Oops, forgot to put a question mark in the title up there. My bad!
As expected, today’s presser with U.S. Soccer head honcho Sunil Gulati was a master class in spin. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t in on the media call. I read parts of a transcript later). If you want to know more about what was said, check out Jeff Kassouf’s article for NBC Sports Soccer, and you definitely should read former USWNT captain Julie Foudy’s piece over at ESPNW. Both attempt to provide insight into a shocking situation only made murkier by Gulati’s evasive answers.
The only sure thing about this whole debacle is how badly mishandled it was by U.S. Soccer.
- Gulati said the USA’s 7th-place finish at the Algarve Cup factored into the decision to let Sermanni go. He also said Sermanni’s firing wasn’t about Sunday night’s game vs. China PR. If that’s the case, why wait three and a half weeks? Why let Sermanni call in a new roster and coach a friendly? Why fire him on a night when the country was actually paying attention to women’s soccer? The timing, though they may have been trying to bury the news at 10pm on a Sunday night, was pitiful.
- The gag order issued by U.S. Soccer on the players put the team itself squarely in the firing line once news broke. Social media’s barracudas immediately went after the players based on nothing more than rumor, “unnamed sources,” and fair or not, reputation. Meanwhile within hours Sermanni gave interviews to Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated and Leander Schaerlaeckens at Fox Soccer. The USSF itself stayed mute for another 18 hours. Sermanni drove the narrative. The USSF had the opportunity to drop their press release and follow up with additional information, to own the story from the onset and take responsibility for their actions, but didn’t. They allowed the rumors and unnamed sources to run rampant, and for Sermanni’s grace to shine through. As a result, U.S. Soccer looks like a small-city school board trying to fire a popular teacher via text messages to parents on a Friday night before going out of town for the weekend.
- Sermanni has said – repeatedly – he was blindsided by his dismissal. He had one post-Algarve Cup conversation with Gulati, but didn’t think that conversation was serious enough to lead to a firing. Now, let’s assume for the moment that Sermanni’s post-firing comments – which came just a scant hour or so after an unexpected, emotional event turned his life upside-down – are correct, that he did not have any indication that this was coming, that in a week or three he won’t look back and say “ok, when management said X, I should have understood better what they meant.” Let’s trust he truly had no indication from management that his job was in jeopardy. What kind of lousy lines of communication do they have over at USSF? As Foudy said, “As a matter of good business (and leadership), [dismissal being a surprise] should not happen to any coach in any sport. This should have been addressed early and often. After repeated conversations, if it’s still not working, then you make a change.” There appears to be a severe lack of process and procedure in the U.S. Soccer HR department. Which leads me to…
- Tom Sermanni, a successful, well-regarded coach, was unceremoniously kicked out the door with little to no warning. He’d posted an 18-2-4 record, including a draw against Japan and a win over Germany in last year’s Algarve. And he was fired before he could see the fruition of his work. Who in their right mind would want this job? Coaching the USWNT is already a challenging job full of egos and superstars and real pressure to win on the biggest stages like the WWC and Olympics. The USSF’s unprofessional actions morph what should be one of the prime soccer-coaching jobs in the world into perhaps more trouble than its worth. How can U.S. Soccer attract the best coaches when they treat a man like Sermanni with such disrespect?
If Gulati was so concerned about Sermanni’s ability to lead the USWNT after the Algarve Cup, he should have fired the coach as soon as that tournament was over. His media call could have gone something like this: “We just gave up five goals to Denmark and placed seventh in the bloody Algarve Cup. Seventh! Why am I even having this presser?” Mic drop. Flip phone slammed. The end.
Instead he left his players to bear the full force of fandom’s fury, gave his now-former coach free reign to charm his way to worldwide sympathy, and tarnished the very office he’s now tasked to fill. And he made himself look incompetent in the process.
Time will tell if this was a move that helps get the U.S. Women’s National Team back onto the podium at the World Cup. But right now, the USSF has a long way to go just to get back to solid ground.