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Tom Sermanni’s challenge is balance, not change

U.S. coach Tom Sermanni has a bevy of high quality players at his disposal. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

Nine months into his tenure as United States women’s national team head coach, Tom Sermanni faces a recurring issue with his squad selection.

And it’s a very good problem to have.

Sermanni’s regular challenge is to nail down a starting XI and an 18-player gameday when he has double that number of high-quality players —  young and old — available to him

He is known for his willingness to grant opportunities to young players both in his time as Australia manager and his short time thus far in the States. Nine players have earned their first senior U.S. team caps this year; four of them are still in college.

Much like his predecessor, Pia Sundhage, Sermanni is tasked with managing a team stacked with proven veterans – winners, to be clear – while ensuring young players earn enough time now to have the experience to bridge the gap later. Some may even immediately earn their way into the lineup, like University of North Carolina senior Crystal Dunn seems to be doing at outside back.

But change for change’s sake isn’t something Sermanni is about to do. The U.S. women, after all, are the three-time defending Olympic gold medalists. They lost the last World Cup final on penalty kicks to Japan.

By thumping Mexico 7-0 in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, the Americans extended their unbeaten streak to 35 games and their home unbeaten streak to 73 games. They haven’t lost on U.S. soil in nearly nine full years. That 1-3 loss on Nov. 6, 2004 came on the Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett farewell tour. Briana Scurry and Kristin Luckenbill were sharing time in net the last time the U.S. lost inside their own country.

So why fix what isn’t broken? That is a question Sermanni asks himself as he builds toward the 2015 World Cup with a group of youngsters who have potential and a mix of veterans who don’t necessarily know what two years from now will bring.

“We’ve got a very successful national team, and we’ve got very good players and a very strong squad,” Sermanni said. “So, I’m not in a situation where I’m coming into a job and saying, ‘I need to fill in players here; I need to find players.’ So, I’ve not actively gone out there and said, ‘I need to find players for this team.’

“So what we are trying to do is look and see and try and make judgments on the league – and through our youth systems – on players that we think have got that ability to step up from that level to the next level. And that’s the kind of player we are trying to get. And there is not an abundance of them. There are a lot of very, very good players in the league, but it’s (about) trying to pick the right ones that you think can step up.”

[MORE: Illinois senior Vanessa DiBernardo has eyes on NWSL, U.S. national team]

The league Sermanni speaks of is the NWSL, of course, which directly produced its first two call-ups that Sept. 3 night vs. Mexico: FC Kansas City’s Leigh Ann Robinson and Erika Tymrak.

“(Tymrak has) an ability to guide past players, to beat players, to run with the ball, the ability to put on a change the pace and a change of direction that gets it away from pressure. That’s the slight point of difference that I’ve seen between her and some other players who have ability in that position.”

Robinson and Tymrak join Dunn, Christen Press, Kristie Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Ashlyn Harris, Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston in Sermanni’s first cap club. In five years in charge (December 2007 – September 2012), 17 players appeared for the U.S. senior team for the first time under Sundhage.

Sundhage was oft – and, at times, rightfully – criticized for being too conservative in her cautious approach to integrating young players into the team in 2011 and 2012. And unlike Sermanni, Sundhage did have to fix a broken team, one coming off its most embarrassing result ever, a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinal. Things fell apart on the field and in the locker room that day, with the infamous Hope Solo postgame comments stating that she “would have made those saves.” Solo was ostracized from the team, Greg Ryan was soon after fired and Sundhage had to solve the puzzle with pieces already in the box, but not quite fitting after some wear and tear.

Sundhage led the U.S. to a second straight Olympic gold medal less than a year later, right back where everything fell apart, in China. The Americans did it again under Sundhage last year in London and most impressively, Sundhage left the team to coach her native Sweden under the most jovial of terms with her players, who bought Sundhage a guitar so she could sing to them, like the good old times.

That’s all in the past now. Sermanni doesn’t have to rally the troops or resurrect a team. Sermanni’s task is to find the best players available, young or old. And the ultimate goal is without a doubt a 2015 World Cup title. As close as the U.S. was to winning it in 2011, they were even closer to a shocking quarterfinal exit if not for Abby Wambach’s 122nd minute equalizer against Brazil.

Next up for the U.S. is a set of three games in ten days, first against Sermanni’s former team, Australia, on Oct. 20 and then a pair of games against New Zealand. The camp could be another opportunity to evaluate new players as 2014 quickly approaches and the build-up to World Cup qualifying truly commences. But more so, it’s a chance for Sermanni to sift through all the talent that he already has at his disposal.

There will be veteran U.S. players in Canada two years from now. Some will compete in their fourth and maybe even fifth World Cups if the ageless Christie Rampone plays. There will be a mix of 20-something young stars in their first or second World Cups; the only question is, ‘How many?’

“When you look at it now, we’ve got this really good youth system up to Under-23s, we’ve got the college system and then we’ve got a professional league,” he said. “You’re covering probably as many bases as you possibly can in the search for players.”

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