Even a couple of weeks later, it is deflating.
With the United States' participation in the World Cup going out with a whimper and the team having been thoroughly treaded on during much of its time in Germany, hopeful American eyes are already cast toward 2010. Bruce Arena, once thought to possess a proverbial lock on the coaching position about a month ago, now appears very mortal if not expendable as the national side gears up for a chance at redemption. The man standing on the sidelines for the next four years could well dictate if the United States accelerates to the next level or stays muddled in the land of pretenders and middle-of-the-pack teams.
There is no denying that following the abysmal showing in 1998, Arena overachieved and exceeded expectations. In fact, the former coach of D.C. United single-handedly restored the national team's pride and prestige. The 2006 debacle notwithstanding, Arena's eight years as the national team coach were unequivocally a success and the standard for excellence that he established should stand the test of time. However, 2006 and even the leadup to the World Cup showed that Arena might have been guilty of outthinking himself and was not the master preparer many thought he was. The team lacked energy and movement and seemed very lost on the playing field. For many, it became brutally clear that our emperor had no clothes and was clearly outcoached and outclassed.
While Arena's prestige should not be diminished, it is conceivable that the national team might need some new energy and a different focus. Arena should be immortalized as our best coach to date, but even the mastermind of our success might have become too comfortable and set in his ways.
No one knows if Arena truly wants to come back to coach the national squad. Perhaps more importantly, no one knows if newly elected president of the USSF, Sunil Gulati, would offer him a contract extension. There is no shortage of speculation about what the next few weeks and months will bring, just as there is no shortage of candidates to fill the role. Many of these men are merely lurking in the shadows, but many could have a viable chance at the position. A look at the men who would be king:
The Old Boys Club
Bob Bradley -- About the time Arena was leading the national side to 2002 glory, Bradley was considered the heir apparent to Arena. A protégé of Arena with D.C. United before leaving to lead the upstart Chicago MLS side, the pupil outdid the teacher as Bradley's Chicago Fire beat Arena's United in the 1998 MLS Cup. Bradley's Fire squads were traditionally organized and tactically superior to their competition, tasting success both in MLS and the U.S. Open Cup. His eye for talent allowed him to nurture players like DaMarcus Beasley, Josh Wolff, Ante Razov and Chris Armas into national team regulars and blend them with shrewd international acquisitions into a cohesive unit.
His undoing, perhaps, was a tenure with the very mediocre MetroStars which saw his credibility and luster take a hit. The New Jersey-based outfit bore little resemblance to his mechanical and methodical Fire teams and Bradley was prematurely canned in 2005 in the midst of a playoff push. Now with Chivas USA, Bradley is beginning to show a bit of his magic again, invigorating a team that was abysmal in every sense of the word and making the most of a team in salary cap hell. If he can continue this upswing in Los Angeles, Bradley, who has attracted the attention of some foreign clubs, could well work his way back into the national team picture.
Dave Sarachan -- The man who replaced Bradley with the Fire is also another Arena protégé whose stock has fallen in recent years. Dave Sarachan spent years with Bruce Arena as his assistant with the national team and was instrumental in the team's successful 2002 tournament run. Sarachan left Arena's wings in 2002 to take over the slot vacated by Bradley. A promising 2003 was followed by some disappointment in 2004 but last year's team showed some signs of progress and a late push in the MLS playoffs secured his return in 2006.
Like Bradley, Sarachan's stock has dropped but after a brutal road trip to start the season, the Fire are beginning to gel and could well be MLS Cup contenders before the season is out. Sarachan has shown some savvy in the MLS Draft as well, finding players like a Chris Rolfe and Nate Jaqua who have blossomed into national team caliber players. Like Bradley, a successful 2006 might propel him into a viable candidate for the potential position, though it might be too late this time around.
Glenn Myernick -- As the former skipper of the Colorado Rapids, Myernick is known as a player's coach. After his dismissal from the Denver team, he replaced the aforementioned Sarachan as Arena's steward. Like the other members of the old boys club in Bradley and Sarachan, Myernick knows the Arena system well and might provide a smooth transition from one management to another. He also has a familiarity with CONCACAF opponents that could be vital to qualification success.
Like Bradley and Sarachan, Myernick's stock has dropped. It was Myernick's responsibility to scout the Czech Republic and the team's 3-0 fiasco of a loss could prove to be his undoing. While Myernick tasted some limited success with the Rapids, his teams lack the hardware and prestige that many of the other candidates could boast. Myernick is more of an also-ran among this group then a real candidate but could receive obligatory consideration due to his service with the team.
The Forgotten Man
Tony Dicicco -- The third head coach in U.S. women's national team history has never seriously been considered for the top job with the men's national team. Like Arena, Dicicco is the most successful coach of his program and is one of the most successful coaches in international play. The issue with Dicicco is that he has never coached men at such a high level, but his credentials including a Women's World Cup and Olympic gold medal speak volumes about his ability as a manager. Now involved in the administrative side of the game and making the rounds on the speaker's tour, Dicicco might have the winning swagger that the team could use. Perhaps a longshot at best, the man does know how to win.
The MLS Candidates
Steve Nicol -- The Scotsman who tasted so much success with Liverpool in the 1980s has led a resurgence in New England that has placed the Revolution among the elite teams in MLS. Nicol has blended together experience and youth, grit and savvy to form a veritable juggernaut in Foxborough. The former Scottish international is a tactician who meshes this knowledge with a gung-ho approach to all aspects of the game. It was Nicol who "discovered" Clint Dempsey and drafted standouts such as Pat Noonan, Shalrie Joseph and Michael Parkhurst among others.
Nicol has earned a reputation as an inspirational coach and is the kind of leader that players will do battle for. His teams have consistently shown organization and good tactical awareness, something lacking from the United States in Germany. While Nicol has never tasted true success at the MLS level in the form of real hardware, his club consistently is among the top teams. Steve Nicol should be considered a front-runner for the job should Arena not return.
Peter Nowak -- Continuing with the foreign coaches in MLS, Nowak knows the American player perhaps as well as any of the candidates mentioned so far. Having plied his trade in MLS for several years and then becoming a successful head coach with D.C. United. Nowak has some strong credentials. While he is still relatively wet behind the ears in terms of a coaching resume, the 2004 MLS Cup ring on his hand speaks volumes about his credentials. Concerns might abound about Nowak's often hostile relationship with Freddy Adu, a player who might figure prominently into the national team picture by 2010. Another trouble for Nowak is a supposed comment from him during a 2006 preseason tune-up match where it is claimed that he uttered a racial slur from the sidelines.
However, with an impressive playing resume coupled with a strong debut to his MLS coaching career, Nowak could challenge for the role and be a successor to Arena should he step down. There is very little doubt that Nowak is a man with an enormous upside here in the United States and he should be a strong candidate for the position.
Sigi Schmid -- Like Arena, Sigi Schmid parlayed success as a collegiate coach to land a job with MLS. His Los Angeles Galaxy sides were always contenders for the MLS Cup and Sigi captured several trophies before a surprise axing in the summer of 2004. Now with the Columbus Crew, Schmid is piecing together an Ohio team that is in a bad need of a rebuilding effort.
Schmid also coached the U-20 national team in the youth World Cup and achieved some success as the side advanced to the knockout stages of the tournament. Proof of his eye for talent came out in 2002. Schmid was responsible for the signing of then unknown Carlos Ruiz before the season, a player who has since been arguably the league's top striker over the past five years. Schmid, like many of the other candidates in this list, is far from the pinnacle of his career and would need a phoenix like ascent to overtake some of the other front-runners.
Fernando Clavijo -- It might seem odd that Clavijo, a man with a less then stellar MLS coaching record, would be on this list. Yet, with his experience as head coach of the soccer-poor country of Haiti in 2003 and his role as an assistant with the 1998 Nigerian national team in the World Cup, Clavijo has more international experience then most coaches in this pool. Clavijo possesses a player's knowledge from his days representing the national team and has matured into a coach with both domestic and international credentials. The main issue with Clavijo, however, is that his teams have never tasted true success at any level. While the fact that he is bilingual is a plus, Clavijo would be a serious surprise to even advance into serious consideration for the position. Not tactically a strong coach, Clavijo would most likely struggle at this level.
Frank Yallop -- He was the man who turned San Jose from a laughing stock into the poster-child of MLS success. The man who parlayed his MLS success and then went on to coach the Canadian side could be the perfect fit for the red, white and blue. Yallop, who played in MLS for three seasons, understands not only CONCACAF but also the unique challenges of the game in the States. Yallop may not be the sexiest name on the list, but he has achieved success in MLS and has international experience. His tenure with the Canadian national team was without distinction and the team failed to progress to the hexagonal round of qualification, but Yallop might not be far removed from the inside track to the position.
Steve Sampson -- Made you look.
The Grandfather Figure
Leo Beenhakker -- Few American soccer fans knew this name before Trinidad and Tobago's stunning and heroic draw versus Sweden in its opening game of group play. With several of the veterans from 2006 unlikely to see minutes in 2010, the United States could well benefit from the presence of the aging Dutchman. Leo Beenhakker has seen his reputation soar over the past weeks as the tiny Caribbean nation put together a surprisingly strong World Cup performance. His four decades in the game has taken the Dutchman on a globe-trotting journey of working both for club and country.
Beenhakker has managed the Dutch national side and Saudi Arabia in addition to his time with Trinidad & Tobago. His greatest success came with Real Madrid in the 1980s where he won three La Liga titles with the massive side. Although pushing 64, Beenhakker might be lured to the United States at the right price, but with his age and propensity to be lured away by a better offer, Beenhakker might be too much of a flight risk for a national team in need of stability.
Sven Goran Eriksson -- Laugh if you will at the notion, but the fact of the matter is that Sven Goran Eriksson will be out of a job after the World Cup and he has a resume of success. While the USSF would have to shell out some major money to lure him stateside, Sven had shown a respect for the United States leading up to the friendly in 2005. Now, entering the twilight of his coaching career and having left the most stressful job in professional sports as England's head man, Sven might be ready to maintain the competitive edge in the far less taxing role as the United States' coach. Perhaps overrated as a coach, Sven does churn out results. The ability to live and work stateside with his girlfriend might be enticing enough for the man who led England to a respected level in the last two World Cups.
Carlos Queiroz -- Whereas Eriksson is a man of charisma and charm, Queiroz is a coach whose strong tactical sense has earned him both praise and criticism. Currently the chief assistant under Alex Ferguson with Manchester United, Queiroz is a polarizing figure who is loved by many United fans for his "X and O" work and despised by many who follow Real Madrid for his disastrous 2003-2004 campaign. He has spent extensive time in the States, turning around a rotten MetroStars side in 1996 and doing some extensive work and research for the USSF with regards to player development and the famed "Project 2010" initiative. It would be ironic that the man who envisioned much of this project would now be the one to take over the national side in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup. Queiroz's name consistently pops up whenever there is a rumored vacancy for the national team, and it should appear again and again as the rumor mill kicks into full gear.
The Uber Favorite
Jürgen Klinsmann -- It should come as no surprise that the hottest name in worldwide soccer might appear on this list. Klinsmann took a German side that was appearing very ordinary a few years ago and has propelled them into the semifinals of the World Cup, playing smart, tactical soccer and instilling team discipline. In other words, everything the United States lacked in its opening round travesty. A resident of California, Klinsmann is sure to receive a bevy of offers after the World Cup from many clubs seeking his services. During his tenure as the coach of the German national team, he drew the ire of many in the media for commuting from the United States and not being based in Germany.
Such is his love for his California home that a job stateside might appeal to him more then a big-money European offer. Klinsmann is also a close friend of Arena and has been a frequent guest and participant of both national team and MLS practices in the California area. Klinsmann not only understands the American mentality and challenge, but the playing style he employs with his team would mesh well with the technical level of the current crop of U.S. national team players. While he has stated he has no interest in the job right now, the ability to work close to home and in the relatively pressure-free environment offered stateside might be too much for Klinsmann to pass up. Even should Arena decide that he wants to return, if Klinsmann were to show interest in the job, he would have to be considered the favorite for the position.
Well, it is going be interesting. No one knows if Arena is staying, going or if the USSF wants Arena to stay or go. The simple fact is, there are no shortage of scenarios that could play out over the coming weeks or months. Stay tuned.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet and the soccer editor for The NYC Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com