It’s been a long road for Orlando Pride Head Coach Tom Sermanni. The 2016 season of the Nation Women’s Soccer League brought many challenges to Sermanni’s side as they finished ninth in the table for their inaugural campaign. The start of the 2017 looked to bring more of the same for Orlando, but the gaffer was able to ride out only one win in the first seven matches, and eventually guide his team to a playoff spot, a first for an expansion team in the league.
With the regular season coming to a close, and the post season on the horizon, Coach Sermanni was kind enough to speak with me after the home match versus the Portland Thorns. The Pride had just earned its first point ever against Portland, so I took the opportunity to talk football with Coach.
Backline Soccer (BS): So Tom, the season is coming to an end you’re hoping to go into the playoffs, how much time have you spent thinking about the draft and into next year?
Tom Sermanni (TS): Not, honest, not a lot of time on the draft because at this time we only have a third round draft pick, so it really, that’s not…unless we do some trading, and that’s not really a major priority for us. To be honest, but we already for several weeks now started to–
At this point, Coach Sermanni took the time to greet Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg who was a player for him in his time as manager of the United States women’s national team. He wished her well, and his face reflected his genuine feelings for her. Without missing a beat, Tom picked up where he had left off.
TS: So, it’s about looking at where we need to strengthen the team; we need to work out what we’ve done. What I think we’ve done very successfully is bring in good international players. We need to look at how many international spots we got next year, and where we can strengthen from there. One of the difficulties we’ve had coming in as a new team is to be able to get good quality domestic players, because teams don’t give them up. When you come in as a new team it’s hard to do that, so we’ve had to look at the international market and be creative in other areas. So obviously, the international market is something we need to look at.
BS: Any other options?
TS: The other one is looking at players– U.S. players, who perhaps have gone overseas to play and want to come back to the league. So we kind of cast the net out there. We got some names that we want to talk to, and hopefully chip away and strengthen (the team).
BS: How did you improve the team between last season to this year?
TS: I think what we’ve done is made significant progress with the strength of the squad this year. Obviously, it was the management that brought Marta, but we brought five other players in here. I think if you include Marta, we brought in six very good players who have contributed, so we got the bases of a very good squad. So it’s now a case of just adding little bits and pieces to the structure that’s in place.
BS: So this season for the league there’s been a bit of turnover for the coaches, what are your thoughts on that. For a coach, most of the time your last day is going to be a bad one.
TS: Yeah. (Tom once again pauses to have a quick exchange post match with players exiting the locker room, then without missing a beat picks right back.) It’s always disappointing when I see a coach lose a job because we’re all out there working hard. At the end of the day in any league, some teams have got to win and some teams have got to lose. It doesn’t mean just because your team is losing that you’re necessarily doing a bad job. You look at particularly the Sky Blue occasion, they were really still right in the frame to make the top four at that stage. I feel for coaches that lost their job during the season, and also in the women’s game there tends to be a little bit more stability, so I’m hoping that the status quo can be maintained a little bit better, and coaches are allowed to have time to build the teams.
BS: Now, do you think you’d want to see more female coaches come into the league or do you think it’s hard to find a quality female coach?
TS: Look, I think that’s a complex question. The simple answer is yeah, we need to see more and more females coming into the profession, and as the game continues to develop professionally then there’s a greater chance of that happening. What you have to do is build over time depth of coaches. When you go to a typical coaches course, there might be 40 guys and there might be two women. Out of the 40 guys, maybe only ten of those guys get jobs, so if you only have two women maybe none of them are getting jobs. So for me, it’s a bigger issue than just saying bringing women professional coaches in, it’s an issue where there needs to be more at the youth level, development level staying in the game, and working their way in the system. I think a lot of time, there’s what I call “talking-ism” which doesn’t do anybody any good, but see we want a woman for this job, so they put a woman in the job whether that’s the right fit for her or the right fit for the team. I’m ranting about this in a long winded way because this is something I do believe in strongly. We need to encourage more and more women to be in the women’s game, but there needs to be more then it goes to the top. Does that make sense?
BS: Yeah, it does.
TS: There’s a lot of players now that have been professional players for several years now for their career, and if they finish, stay in the game at the coaching level. That’s what you want to look at. The other reality is that coaching is a tough job. When I say it’s a tough job, it’s a job that is fickle. There’s no security. You don’t know what going to happen. The hours are unsociable, you’re on the job 24/7 which is still great. It’s just the reality of the job, and often when females leave the game they go on to start another life…for women when their career looks like it’s coming to an end, they often have to think about “Okay, where am I going to go to actually start making a living for all the money I’ve given up being a poorly paid professional.” So there’s a whole range of stuff around getting more women’s coaches. There needs to be a big effort to more so then you get more in NWSL.
BS: If you had to have another assistant or Coach Smith left, what qualifications would a female have to have for you to add her to the staff?
TS: No different to a male. It’d need to be someone that you think has good knowledge of the game. Who is able to relate to the players, is able to work in with the staff, same as it would be for a guy. It’s not different. Hopefully, it could be one of the senior players saying “Look, I’m looking at retiring. I’m interested in coming on in the coaching staff.” I would take them onto our coaching staff in a heartbeat, but you’re still looking at the same thing. You’re still have someone who’s going to be able to do the job or you think has potential to do the job.
BS: There’s been some international teams that have also sacked their managers. I know you’re good where you’re at, but any temptation or a thought of jumping back into the international game?
TS: Going back into the international game? I enjoyed my time in the international game. Apparently, I was 50 to one for the England job, so I need people to put on money, so my odds get a bit more respectable. I would never say no, but obviously…and I don’t know what my future lies here. My contract is up at the end of the season. I enjoy my job, I enjoy the club. We have the basis of a very good team. So if I’m fortunate enough to be here next year, hopefully we can continue to keep growing this team. But I never discount anything, to be honest, I don’t say no I never want to go back to an international job. What I would say, pardon me, if I was going back to an international job it would need to be somewhere where I felt there was a chance to do something as opposed to just a job. So it would need to be a program that you think has potential to grow or you feel that you can take it somewhere.
BS: It’s a real trick because you have several countries that may not support the women’s game or you have New Zealand for example where you don’t have a lot of time together as a squad, and so it becomes an issue.
TS: Yeah, those are hard. Those kind of jobs are probably better for younger coaches coming up through, trying to make their mark on a team. They have the energy, and that kind of stuff. Probably not so much for someone at my stage of my career. So certain jobs that would appeal to me if they came up and if I was without employment, but I’m not out there looking. I enjoyed bits of the international game. You got every program that you think you can take somewhere. When John Herdman went into Canada, it was a real web, but the potential was there. When I went to Australia, there was a potential to move into Asia, so you’re building stuff, so when you got those situations. Then it’s good. Sometimes as a coach, you need to get a job because you haven’t got a job. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to be in a job where you feel you can make a mark, and take a team somewhere you can build something. Generically, lucky most of the time to have those jobs, and this (Orlando Pride head coach) is another one that’s kinda got those qualities.
BS: You’re a manager that likes to build. You’re done a great job building the Pride, second year contending, the developmental academy, is there anything that you’d like to see in the club structure that you’d like to improve on?
TS: There’s not a lot to be honest. You’re restricted here. You say developmental, and it would be great to have that development phase all the way through, we have the academy, we have the ECNL which is part of it. Unfortunately, the college system comes in the way, and that stops that development. You don’t have control over the destiny of those players both being able to keep them, and at a critical time you don’t have your hands-on development with them because they are at college for four year. It’s difficult to get the development underneath here. Hopefully as this club progresses and it gets bigger, is younger teams getting into the philosophy of how Orlando Pride plays. You want to see that continuity, and maybe at sometime, down the track but I don’t think it’s anytime soon you might end up with a reserve team.
BS: Changing gears a little bit, in your opinion, why is not a women’s open cup in the United States, and what needs to happen to get that on?
TS: I think the major reason is first of all, the difficulty that everyone’s had to get a professional league established, and you can go off in a whole range of different ways because then you’re juggling too many balls there. What we got to do is, we have to get this league set up and established. I read an article recently not about expansion, but about getting the standards of the ten teams higher. I’ve talked about that until I’m blue in the face, and I’m 100% in favor of that. So what we need to do with these ten teams, I mean Orlando Pride is up there, Portland is up there,and there a couple of others, and there’s a drop off. We need to get that right. That is priority number one. Get that right, then you can start at looking at other things. You don’t just want to be piecemeal, we’ll have a U.S. Cup and things aren’t all over the place. So for me, get this league right. Get ten teams, get standards we need to set. Conditions for players, training arrangements, standard of grounds, get all that sorted, then start adding to it.
BS: Do you think it’s the responsibility of U.S. Soccer to do that for the league. It’s the federation’s responsibility to have an open cup. Even though the federation supports the league, doesn’t NWSL have to do it.
TS: It’s a balance to that, but ultimately the federation is a major decision-maker. And I think they have said and are trying to do the right things, but again it’s a balancing act. The teams in the league that started this league five years ago when nobody wanted to come near it. Either individual owners and groups of owners have put their heart and soul and the money in there. Then like anything the league jumps with teams like ours coming into it. There’s an old saying a fleet is as fast as its slowest ship. You then have to start bringing up those teams to a better standard, and that’s part of the federation partly responsible, the league itself is partly responsible, and the owners are partly responsible to say “okay, we’re in this, a new bar has been set, and we need to get to that bar.”
BS: It’s been five years of existence with the league, you’re still talking about stabilizing the league. How many more year are we talking in those terms?
TS: You have to go back historically here. You look at the MLS (Major League Soccer), and I was here in 2001 and MLS was on its knees, and that was at six, seven years in. If it wasn’t for (Philip) Anschutz bankrolling four or five clubs. It was a real (feeling of) which way is this going to go. You can go back ten years, teams are still playing in rubbish fields. It’s only ten years ago. New York City (FC) playing in a postage stamp. It’s a balance of time, patience, vision, organization, and then having the foresight to get things in place. It’s a real balancing act to get it right, and you have to have a little bit of patience, and at the right times you have to get the right decisions to get the league chipping on and improving.
BS: So there’s no set timeline, but in your opinion if you’re going to put a number on it…
TS: A couple of years. I think the idea of MLS team (affiliating with an NWSL team) is a great idea because you already have structure in place, you have finance in place, knowledge in place, facilities, you have the whole thing. So for me, what I believe it’s something the federation is working hard on. I think if I’m an MLS club, I think it’s great to have an Orlando Pride as part of it. I think we add a lot to this club, if it’s done properly, and I think from a financial perspective if you do it right, it’s actually not a financial burden. It’s somewhere where you add value to the club, so I would like to see in the coming years if the smaller owners are struggling to make the investments they’re making then MLS clubs then step in and take over the teams. But and I’m very, very conscious of this, the guys that were in there putting the money in there when nobody else was interested. You need to value what they have done for this league.