U.S. women’s national team head coach Tom Sermanni told reporters before a Western New York Flash game Wednesday that he doesn’t get involved in club-level decisions, preferring to “leave club matters to the clubs.”
But it’s been no secret that U.S. Soccer viewed the NWSL as a tool for national team player development when it announced it would spearhead the new league. Sermanni has been touring the U.S. to attend NWSL matches and his presence signals he’s invested in what clubs do.
But after three weeks, any questions about whether U.S. Soccer would influence the way national team players are used by their new teams have been answered as club coaches have seemingly had free rein.
Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the USWNT and her French club Olymique Lyonnais, will be a forward when she joins Seattle Reign in June, coach Laura Harvey said Thursday.
“In the system we play at the moment, Megan would be classed as a forward, as she predominantly plays out wide,” Harvey said during a web chat for the Seattle Times. “We knew before the league started that we had a strong midfield group, and so far they have proven that.”
Lauren Cheney, who has found a home at central midfield for the USWNT, plays as a forward for FC Kansas City.
Kelley O’Hara may be the most unique case. She helped the national team win a gold medal by playing every second of the 2012 Olympics as a defender, but made a name for herself as a prolific goal-scorer and MAC Hermann-winning forward at Stanford.
Sky Blue FC head coach Jim Gabarra told NWSL News in preseason he expected to play her in both positions, depending on the opponent. O’Hara started as a forward Wednesday on Western New York Flash’s home turf, grabbing an assist, but was moved to the backline late in the second half.
“There’s never been any directive set from the national team,” Gabarra said during preseason. “Player development is player development. The most important thing is to have a league that is going to be here for a long time and then Tommy (Sermanni) or the national team coach will be able to come in and take players that are the best fit for the national team instead of the other way around.”
After Women’s Professional Soccer folded in 2011, a prevailing concern was that there would no longer be a way to find a player akin to the next Shannon Boxx. Now a star and veteran for the USWNT, Boxx had never been capped at the youth level but impressed with her play in the WUSA league and went on to help the USWNT win three Olympic gold medals.
The value in a professional league is seeing players perform on a weekly basis against tough opponents, Sermanni said.
“It gives players a pathway to the national team by allowing myself and the national team staff to potentially look at up to 100 or so additional players in a competitive environment,” Sermanni said in an e-mail to NWSL News. “You want to keep building layers of development throughout the country and now we have a significant layer of development between the college game and the national team.”
The relationship between U.S. Soccer and the clubs is as close as it’s ever been. U.S. Soccer is subsidizing its players’ salaries in the league. The league is helping teams with some front office operations and club coaches were flown to Nashville during the USWNT’s Fan Tribute Tour to meet with Sermanni.
During preseason, FC Kansas City President Brian Budzinski said U.S. Soccer was working to “increase our coaches’ capacity from a technical standpoint.” Boston Breakers General Manager Lee Billiard said Sermanni shared his philosophy with the club coaches and “each coach knows they’re responsible for the development of the players.”
In a question-and-answer released by U.S. Soccer Thursday, Sermanni commented specifically on clubs playing national team players in different positions.
“The main responsibility of the clubs is not to play the player where I want them to play, and in some ways it doesn’t do any harm to play different positions and get that experience,” he said. “So playing a different position is not something I worry about and it doesn’t concern me as long as the players are playing well.”
O’Hara told NWSL News last month she didn’t mind the switch because playing each position helps inform her ability to read the game in the other. Sermanni did briefly move O’Hara to midfield in a match against the Netherlands last month, but she’s consistently played left back since Olympic qualifiers last year.
There are still different tactical systems, which will present other changes that national team players must adapt to. Previous USWNT coach Pia Sundhage preferred a 4-4-2 and despite a push for a possession-style game, the U.S. is known for its direct long balls.
Teresa Noyola, an allocated player for Seattle Reign, played for the U.S. youth national team but joined the senior Mexican national team after deciding Mexico’s style of possession on the ground suited her abilities better.
Gabarra, who said O’Hara was willing to play wherever her club needed, emphasized that all national team players may need to play differently for their clubs, even if they keep their same field position.
“The national team has a style of play and not every one of these NWSL teams are going to play that style,” he said. “You’ve got to play the style that suits the players you have. It’s a big chemistry experiment for each team.”