SAN DIEGO — The U.S. women's soccer team has been ranked No. 1 in the world for seven years, hasn't lost a match at home in nearly a decade and has been beaten just twice in its last 48 matches overall.
Not exactly the record of a group in turmoil.
But when a team is that good, even the slightest stumble can have dramatic repercussions, as Tom Sermanni found out Sunday when he was fired as coach, after 15 months and two losses, by a national federation that thought he had the team headed in the wrong direction.
"Obviously, the expectation for this team is success," forward Abby Wambach said before Thursday's friendly with China at Qualcomm Stadium. "It's never easy to have a coach come in and not fulfill the timeline that was expected by everybody."
The post-Sermanni era got off to fast start with two first-half scores by Carli Lloyd and a goal from Sydney Leroux less than 30 seconds into the second half sparking the Americans to an easy 3-0 win.
Although the firing caught everyone by surprise — even Sermanni said he was blindsided — there had been faint rumblings of discontent.
Players complained privately about a lack of vision while publicly Wambach and Alex Morgan were critical of Sermanni's frequent lineup changes. In eight games this year Sermanni used eight lineups, and since taking over for Pia Sundhage at the start of 2013 he played 32 women, with a dozen making their national-team debuts.
Sermanni was tasked with bringing young players into the program, but apparently that was too much turnover for a veteran group that thrives on stability and boasts eight women with 99 or more international caps. So when the U.S. lost back-to-back games for the first time in 13 years, falling to Sweden and Denmark in last month's Algarve Cup, conversations between players and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati convinced Gulati a change had to be made.
"I don't want to get into specifics of who reached out to whom," said Gulati, who, like Wambach, denied Sermanni had been the victim of a mutiny. "We've had discussions with players, with staff, with people around the team.
"I'm not going to talk about the specific elements of how much influence any particular individual or group had. The players are always consulted and that's as much as I would say."
Asked if she agreed with the change, Wambach sidestepped the question.
"If you agree or disagree with the decision, that's irrelevant at this point," she said. "You have to move forward and hope that we get a coach that comes in and can get us onto that top podium.
"It's very easy to start the what-if games. But that's when things start to … break and we need to come together as a team."
And they need to do it quickly. Qualifying for the 2015 World Cup is in October, giving the U.S. less than seven months to regroup — which partly explains the federation's urgency in firing Sermanni.
"We all know that we're one of the best teams in the world. But we also know that we didn't win the World Cup last time," Wambach said. "For U.S. soccer to make such a bold statement, that raises the stakes for us. It's a good wake-up call for everybody.
"You can't rest on your laurels. You can't rest on a No. 1 world ranking. You have to go out every single time you step on the field and prove yourself. If you do that consistently — especially from now to the World Cup — I no doubt think that we're going to give ourselves a good opportunity to win."
Yet for all its success the women's national team can be a difficult one to coach since it is both tight-knit and full of oversized personalities. Corraling both that talent and those characters will necessarily become the top priority of the new coach, whom Gulati hopes to hire quickly.
The search could be a short one if Gulati listens to the players again.
Jill Ellis, development director for the national team program, was named interim coach for the second time in 18 months after Sermanni's firing. A former youth team coach, an assistant to Sundhage and the head coach at UCLA for 12 years before that, she has worked with every player on the national team.
And she already has the support of Wambach.
"Jill would be a great coach," she said. "The advantage that she has is she knows the players so well that whatever decisions she would make would be understood. I'd be glad to play under her."
But Ellis, who took her name out of consideration for the job before Sermanni was hired, isn't sure she wants the position this time either.
"I have not given it thought," said Ellis, who was 5-0-2 in her last stint as interim coach. "I'm just kind of really focused on what's in front of me at this point and that's just doing the job I've been asked to do."
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