CHICAGO Tom Sermanni doesnt come with a guitar. And forget about bursting into song when he meets the U.S. womens soccer team for the first time, as predecessor Pia Sundhage famously did.
I cant do that one bit, the Americans new coach said, smiling. I can come up with some good one-liners and clichés, but players dont tend to appreciate them as much.
If he can lead the Americans to their third World Cup title, Sermannis witty remarks will sound every bit as good as any song played by Sundhage.
The 58-year-old Scot, by way of Australia, inherits a much different U.S. team than the fractured, fragile bunch Sundhage got five years ago. The Americans are on their best run since 1999, reaching the final at each of the last three major tournaments and coming away with two titles. They have been ranked No. 1 in the world since the 2008 Olympics. They have the worlds best goalkeeper in Hope Solo and arguably the two best forwards in Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
But the rest of the world has begun closing the gap on the U.S. in recent years, and it will be up to Sermanni to make sure the Americans dont lose their place as the undisputed power in womens soccer.
I dont think you just sit back and hope the team will be successful, Sermanni said Wednesday on a conference call. The main reason for that is the game is changing at a rapid pace. The quality of the teams is much closer than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati and the other four members of the search committee looked at more than 30 candidates, male and female, American and foreign-born. But few possessed Sermannis combination of international experience and the ability to manage players in a firm but fair manner, qualities that will be increasingly critical over the next four years.
Tom is someone with a terrific reputation as a coach both on a personal and a professional level, Gulati said. He knows the challenge ... the challenges to keep the team No. 1 in the world.
Once dominated by the U.S., Germany, Brazil and the Nordic countries, there is increasing parity in the womens game, and Sermanni knows the changing landscape better than most particularly in Asia, where Japan followed its World Cup title by reaching the Olympic final.
Sermanni transformed Australias womens team from an international lightweight into the No. 9 team in the world, with the Matildas reaching the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups. The young Matildas also won the 2010 Asian Womens Cup.
In his first stint as Australias coach, from 1994-97, Sermanni led the Matildas to their first World Cup appearance.
I think Ive got good experience in international football, and I think Ive got a reasonable knowledge of the American game and their players, said Sermanni, who was one of 10 candidates for FIFAs 2011 Womens Coach of the Year. Over the past eight years now in Australia ... Ive been able to change the squad and develop younger players for the international game.
He shares Sundhages belief that the Americans need to alter their style of play to keep pace with the changing game. Sundhage tried to replace the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield. Sundhage and the Americans shared mixed success.
This U.S. team has some very good footballers, Sermanni said. (But) there is an intention to develop a more sophisticated style of play. Philosophically, you want to play good, attractive, attacking football. Thats what Ive always tried to do wherever Ive gone. I tried to change that outlook in Australia, and one of the things that I want to do here is impress that style of play within the American team.
But Sermannis biggest challenge might be managing the personalities within the team.
Sundhage was unfailingly positive and believed in building her players up with constructive criticism. While that approach definitely was needed when she first arrived, some thought Sundhage should have taken a harder line when players acted up. Solo, for example, caused a stir during the Olympics when she used Twitter to criticize Brandi Chastain, a member of the 1999 World Cup champion team who was working as an NBC analyst.
Affable and even-keeled, Sermanni is considered a players coach such as Sundhage; he made good on his deal with the Matildas to dye his silver hair red and shave his mustache if they qualified for the 2011 World Cup. But hes not afraid to let everyone know whos in charge either. He kicked Lisa De Vanna, Australias best player, out of camp six weeks before the World Cup for disciplinary issues. She was eventually allowed to return.
He wont be afraid to bring new players into an established lineup either, a potentially thorny issue for the Americans in coming years. Wambach, Solo, captain Christie Rampone and the other veterans have been invaluable for the U.S., and they remain among the teams most productive and popular players. But they are getting older, and the Americans need to at least start thinking about a succession plan.
There is a wealth of potential talent on the youth teams the Under-20 squad just won the World Cup but theyre going to need opportunities to play.
You have to be careful you dont miss a generation, Sermanni said. All the time you have to be looking to the strength of competition, to increasing the number of players that come through the international arena, and youre also looking to try and bring young players in as soon as you can, to get them that experience and see if theyre up to playing at an international level.
Sermannis 2011 World Cup team was Australias youngest, with 13 rookies and an average age of just under 22. The youngest player on the squad, then-16-year-old Caitlin Foord, wound up being named Best Young Player of the tournament.
Its a critical part of the process that can come back to bite you if you dont keep that process of regeneration going, he said.
That can wait, however. The next major tournament isnt until the World Cup in 2015, giving Sermanni ample time to settle in and get to know his players. He will coach Australia in an East Asian Cup Qualification tournament next month, then observe the Americans in their last three exhibition matches.
He officially takes over Jan. 1.
You dont often get the opportunity to coach the No. 1 team in the world, Sermanni said. The thought of having the challenge of doing that excites me. Having the opportunity to do that is something that doesnt come along youre lucky if it comes along.