The redemption of Tom Sermanni

Kyah Simon is three days shy of her 24th birthday, and she’s already scored Australia’s most famous goal, eliminating Brazil from the 2015 World Cup. That goal took Simon to five career World Cup goals, having already represented her country in 2011. She debuted for the Matildas at the age of 16, one of the first of the country’s golden generation to break into the current squad. She’s also won four major honors in the country’s W-League, including its Golden Boot and had a successful spell in the United States with the Boston Breakers.

But Simon isn’t the only young Australian with a wealth of early experience. Attacker Samantha Kerr, a 21-year-old from the far west city of Perth, already has 41 career international appearances. 22-year-old midfielder Katrina Gorry, Asia’s 2014 Player of the Year, has 33, while fellow midfielder Emily van Egmond, 21, has appeared for her country 43 times.

They’re not outliers. The team that started Sunday’s 1-0 win in Montreal averaged 23.3 years and 47.1 international appearances per player. To put that in perspective, the United States has only two players in its entire squad younger than that average, and those players, midfielder Morgan Brian and defender Julie Johnston, have 46 combined international appearances.

With that win over Brazil, a young Australia squad that’s long been considered the world’s most talented up-and-comer finally arrived, but the person who authored that rise wasn’t with them in Montreal. Instead, he was in Vancouver, watching as the person he now works for, Canada head coach John Herdman, steered another team into the quarterfinals. Two years after leaving the Matildas and 14 months after being fired from the most prestigious job in women’s soccer, Tom Sermanni has faded into the shadows.

11 Feb 2001:  Canberra Cosmos coach Tom Sermanni urges his team on during the NSL match between the Melbourne Knights and the Canberra Cosmos, held at Knights Stadium, Melbourne, Australia. The Knights won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORTGetty Images

11 Feb 2001: Canberra Cosmos coach Tom Sermanni urges his team on during the NSL match between the Melbourne Knights and the Canberra Cosmos, held at Knights Stadium, Melbourne, Australia. The Knights won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORT

It’s impossible to understand what happened between Sermanni and U.S. Soccer without knowing how unique the Scot is as a coach. Like many in his profession, he played professionally, making stops in England, Scotland and Australia before moving into coaching in his mid-30s. He began coaching men but transitioned into the women’s game, where the same coaching archetypes hold.

Coaching draws driven, often tunnel-visioned people. For most, it takes a level of self-indulgence to generate the confidence that can lead large groups of diverse people. And to guide entire national soccer programs? Ones that often span huge ranges of age, economics and cultures? When it’s done right, it demands a rare blend of intelligence, vision, experience and empathy. In the wrong hands, it gets done with Napoleonic conceit.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Sermanni into either of those groups. By the time he assumed the U.S. job, he was 58 years old and well beyond the blinkered drive of a younger coach. After eight years building Australia, Sermanni had been wooed to the U.S. for what he was, not what he’d become. His ambition had led to the job, but even if he still had the personality to do so, there was no need to drive anymore.

He was comfortable. You could see it when he was in front of the microphones. You could sense it when he was off the record, too. During the National Women’s Soccer League’s inaugural 2013 season, he was always convivial. He was relaxed as a rule, with his famous column of salt-and-pepper hair on his upper lip serving as finishing, father figure touch. He was laid back but direct; confident but approachable; a coach, but with almost no artifice. There was no arrogance about him.

In the wake of Pia Sundhage – a coach that made stability a strength in the U.S.’s charge to two gold medals – Sermanni’s temperament was key to a smooth transition. No ego. No need to steal the spotlight from a star-studded squad. He was a continuity candidate – somebody who could preserve the U.S.’s successful and popular status quo.

“He has the knowledge, experience and vision to take on the challenge of keeping our team at the top of the world,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati announced when Sermanni was appointed. Just over a year later, he’d changed his mind. From architect of a burgeoning power to failure with the world’s most famous squad, Sermanni’s legacy was rewritten in 16 months.

HANGZHOU, ZHEJIANG - SEPTEMBER 15:  Australia's Cheryl Salisbury (R) holds Lisa De Vanna (11#)  to celebrate the 1-1 draw after the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 Group C match between Australia and Norway at Hangzhou Dragon Stadium on September 15, 2007 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province of China.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)Getty Images

HANGZHOU, ZHEJIANG - SEPTEMBER 15: Australia's Cheryl Salisbury (R) holds Lisa De Vanna (11#) to celebrate the 1-1 draw after the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 Group C match between Australia and Norway at Hangzhou Dragon Stadium on September 15, 2007 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province of China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

When Sermanni said yes to the U.S. in late 2012, the Maltidas’ rise was already in motion. At the 2011 World Cup, the squad had reached the final eight. One year earlier, Australia had beaten world champions-to-be Japan at the Asian Cup en route to its first major title. Kerr, then only 16 years old, had scored the opener in the final against North Korea. Simon, still only 18, converted a penalty kick in the shootout.

By then, Sermanni had been on the job for five years, enough time to overhaul a program he’d already coached once before. From 1994 to 1996, Sermanni had steered the Matildas before jumping back into the club world – to Japan, back to Australia, and then to the U.S., where he soon took the reins of the WUSA’s New York Power. There he coached eventual U.S. captain Christie Rampone and future U.S. gold medalist Shannon Boxx, players he’d eventually see on the national team training ground, as well as Tiffeny Milbrett, one of five players who’s scored 100 goals for the United States.

By the time WUSA folded and he rejoined Australia two years later, the Matildas job had changed. As the leader of the Australia Institute of Sport’s women’s soccer program, Sermanni effectively oversaw half of Australian soccer, a half that had wanted to move beyond merely qualifying for tournaments. It had been eight years since the Matildas had failed to qualify for a major competition, but they’d yet to make a major splash. About to join the Asian confederation, Australia would no longer have the likes of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea to push around anymore.

The squad he qualified for China’s 2007 World Cup was slightly older than the one his predecessor, Adrian Santrac, took to the U.S. four years earlier (24.19 to 23.45 years), but in 22-year-old Lisa De Vanna, Sermanni had a young catalyst that could serve as the focal point of his attack. De Vanna would go on to become the first Australian player to make a World Cup All-Star team. In players like 24-year-old Sarah Walsh and 21-year-olds Lauren Colthorpe and Collette McCallum – all goal scorers in China – the future was starting to peak through. Their presence, along with those of 18-year-old defender Clare Polkinghorne and 19-year-old goalkeeper Lydia Williams, gave the Matildas a new base to build from. The decades of service from defender/captain Cheryl Salisbury (33) and midfielder Joanne Peters (28) could give way to a new generation.

Two months later, Simon made her international debut. Midfielder Tameka Butt, only nine days older than Simon, started getting regular callups to the senior national team that same year, as did 17-year-old Elise Kellond-Knight. Forward Ashleigh Sykes would debut the next year; Sam Kerr the year after that. When Australia touched down in Germany for the 2011 World Cup, 11 players who were in their teens when De Vanna broke out were included in Sermanni’s squad. With the federation expanding its investment under Sermanni – seeking to establish a domestic league, increase player compensation, and create scholarships for developmental players – Australia had quickly seeded a golden age of talent.

The average age of the Matildas’ Germany squad was only 21.9 years, but rather than taking a step back, Australia won two games at the World Cup, a first for the program. Caitlin Foord, then only 16 years old, and Kellond-Knight had breakout tournaments at fullback. Simon’s first two World Cup goals pushed Australia past Norway and into the knockout round, while Emily van Egmond’s goal against Equatorial Guinea came nine days shy of her 18th birthday. Australia lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals, but it also provided a proof of concept.

One year later, Sermanni left Australia. He hadn’t fully seen his project out, but his work with the Matildas allowed him to build on the relationships he’d established in the United States. His time in WUSA had left a lasting impression on people who’d filtered into U.S. Soccer, so when the program sought a steady hand to succeed Sundhage, Sermanni was able to cash in his Australian success.

“I am looking forward to working with an accomplished group of veterans while integrating the numerous talented young players who are itching for a chance to prove themselves,” Sermanni said. At the time, the vision seemed progressive. Nobody imagined the words would come to be read as ominous.

He’d been handed the most prestigious job in women’s soccer. That he’d shown he could rebuild a program would surely come in handy down the road.

In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, photo, Tom Sermanni, new coach of the United States women's soccer team, poses for a photo outside the United States Soccer Federation Headquarters after an interview with The Associated Press in Chicago. Sermanni was hired Tuesday to replace Pia Sundhage, who led the Americans to back-to-back Olympic gold medals and their first World Cup final in 12 years. Sermanni has spent the last eight years as Australia's coach, taking the Matildas to the quarterfinals of the last two Women's World Cups. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)AP

In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, photo, Tom Sermanni, new coach of the United States women's soccer team, poses for a photo outside the United States Soccer Federation Headquarters after an interview with The Associated Press in Chicago. Sermanni was hired Tuesday to replace Pia Sundhage, who led the Americans to back-to-back Olympic gold medals and their first World Cup final in 12 years. Sermanni has spent the last eight years as Australia's coach, taking the Matildas to the quarterfinals of the last two Women's World Cups. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Australia’s ‘down the road’ finally arrived on Sunday. Simon, a player Sermanni identified early in his Australia return, scored what may be the most important goal in Australian soccer history. De Vanna, the focal point Sermanni installed in China, helped set up the score, while van Egmond teamed with Simon to start the chance from midfield. Foord was at right back, Kerr was in attack, and Kellond-Knight started in midfield. Other players Sermanni’s system had cultivated, like Katrina Gorry, left back Stephanie Catley and central defender Alanna Kennedy, all played key parts. Alen Stajcic may have been on Australia’s bench, but Sermanni’s influence was all over the team’s lineup.

The United States, however, has already moved on from Sermanni’s influence. From the time he assumed control of the team in January 2013, Sermanni was given 16 months on the job. Come April 2014, he was gone, fired in a move he still describes as akin to being “blindsided.” He never even got a chance to kick his plans into gear.

“Maybe I’m losing my intuitive and perception skills, but I didn’t sense a real unease in the team,” he explained to SI.com. “But I could be wrong in that regard.”

“To put it in a nutshell, [U.S. Soccer] just felt that the way I was managing the team wasn’t working. It could be the U.S. team is a unique team that has certain demands that perhaps my management style or my philosophy didn’t quite gel with.”

That philosophy didn’t involve an Australia-style rebuild. He’d inherited a team that had

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 20: Christen Press #23 of the U.S. Women's National Team celebrates after scoring a goal with teammate Alex Morgan #13 against the Australia Women's National Team on October 20, 2013 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 20: Christen Press #23 of the U.S. Women's National Team celebrates after scoring a goal with teammate Alex Morgan #13 against the Australia Women's National Team on October 20, 2013 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

just won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. There was no need to start over, but he was doing some minor refactoring. A small collection of players – Christen Press, Kristie Mewis, Erika Tymrak, Amber Brooks, Leigh Ann Robinson and Lindsey Horan – were given their first chances with the senior team. Veterans Yael Averbuch and Stephanie Cox were brought back. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn began assuming a starting role, while Meghan Klingenberg was given a chance to show her conversion from midfield to fullback had taken hold.

For a squad that had established a pecking order under Sundhage, it was a new time of experimentation, and with three years between major tournaments, there was plenty of time for trial and error. Adjusting the team’s overall style, moving away from its reliance on fast, long play, was more important. For players like Sauerbrunn – those who’d had trouble winning Sundhage’s regard – it was a new start. For those who’d won that regard, however, the change represented a new and uncertain dawn.

In April 2014, that uncertainly led to Sermanni’s undoing. When the squad finished seventh at March’s Algarve Cup – a tournament the U.S. had dominated, winning nine times before – the coach’s unwillingness to name definite starters began to be spun as indecisiveness. There were no concrete decisions, therefore there was no direction, the thinking went. Those unclear that the places won under Sundhage remained theirs weren’t getting assurances. And without those assurances, there was every chance Sermanni was wrong.

“This dismissal was style-driven,” former U.S. national team midfielder Julie Foudy wrote for ESPNW in the wake of the dismissal. “Sermanni’s style was too casual – or, in layman’s terms, the opposite of Pia Sundhage.”

Sermanni was replaced by Jill Ellis, a long-time fixture with U.S. Soccer who’d been an assistant under Sundhage. Short of Tony Gustavsson, another assistant under Sundhage, it was the closest the U.S. could get to reverting to the old guard. When Gustavsson later joined Ellis’s staff, the team succeeded in turning back the clock.

The desire to revert was evident, clearing up the whys of the dismissal. The whos, however, turned the rumor mill.

“Everybody out there who may think the players made this happen, none of it’s true,” Abby Wambach said in the wake of the dismissal. Gulati also got in front of the revolt story, saying it was “probably three or four things” that led to the decision. But Sermanni’s approach to the squad – the style element Foudy talked about in the hours after he was fired – was certainly one of them.

Revolt was always too strong a word, but to this day, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where Sermanni had his veterans’ support and ended up out of a job.

“I would assume obviously there has to be some degree of dissatisfaction among the players,” Sermanni confessed to SI.com, “otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten to this point so quickly now.”

Once Ellis came in, experiments like Tymrak, Robinson and Horan stopped. Those that wanted a change had their status quo.

Australia's head coach Tom Sermanni, left, speaks to  Kyah Simon  during the last training in preparation for a quarterfinal match against  Sweden during the Women's Soccer World Cup in Augsburg, Germany, Saturday, July 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)ASSOCIATED PRESS

Australia's head coach Tom Sermanni, left, speaks to Kyah Simon during the last training in preparation for a quarterfinal match against Sweden during the Women's Soccer World Cup in Augsburg, Germany, Saturday, July 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

Sermanni’s eight years building the Matildas were relegated from the top of his résumé the moment he took the U.S job. It’s the nature of the position. The same reason he was drawn to the appointment is the same reason he was destined to be defined by it. The United States’ post is the most prestigious in women’s soccer.

That doesn’t make the position’s influence fair, nor does it make it proportional. Sermanni spent just over a year with the U.S. during the least important time in the World Cup/Olympics cycle. Between Aug. 9, 2012, when the U.S. beat Japan to win its third straight Olympic gold medal, and Oct. 15, 2014, the U.S. would not play a single game it had to win. The team could have lost all 24 matches Sermanni coached from Feb. 9, 2013, a 4-1 over Scotland, through April 6, 2014, a 2-0 win over China, and still reached CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with an almost guaranteed place in Canada 2015. Between Olympics and World Cups, nothing but squad-building matters for the United States.

Yet shortly after that win over China, Sermanni was relieved of his duties. Ellis took over in an interim capacity before eventually being given the permanent job. Sermanni provided some initial reaction but then drifted away. It was clear he’d been fired before even knowing it was time to play winning soccer.

He had won, though. Two losses in that March’s Algarve Cup serve as a type of tunnel-visioned legacy, but those defeats to Sweden (0-1) and Denmark (3-5) were his only two losses in 22 games. He’d won 16 times, beating teams that qualified for Canada 2015 13 times. Germany, Brazil, Canada, Australia – teams that would go into the next World Cup ranked first, seventh, eighth and 10th in the world – lost by a combined 11-1 scoreline to the U.S. In the face of those wins, the federation’s reaction to Denmark looked like a panic move.

Some insisted it wasn’t just the loss. There were bigger issues. Three or four, Gulati said. It was a poor fit, but given the universally positive opinion people had of Sermanni as a person, that explanation just didn’t jive. If it wasn’t about Sermanni as a man, then it had to be about Sermanni as a coach. And if it was about Sermanni as a coach, what had happened to overshadow his first 14 months’ worth of results? And why did what he accomplished with Australia so quickly become irrelevant?

The opposite could also be true. As much as Sermanni’s personality gave the U.S. a chance to maintain continuity, he still represented reform. Whereas Sundhage, a legendary player for Sweden, was reverential of the legends she’d helped build for the U.S., Sermanni’s history didn’t reflect that kind of reverence. His first big breakthrough in 2007, getting Australia out of the group stage in China, was partly on a young De Vanna’s shoulders. The win at the 2010 Asia Cup featured a goal in the final from a 16-year-old. The five penalty takers that converted in that game’s shootout averaged 23 years old. Come April 2014, the youngest holdover from Sundhage’s gold medal winning team (Sydney Leroux) was within a month of turning 24.

“Whenever we have changes … we talk to players, we talk to staff, we talk to people who observe the team and we also rely on our own assessment,” Gulati explained, explaining “the standards for this team are very high” when discussing the Algarve Cup.

In hindsight, Sermanni looks like a terrible fit. Eight years searching for Australia’s next generation taught him to look toward the horizon, and rewarded him for doing so. The core of the U.S. team, however, was all about the now. Cycling in players like Horan, 18 when she debuted, and goalkeeper Jane Campbell, called into the national team camp as a 17-year-old, told a 2015 team that 2019 was now in focus.

Two months after being fired, Sermanni resurfaced up north, initially acting as a technical consultant for Canada. He eventually joined John Herdman’s staff, serving as the perfect offset to his new, young, driven boss.

“John is really good at delegating stuff,” Sermanni recently told SI.com. “He has a lot of trust in his staff, so we could be doing different things for different games … He really mixes up responsibilities, even things like team meetings.”

They’re both Britons (Herdman’s from England); they’re both development driven; they both have ties to the South Pacific, Herdman having served as New Zealand’s boss during Sermanni’s second spell in Oz. But whereas Herdman projects the intensity of a man still seeking his career’s peak, Sermanni has settled in. As a balance, with a maturity and patience that thrives one-on-one, Sermanni may be the perfect counterpoint to a man young enough to be his son.

He’s never lashed out. He’s merely explained that, like the rest of the U.S. soccer world, the firing took him by surprise. Now, as the beneficiaries of his firing draw the spotlight of a World Cup, Sermanni gets only slightly more attention than another assistant would. And when Australia, his magnum opus, struck its first major blow on the international stage, the shadows of Canada’s bench meant Sermanni was almost forgotten.

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 10:  Interim head coach Jill Ellis of the United States shakes hands with Morgan Brian #7 prior to the first half of the game against China during an international firendly match at Qualcomm Stadium on April 10, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)Getty Images

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 10: Interim head coach Jill Ellis of the United States shakes hands with Morgan Brian #7 prior to the first half of the game against China during an international firendly match at Qualcomm Stadium on April 10, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)

While the status quo returned for the U.S., it brought with it the hypothetical: What if? What if the United States had let Sermanni stay? What if he was allowed to get to October’s World Cup qualifying tournament, implement his team and, after its inevitable qualification (the U.S. has never failed to qualify for the World Cup), been given time to hone his squad? Would it have won the Algarve Cup, as the U.S. did this winter? Would it have lost its prized no. 1 world ranking, as it did last fall? Would it look different than the team that won its World Cup group this month?

“I don’t think there would be a huge change in personnel, to be honest,” Sermanni told SI.com, though he later explained,“I don’t want to comment on what Jill’s doing because she’s a good friend of mine and a good coach.”

Perhaps Sermanni’s U.S. would have taken a similar arc to his Australia. In the Matilda’s first major tournament after his return, Sermanni made small progress, getting his team into the quarterfinals at China 2007. He also started his rebuild, getting players like De Vanna into his squad. Three years later, Australia won the Women’s Asian Cup, and a year after that, an exceedingly young squad bested Norway to get our of its World Cup group. It wasn’t revolution. It was evolution.

Stylistically, it’s unlikely a Sermanni U.S. would look the same as Ellis’s team does now. Australia, still built in the Scot’s vision, plays a very modern style, capable of hitting teams on the counter attack or playing a more nuanced possession game. In contrast, the U.S. was openly mocked at this year’s Algarve Cup for what one coach saw as a simplistic, predictable approach. It’s still Sundhage’s 4-4-2. It’s still 2012’s fast, direct style. It’s not what Sermanni would have instilled.

Despite his own claims otherwise, it also seems unlikely Sermanni would have taken this U.S. squad to a World Cup. With an average age of 28.4 years, the United States has the oldest team in Canada. Only one player, Morgan Brian, is under 23 years old. Every other player has entered the peak of her career. When France 2019 comes around, all but four players on this team will be at least 30 years old.

There is no backup plan for the U.S. There’s also no bridge to tomorrow. All its eggs are in one basket, an approach it’s difficult to fathom Sermanni taking. Hired to evolve the program, Sermanni would have included a path to 2019 in this year’s squad. It’s what he does best, but it’s also something that would have put much of this team in danger of not returning to the World Cup.

In theory, U.S. Soccer wanted this change. In practice, it became a gamble. The same people who hired Sermanni in late 2012 were convinced, come early 2014, he was a risk. And with a squad that had just won its third straight gold medal, U.S. Soccer decided the risk wasn’t worth the gamble.

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21:  Fabiana of Brazil looks dejected as Kyah Simon of Australia (17) celebrates with team mate Lisa De Vanna (11) as she scores their first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Getty Images

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21: Fabiana of Brazil looks dejected as Kyah Simon of Australia (17) celebrates with team mate Lisa De Vanna (11) as she scores their first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Now, Australia represents the reward. With far fewer resources than the U.S., with a smaller population and a thinner pocketbook, Sermanni’s program created a team that beat Brazil in a World Cup knockout round, something the U.S. couldn’t do four years ago (it won a tiebreaker, on penalty kicks). Yet now the team that created a legend has passed its prime. And with Simon’s late goal on Sunday in Montreal, Australia is just entering its.

Particularly for U.S. fans, Australia’s win is about more than a young team’s ascent. It is a vindication of the man their program rejected. If the premise behind Sermanni’s dismissal was about what Sundhage’s successor lacked, Australia’s success is the response. If you want a program to evolve, there may be no better man for the job.

Rightly, that won’t be the takeaway from Australia’s breakthrough. The players deserve the focus, particularly given there could be more wins to come. But hopefully, as the Matildas celebrated a landmark result, the man who orchestrated it allowed himself one of his characteristic, fatherly smiles. Even if nobody takes the time to notice, Sermanni deserves the producer’s credit for Australia’s result.

FIND FUSION

Here’s where you can catch us on TV:

Want to know what’s on right now? Head over to our show lineup page.

WHERE TO WATCH