By NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - Tom Sermanni doesn't come with a guitar. And forget about bursting into song when he meets the U.S. women's soccer team for the first time, as predecessor Pia Sundhage famously did.
"I can't do that one bit," the Americans' new coach said, smiling. "I can come up with some good one-liners and clichés, but players don't tend to appreciate them as much."
If he can lead the Americans to their third World Cup title, Sermanni's witty remarks will sound every bit as good as any song played by Sundhage.
The 58-year-old Scot, by way of Australia, inherits a much different U.S. team than the fractured, fragile bunch Sundhage got five years ago. The Americans are on their best run since 1999, reaching the final at each of the last three major tournaments and coming away with two titles. They have been ranked No. 1 in the world since the 2008 Olympics. They have the world's best goalkeeper in Hope Solo, and arguably the two best forwards in Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
But the rest of the world has begun closing the gap on the U.S. in recent years, and it will be up to Sermanni to make sure the Americans don't lose their place as the undisputed power in women's soccer.
"I don't think you just sit back and hope the team will be successful," Sermanni said Wednesday on a conference call. "The main reason for that is the game is changing at a rapid pace. The quality of the teams is much closer than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s."
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati and the other four members of the search committee looked at more than 30 candidates, male and female, American and foreign-born. But few possessed Sermanni's combination of international experience and the ability to manage players in a firm but fair manner, qualities that will be increasingly critical over the next four years.
"Tom is someone with a terrific reputation as a coach both on a personal and a professional level," Gulati said. "He knows the challenge ... the challenges to keep the team No. 1 in the world."
Once dominated by the U.S., Germany, Brazil and the Nordic countries, there is increasing parity in the women's game and Sermanni knows the changing landscape better than most _ particularly in Asia, where Japan followed its World Cup title by reaching the Olympic final.
Sermanni transformed Australia's women's team from an international lightweight into the No. 9 team in the world, with the Matildas reaching the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups. The young Matildas also won the 2010 Asian Women's Cup.
In his first stint as Australia's coach, from 1994-97, Sermanni led the Matildas to their first World Cup appearance.
"I think I've got good experience in international football, and I think I've got a reasonable knowledge of the American game and their players," said Sermanni, who was one of 10 candidates for FIFA's 2011 Women's Coach of the Year. "Over the past eight years now in Australia ... I've been able to change the squad and develop younger players for the international game."
He shares Sundhage's belief that the Americans need to alter their style of play to keep pace with the changing game. Sundhage tried to replace the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield, with mixed success.
"This U.S. team has some very good footballers," Sermanni said. "(But) there is an intention to develop a more sophisticated style of play. Philosophically, you want to play good, attractive, attacking football. That's what I've always tried to do wherever I've gone. I tried to change that outlook in Australia, and one of the things that I want to do here is impress that style of play within the American team."
But Sermanni's biggest challenge might be managing the personalities within the team.
Sundhage was unfailingly positive and believed in building her players up with constructive criticism. While that approach definitely was needed when she first arrived, some thought Sundhage should have taken a harder line when players acted up. Solo, for example, caused a stir during the Olympics when she used Twitter to criticize Brandi Chastain, a member of the 1999 World Cup champion team who was working as an NBC analyst.
Affable and even-keeled, Sermanni is considered a player's coach like Sundhage; he made good on his deal with the Matildas to dye his silver hair red and shave his mustache if they qualified for the 2011 World Cup. But he's not afraid to let everyone know who's in charge, either. He kicked Lisa De Vanna, Australia's best player, out of camp six weeks before the World Cup for disciplinary issues. She was eventually allowed to return.