can't stay the same forever, and soon the U.S. heads into the next cycle, World Cup qualification that gets marginally easier because of 2015's expanded field, but hey remember how things went last time in qualifying, because they did not go well. At all. And in all of that the rest of the world will continue catching up, bringing in their youth, a methodical integration into senior sides, while the U.S. has stayed stagnant for so long. In a pair of recent friendlies with the U.S. Germany brought a squad full of youth, five players from its U-20 World Cup side. The team Sermanni brought to take on the U.S. in two friendlies in September, also frighteningly young, like 17 and 18 year-olds young.
And that's what Sermanni is going to be tasked with over these next few years, bringing in the youth while still keeping the U.S. an elite side. Sundhage wasn't the best at it, for better or for worse. Even in so many meaningless friendlies - this current tour, which is a celebration and fans want to see the band play all the hits, notwithstanding - there wasn't much. No new call-ups, no chances for the up-and-comers to get a shot. There are some, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, but never enough. No methodical integration, no slow build for the future.
It used to be that way here too, teenagers thrown in, feet to the fire, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm left to sink or swim as kids. Sundhage though, never put that into practice, took the chance to let some U-17's or 20's or 23's get a shot with senior side. And so Sermanni's test will not be about wins and losses, not yet anyway. It will be about whether he can do what Sundhage never did. Buck the system and sometimes the big names, take the chances, build for the future. But if there's anyone who knows that, knows how to do that, this is the guy.