Commentary

Tom Sermanni, former USWNT, WUSA and NWSL coach, on taking New Zealand to the Women's World Cup on short notice

Tom Sermanni, who coached the U.S. women’s national team in 2013-14, is headed to the Women's World Cup as head coach of New Zealand. The Scotsman started his coaching career in Australia, where he led the Matildas to three Women’s World Cups. He was most recently head coach of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride for three seasons (2016-18). Sermanni also coached in the WUSA, the USA’s first professional women’s league, in the early 2000s. After a scandal ousted New Zealand coach Andreas Heraf, Sermanni only had eight months to prepare the Football Ferns for the challenge in France. They’re in Group E with European champion the Netherlands, Cameroon, and Canada, for which he served as assistant coach at the 2015 World Cup.


Tom Sermanni will be head coaching in his fourth Women's World Cup, the second most after Norwegian Even Pellerud, who coached Norway (1991, 1995, 2015) and Canada (2003, 2007) at five World Cups.

SOCCER AMERICA: What are your hopes for your New Zealand squad in France?

TOM SERMANNI: Getting out of our group would be a great achievement. First thing, we've gotta do is win a game. I think we're in a group where all the teams are saying: “Well, on the day, in our sport, we've got a chance against any of these teams.” And I think that's how we view it. If we get our preparation right, our selection right, everybody turns up ready to go on the day, we've got a chance. But we need to do that. We can't just go 90%.

SA: Your predecessor, Austrian Andreas Heraf, was both New Zealand’s coach and the technical director. Allegations of intimidation and bullying led to his departure last summer, and you didn’t take over until late October of 2018. How do you rebuild the team after something like that?

TOM SERMANNI: I think that the two advantages I had was that a lot of the players knew me with the connection to Australia. I already had a close relationship with New Zealand. That familiarity kind of helped.

But the main thing that helped was that the players were still united on what they thought. Often when these situations occur, there's a split within the group. But on this occasion, the vast majority of players were on the same page and wanted the coaching change.

The ones who were on the fence tended to be the younger ones who didn't quite know what was happening. So that made the transition a lot, lot easier than it would've been had the team been split on what they wanted to happen. That made it reasonably straightforward.

SA: And you only had a couple of months before the World Cup qualifying, right?

TOM SERMANNI: We had three days (laughs). I was still in Orlando, and I got the [New Zealand] national development officer and the under-20 coach over Skype. We picked the squad over Skype. I got to New Zealand on Thursday, I got the squad together on Monday, and then we flew to the qualifiers on the Thursday (laughs). Thankfully it was fairly straightforward.


Editor's note: New Zealand went 5-0-0 in the Oceania Women's Nations Cup with a goal difference of plus-43 and didn't concede a goal.

SA: With so many women's teams fighting for equality off the field in different ways — Ada Hegerberg from Norway boycotting the tournament; the U.S. women’s players suing the U.S. Soccer Federation — what does that say about women's soccer today as a whole, when so many teams are protesting against their federations?

TOM SERMANNI: I think it means that [women's soccer] has moved to a different level. In any sport, when you move to a different level, problems are going to turn up. Now, we’re at a point where players are going, “Hold on, we're professional players, this is what we think our value is.”

I think what it is, is that we're facing a new set of problems as the game becomes more professional and as players start to fight for what they believe they should get. As the game becomes more established and recognized and the players themselves become household names, then obviously that creates a whole different set of issues. And that's just about any burgeoning sport, you know, where that happens. It's what we call progress.

Here’s an example of the difference between now and then: one of the Australian players, going back to 2006, said, “We had to pay for the laundry while the [men] Socceroos were getting a private jet chartered to the World Cup.” That was the problem back then. Now the issue is that the players want equal rights. So, it's progress.

SA: Are there any consequences from the Heraf scandal and ensuing inquiry of last summer?

TOM SERMANNI: From a footballing perspective, the main consequence -- people talk about the buildup to the World Cup as the last few months -- whereas a lot of the critical buildup happens in the middle part of last year. The football repercussions that we had to deal with was the fact that the program was basically in moth balls because of what happened. There was no program, no decisions were being made, the team wasn’t getting together.

There was a significant period of time that would've been used so that by the end of the year, we kind of know what our squad was. But with us, by the end of the year we were kind of saying, "Well, we kind of don't know what our squad is.” So suddenly we had this short window to get these things organized. From a football perspective, that's probably been, in essence, the challenge.

From an organizational perspective, everyone's hands were tied, so nobody was able to do things. The outcome of the tribunal was that things had to be put in place. It's like just any organization that goes through that sort of turmoil. The president went, the CEO went, the technical director and head coach went.

For an organization that's a small one like New Zealand, that's four significant people. It's not just the replacements, but that replacements can be put in place. There are people in positions who have an air of uncertainty because they don't know when the new CEO comes whether they’ll stay or not. The uncertainty in the organization has had an impact.

Saying that, I think they've recovered extremely well. The people in place have done a tremendous job. The CEO who was in on a temporary basis has now just been put in full-time, which is a very positive move from the organization because he's been through all of this change. I think now it's all come out, things are sort of back on track. There's a real positive vibe about the whole organization.

SA: In your group you're joined with Netherlands and Canada, both prominent teams.

TOM SERMANNI: Yes, I agree with that. England, Australia, Holland, Canada, I would kind of group them together in teams of similar quality.

SA: Your Ferns team just beat England, one of the tournament favorites, in a gutsy 1-0 win in Brighton, England ...

TOM SERMANNI: It was tense. We were under the pump for the first 20 or 25 minutes. We turned the ball over in some very dangerous areas. But we held out, our keeper made some terrific saves, we made some last-gasp challenges. We made some changes in the second half, and defended solidly for much of the second half. We got a few more opportunities on the break.

SA: And those are the games you'll have to eke out against teams like Netherlands and Canada, right?

TOM SERMANNI: Yes, that's exactly right. That’s how we're going to defend, how we have to set up, how we’re going to have to take advantage of the opportunities that we get.

We limited them to corners, which we defended well, and limited them to shots from outside of the box. We had a couple patches ourselves when we did quite well on the break. It was a great confidence booster.

SA: Tell us about your time coaching the U.S. women’s national team, when you succeeded Pia Sundhage. What surprised you when you took the helm?

TOM SERMANNI: The main difference I felt was that I was getting into a team that was vastly experienced. But the way things were organized took more adjustment. I had been head of Australia for eight years; I knew all of the ins and outs of the staff, the structure, all those kind of things.

Editor’s note: The USA, including players such as Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo, were coming off of the 2011 World Cup final penalty shootout loss to Japan and its gold-medal win at the 2012 London Olympics. Sermanni was let go abruptly and replaced by his assistant, Jill Ellis, despite guiding the USA to an 18-2-4 record.

There was quite a different setup in the U.S. in relation to player contracts, bringing players into the team, and restrictions around those kinds of things. It was more of getting a handle on that as opposed to the generic football things. I think in that way, there were some adjustments I should've made to things like that, probably a little bit better and a bit sooner than I did. And that was the major thing.

The other thing that -- obviously like most coaches I have a style and a way of working -- and in some teams, some systems, some ways, that style becomes the dominating one. But when you come into different environments, that style sometimes needs to be adjusted or needs to be established a little bit more.

SA: You talk about the adjustments that had to be made at earlier times, could you give us a couple of examples?

TOM SERMANNI: I think the trickier part was that I kind of assumed that I would go in and things would move along as it did with the Australian team. It wasn't quite that way with the U.S. I had to do one or two things: I either had to adjust my style, perhaps, a little bit, or impose my style with a little bit more authority.

SA: How do you rate the United States going into this World Cup?

TOM SERMANNI: For me, they're the team to beat, for a few reasons. They've got the greatest depth in any squad in the World Cup. They can bring players off the bench who could probably be starting on any team at the World Cup. Their preparation has been far superior to any team in the world, and that's because of two things. They have complete access to the players virtually all year-round. They're playing in the United States and they're under contract by U.S. Soccer, so they can basically take them any time.

Take the game where we played them in St. Louis [on May 16, which New Zealand lost 5-0]. They had been together for over 14 days before that game. They had been taken out from club games two games prior to that game. There's no other team in the world who can get access to their players like that.

The other big thing that's been enormous for the U.S. team is the NWSL. They have a professional league where you have 24 games a year and players train in a competitive environment every week. The NWSL -- you can debate what league is the best league in the world -- but the NWSL is the most competitive league in the world.

But before the NWSL, as a coach, you basically had to make -- and this was one of the complications of the systems of the national team -- decisions based on players coming out of college. There was nowhere for them to play after college, or they had to go overseas and play. You're talking 5-6 years ago, and the league wasn't as good as it is now. Apart from a few teams in a few leagues, it was a lot more difficult for players to get opportunities.

You also had a very experienced group of players who weren't going to make it easy for them to come in and take their position. The league gives players an opportunity to develop. So players like Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian, and Lindsay Horan were brought into an environment they weren't ready for then. Without the league to develop them, some of them probably would've drifted off. You see Jess McDonald on the World Cup squad. Not a chance in the world if the NWSL wasn't there.

SA: You took Australia to its first World Cup ever in 1995, and in your second stint, guided Australia to best ever finishes, quarterfinal appearances at the 2007 and 2011 World Cup. ...

TOM SERMANNI: What helped me was my knowledge of the Australian team and the Australian system. I think putting in place good development systems; we had good coaches, a good development system, good communication. Within that system we also had a philosophy for how we identified players and how we wanted them to play. All of those factors combined to help us set up and make that development.

What really drove the changes, when I got back into the job in 2004, was that we moved into Asia for World Cup qualifying. Prior to that, Australia was deemed as a team that was competitive and tough, but not particularly skilled. When we were moved into Asia, that was the catalyst where we had to really make change. It went from basically having to beat New Zealand to get into the World Cup, to suddenly having to beat Japan, China, North and South Korea to get there. Besides South Korea, all of those countries were probably ranked higher than us in the world at that point.

SA: Having to play those tougher Asian teams in qualifying helped the development of the national team …

TOM SERMANNI: Oh, huge. That was an enormous part. It gives the players a confidence, a belief, that we can compete with these teams. To be competitive we had to change how we ran our program. It's like, if our program is only around beating New Zealand, there's a tendency of complacency where we don't need to do much. Then you get to the World Cup and you're ill-prepared for it.

Getting those competitive matches and having to qualify through that competitive system was an enormous benefit. First, it benefited the senior national team. But it also benefited the youth national teams. From having to beat New Zealand to going to a World Cup. All of a sudden, you're having to go to the darkest parts of China and these other players have a huge learning experience.

SA: Tell me about the nickname about the Matildas. The nickname was given when you were in charge in 1994, right?

TOM SERMANNI: What we tried to do is get some publicity going. It was an era where players had to pay to play for the women's national team. Back in those days, the men and women's federations were separate institutions, and the women's federation had very little money; it was a very small kitchen table, if you like, run by some really dedicated women keeping the game alive. The first time that they didn't have to pay for the team was when football became an Olympic sport, which gave it government funding. That's when I came in as a coach and it meant that players didn't have to pay to play for their country. So, the nickname was part of an idea to drum up support before the World Cup. Most Australian teams have nicknames: the Wallabees, the Socceroos, the Diamonds, etc.

We had a competition on the ethnic channel. Because soccer was all ethnic back then; we had Italian clubs, Croatian clubs, etc. The ethnic channel put on soccer, so we put on a competition to choose a name the most popular name that came up was the Matildas. And I wasn't sure about it at first, I was a bit, “ermmm, don't know.” But it's turned out to be a gem (laughs).

The women didn't mind it at all; they were over the moon. For the first time, all of sudden we could put programs in place, bring them into the camps, take them overseas, and they didn't have to pay! In New Zealand, the women were still paying to play for their country when we faced them in qualifying in 1994.

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