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Starting over in Orlando: The redefinition of Tom Sermanni

Orlando Pride/Mark Thor

Most Americans know Tom Sermanni for his time as U.S. women's national team coach. That's exactly what he is trying to change, Richard Farley writes.

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Before kickoff, facing the two-time defending regular season champions, you’d forgive the Orlando Pride for questioning itself. It was, after all, only the fourth game in the franchise’s history. The team had gone loss-win-loss through its first three games in the National Women’s Soccer League, neither impressing nor disappointing along the way. The only thing the Pride had proven was that it wouldn’t be overrun. Any pretense of competing with the Seattle Reign, a team that had lost only eight of its last 51 games, was assumptive.

Within 12 minutes, though, the Pride was in front, and over the next 78 minutes, defense held without problems. Seattle, led by reigning Player of the Week and 2014 Most Valuable Player Kim Little, was held to four shots, only two of which were on target. Lianne Sanderson’s late goal may have given Orlando insurance, but the policy was never needed. Tom Sermanni’s plan was executed perfectly. The Pride had its 2-0 victory.

“There was a belief before today that we could be more than competitive in the league, and I think today confirmed that,” Sermanni, Orlando’s head coach, said after Sunday’s performance. “Today confirmed that even against a team like Seattle, we get stronger as the game goes on, and I think that's a great sign for the future.”

It’s also a great sign for Sermanni, who, more than anybody in the nascent organization, needs Orlando to succeed. The ownership? They also own Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer, the success of which has made the Pride possible. Star attacker Alex Morgan? True to the state of women’s soccer in the United States, her NWSL performance has no impact on her regard. And the rest of the Pride players? In another women’s soccer truism, victory is second to mere financial survival.

Only Sermanni is in a make-or-break situation. Succeed, and he is vindicated for what happened two years ago. Fail, and he’ll continue to be defined by it.

The elephant in the room

I just feel that you never really move past it.”

- Tom Sermanni

“I just feel that you never really move past it,” Sermanni told FourFourTwo, talking about the only thing “it” could possibly mean. Despite spending his professional life establishing himself as one of the most respected coaches in women’s soccer, the Glasgewian’s career is in danger of being defined by a single moment – the moment he lost the most prestigious job in the sport.

That the reasons remain unclear is why Sermanni’s story now begins and ends with his time at U.S. Soccer. There, he served as the senior women’s national team’s head coach from Jan. 1, 2013 through April 6, 2014, until, after going 17-2-4 in 23 low-leverage games, he was let go.

“I was in a position where the company that employs you comes to you and says ‘We don’t want to employ you anymore. We don’t think you’re doing your job,’” Sermanni explained, two years after a decision that caught him off guard. “It really hurts. In some ways it hits you hard, in terms of the sense of disappointment.”

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That U.S. Soccer’s decision stands in sharp contrast to the rest of his resume only adds to the pain. Prior to taking the U.S. women's national team job, Sermanni had built Australia’s program from irrelevancy to champions of Asia. In the U.S., his time as head coach of the New York Power in the old Women’s United Soccer Association, between two successful stints in Oz, left a lasting impression, one that flourished during another decade abroad. When Pia Sundhage resigned from the U.S. job in 2012, in the wake of another gold medal at the Summer Olympics in London, Sermanni became an instant favorite for the job. After a long and exhaustive search, U.S. Soccer handed Sermanni his profession’s most prestigious post.

Fifteen months later, the job was snatched back, seemingly a reaction to the U.S. stumbling to seventh place at March 2014’s Algarve Cup. Undefeated to that point but still taking inventory of his player pool, Sermanni experimented with his squad, playing a number of young players at an event the U.S. was used to dominating. Forgoing dominance in favor of trial-and-error, Sermanni saw his team fall to fourth in its four-team group after a 5-3 loss to Denmark. One month later, he was out of work.

The decision never added up. Sermanni was brought in as an agent change, somebody to shake up a team whose style and, occasionally, performances begat confusion. The gap between the U.S. and the next level of contenders – Germany, France, Japan – was closing, to the extent it existed at all. An approach that relied on the athleticism of the Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Christie Rampone wasn’t sustainable, the thinking held.

That thinking expired in the wake of Algarve, but results in Portugal weren’t the clause. They were the fuse, igniting powder that’d been spread by those most invested in the U.S. squad. Some players had pushed back, given feedback to federation higher-ups about a lack of defined roles, and rebelled against the ‘let things play out’ approach Sermanni had taken to the least important part of the cycle. The feelings either prompted or reinforced U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to make a change, and Sermanni was sacrificed in the face of dissent.

Soon, Canada offered a post as an assistant for the 2015 World Cup, where he worked under an old rival, former New Zealand head coach John Herdman. Given time to regroup, Sermanni set his sights on head coaching – returning to the life he’d always had – only for him, at 61 years old, having already established a legacy with Australia, the next job needed to fit a certain profile. He’d already reached the pinnacle. Content living in Southern California, with no need to tread over old ground, Sermanni was looking for the right fit.

Thankfully, there was Orlando.

Taking over the Pride

“Deep down inside, as coach or as a professional athlete, you’re competitor and quite driven,” Sermanni say. “When something like that happens, you’ve got the sense of failure, that you hadn’t achieved what you had gone in to try and do. That was the first time I’d really had that feeling.”

For somebody approaching his 30th year in the profession, a record with so few failures is aberrational. Coaches at his level can lose jobs for the most dubious reasons; his time with U.S. Soccer proved that. For others, ones who obviously fail, the causes are less obscure. Even successful coaches, as leadership at clubs or federations change, can find themselves on the move, be it up the coaching hierarchy or not.

Another team, however, was already lining up Sermanni’s return, with the Scot’s links to the Orlando job seeded two years before when he met Orlando City SC owner Phil Rawlins.

“I came over maybe a week or two weeks before [a national team game against Brazil] to do some other stuff,” Sermanni recalled of that 2013 trip, “and it coincided with the club’s push to get in MLS, and a vote from the council or the state, somebody, for permission to build the stadium … I got to meet Phil and some of the guys. We got on really well. We actually got on well together. We’d kept in touch since then, and when the job came up, they called me.”

It didn’t take long to get Sermanni on board. Backed by an MLS franchise and prepared to leverage the club’s resources, Orlando was one of the NWSL’s best jobs before the team kicked its first ball. Linked to U.S. internationals Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris even before the franchise was formally announced, Orlando had the potential to be competitive from day one. And geographically, in central Florida, the club offered an attractive lifestyle choice for somebody who’d grown used to Australia and Southern California.

I’m extremely lucky now that I’ve come to a club that’s probably the best club in North America."

- Tom Sermanni

“It’s as good an opportunity and club as I could have hoped for anywhere in the world,” Sermanni confessed. “There’s not a lot of what you’d call jobs at the high level that are [opening up] … I was very lucky in that sense, and I’m extremely lucky now that I’ve come to a club that’s probably the best club in North America - with a philosophy that really appeals to how I like to coach, how I like to manage, and to be able to be the person that I am.”

One day after flying in for talks, Sermanni agreed to join Orlando. When, on Oct. 20, 2015, his appointment was made official, every report referenced his time as U.S. national team boss. While those 15 months may haunt his resume forever, the Pride at least gives him a chance to reclaim part of his legacy.

Continue reading: 'Deep inside, I feel like I probably have to prove myself again'