Take for instance, a film session two days before the national team’s second leg against Scotland on Wednesday night in Nashville, Tenn. Sermanni, a proponent of a Barcelona-style passing game and patience over heedless attacking, delicately provided pointers to his players from a 4-1 win over the Scottish less than 48 hours earlier in Jacksonville, Fla.
“He brought ‘a don’t take it personal approach’ if you were in the clip,” said veteran defender Christie Rampone, the team’s captain. “It was more of 'This is a lesson, let’s look at the options you have on the field. The option you gave was good, but look at what you had. There might be something three-on-one instead of, you know, one-on-one.'”
In Sermanni’s debut, the world’s top-ranked team outscored Scotland by a combined 7-2 in the two friendlies against his native country. On a chilly night at LP Field in Nashville, the Americans outlasted Scotland 3-1 in spite of the absence of Alex Morgan. The 2012 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year sat out the win with a minor ankle injury. It allowed Sermanni to evaluate Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, who received her first starts in a national team uniform.
The duo dazzled Sermanni with their mobility and ability to maintain possession in the win. In the 51st minute, Leroux made a run along the right goal line and fed a curling pass to Abby Wambach for a diving header and 2-0 lead. Less than four minutes later, Press netted her third goal in two games after collecting a lofted pass into open space from midfielder Shannon Boxx. The 2010 Hermann Trophy recipient calmly took one touch to trap the ball near the penalty spot and touched it past Scotland goalkeeper Shannon Lynn for a 3-0 lead.
Sermanni, 58, is best known for resurrecting the Australian national team. In 1995, he led the Matildas to their first FIFA Women’s World Cup in nation history. The soft-spoken manager vividly recalls a 4-1 defeat to the United States, in a match Sermanni tried to employ a strong defensive structure against the potent American attack. Australia led 1-0 after a goal early in the second half, but surrendered four goals over the final 30 minutes in the Group C loss. Sermanni left the national team in 1996, but returned for a second stint in 2005, after completing gigs in Japan, Malaysia and on American soil in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA).
By 2007, the Matildas exhibited more of a free-flowing offensive attack predicated on a positive possession game. In the last two World Cups, Sermanni has led Australia to berths in the quarterfinals. He is also credited for helping further the development of a spate of burgeoning young talents, such as right back Caitlin Foord. In 2011 in Foord’s World Cup debut, the 16-year-old prevented Marta from scoring in a narrow 1-0 loss to Brazil.
Above all, Sermanni strives to be himself as a manager.
“I couldn’t be an Alex Ferguson-type,” Sermanni said. “He’s much more of a disciplinarian, in your face, straightforward character. I’m more placid. A lot of coaches make mistakes by looking at Sir Alex, since he’s had great success they think ‘I want to be like that.’ You have to have your own style.”
Minutes before his team’s training session on Tuesday, Sermanni chatted with Elijah Clark, a 15-year-old forward with the North Carolina Fusion, outside of Winston-Salem, N.C. Clark experienced a rare defect at birth from what doctors believed was caused by a lack of oxygen to his brain from inadequate blood flow. Clark was born without hands, has two fingers and one forearm bone. His mother, Alishia, said only several people in the world have his exact anatomy. Then in April, he collapsed during a club soccer match due to complications from Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
As Clark underwent radiation and chemotherapy last summer, he cheered on the national team while he watched the London Olympics from afar. Remarkably, he returned to the pitch mere weeks after undergoing treatment.
“They were my inspiration,” Clark said.
When Clark was granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish, he instantly said he wanted to meet the women’s national team. After speaking with Sermanni, Clark passed a ball with Wambach and several others throughout warmups. He also posed for a picture with Wambach and Morgan, as all three flashed wide smiles for the camera.
Sermanni has already endeared himself to his players for embracing the sport, while recognizing the importance of maintaining balance away from the game.
“He’s genuinely a nice guy that loves the game, but also understands there’s life outside of soccer,” Boxx said. “That’s going to be huge for this team because that’s how we treat the game, too.”