Best coaching candidates reside in the U.S.
Sunil Gulati loves to travel. Anyone who knows the new U.S. Soccer Federation president knows he loves to take trips all over the world, for business and for pleasure.
So it should not come as much of a surprise that he is spanning the globe in search of his first U.S. national team hire. Gulati knows that his search must be a thorough one, and based on recent reports, it has been. Now, whether Gulati's reported meetings with Argentine coach Jose Pekerman or Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson were actually job interviews or were simply more fact-finding missions for Gulati is unclear -- Gulati won't even confirm publicly whether he has met with either man. However, what seems clear with each passing week without a coach is that Gulati didn't have to go globe-trotting to find Bruce Arena's replacement.
Juergen Klinsmann, Bob Bradley and Peter Nowak all reside in the United States, and all three are more than capable of steering the U.S. national team toward a successful 2010 World Cup.
Some will look at that short list and scoff at the notion that either Bradley or Nowak is a serious candidate, but if Gulati was serious about the qualities he said he was looking for in the next U.S. coach, those two names have every right to be listed alongside Klinsmann's.
If you would have mentioned Bradley as a successor to Arena four years ago, nobody would have batted an eyelash because he was regarded as the top candidate before his legacy-tarnishing run with the MetroStars. Three lackluster seasons with the Metros, though, and Bradley went from serious candidate to off the radar.
Bradley has done well to clean off some of that Metros tarnish this year by helping turn around a Chivas USA club that was downright awful last year. Sure, the club is well over the league's salary budget, but that should not take away from the clear evidence of Bradley's ability to identify and cultivate young talent (such as Rookie of the Year lock Jonathan Bornstein and promising midfielder Sacha Kljestan). And don't forget in his ability to build a team and to play attractive soccer -- despite having been accused in the past of preferring to play defensive-minded goon ball.
Was Bradley's tenure with the MetroStars disappointing? It was disappointing because of the expectations he arrived with. The belief was that he would build a championship team there, just as he had with the Chicago Fire in 1998. Bradley didn't build a title contender, but the MetroStars were hardly in shambles when he left. The Metros made the playoffs all three seasons Bradley was in charge, and you can't help but wonder what he would have done in Year 4 if then general manager Alexi Lalas had not fired him. Could you imagine a current Red Bulls team with Ante Razov, Bornstein and Michael Bradley?
For some, an even bigger strike against Bob Bradley than his stint with the MetroStars is the perception that he is simply an Arena clone. He served as Arena's lead assistant at D.C. United in 1996 and 1997 before taking over the Fire in 1998. Despite Bradley's having served under Arena for just two years, there is still a perception that they are too similar and that Gulati will not have made any progress if he simply replaces Arena with Arena Light.
That notion is laughable. Bradley and Arena have some similarities and share some coaching philosophies, but they are different coaches. Bradley should have been able to escape Arena's shadow in 1998, when he defeated Arena on his way to the MLS Cup title, but Arena's success with the national team cast a shadow Bradley still hasn't managed to escape.
Nowak has had no such problem. He served as captain of Bradley's championship Chicago team, but you don't hear anyone comparing him to Bradley. Nowak has established his own identity by rebuilding D.C. United into a perennial title contender and by evolving as a head coach in the public eye. He started out as an uncompromising disciplinarian, which was exactly what D.C. needed when he took over, but Nowak adjusted and adapted through the years. Now, he is regarded as a player-friendly coach with an edge.
If Nowak has a strike against him, it is his relative lack of experience. Just three years of coaching experience doesn't sound like enough to lead a national team, but lack of experience didn't seem to deter Klinsmann, who led Germany to the World Cup semifinals despite never having been a head coach.
One interesting aspect of Nowak's candidacy for the national team job is the presence of his lead assistant coach, Tom Soehn. Widely regarded as the league's best assistant, Soehn has been a serious contender for several head coaching positions in MLS but has yet to land his own. He has been a pivotal factor in Nowak's successful transition into coaching. The real question is whether Soehn would join Nowak as a national team assistant or would stay and serve as D.C. United's head coach, which would be his job to turn down if Nowak were to leave. Would Nowak succeed without Soehn? It is an interesting question Gulati might ask himself when it is time to choose a coach.
Then there is Klinsmann, who insisted repeatedly after the World Cup that he had no interest in the U.S. job. You keep reading about his repeated rejection of the job, but the reality is he has not made a public comment about it since July and recent reports have revealed that he already has met with U.S. Soccer officials. Klinsmann hadn't said much of anything until last week, when he made waves by dropping his first serious hint about a return to coaching.
"Who knows, perhaps I'll be a manager once again at the 2010 World Cup," Klinsmann said during a recent meeting with other World Cup coaches.
Was the statement a harmless bit of optimism, or was it the first step in Klinsmann's inevitable acceptance of the U.S. job? We will find out soon enough, but the same truth stands today as two months ago. Klinsmann is Gulati's dream candidate, and the job is Klinsmann's if he wants it. There have been reports that Klinsmann might want too much money to coach the United States, but you can rest assured that money will not be an obstacle for Gulati.
So, which man will Gulati choose? With Bradley and Nowak likely to be unavailable until November and Klinsmann still considering his future, there is no rush for Gulati. He can keep collecting those passport stamps and talking to a veritable who's who of international coaches, but when he is done, he will come back to the United States to hire a coach. The biggest names might be across the pond, but the best candidates are right here, waiting for the call.
It is that time of the year, when the cream rises to the top and the flawed teams fall by the wayside. Will that make this week's games easier to pick? It should, but nothing is easy when it comes to me picking winners.
Houston Dynamo at Columbus Crew
The Dynamo are getting ready for the playoffs while the Crew are preparing for January's draft. Why pick Houston? Because the Dynamo are trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed and because Columbus just doesn't have any real attacking weapons. Dynamo 2, Crew 0.
Kansas City Wizards at New England Revolution
The Revs are vulnerable without midfield maestro Shalrie Joseph, at least you would have thought that before New England delivered an inspired performance without Joseph in Wednesday's 2-0 win against the Red Bulls. The Wizards need three points to stay ahead of the Red Bulls in the East, but they will fall short as the Revs continue to heat up ahead of the playoffs. Revs 2, Wizards 1.
New York Red Bulls at D.C. United
D.C. will be playing without three suspended starters (Josh Gros, Brian Carroll, Bryan Namoff), but its depth will make those absences easier to deal with. The Red Bulls have a promising addition in Austrian Markus Schopp, but the ineffectiveness of Amado Guevara and Edson Buddle will cost them. D.C. United 2, Red Bulls 0.
Los Angeles Galaxy at Chicago Fire
The Galaxy is six points out of the last playoff spot with four games remaining. Can Los Angeles really win four straight? Don't count on it against a Fire team playing some of the best soccer in the league. Fire 3, Galaxy 1.
Real Salt Lake at FC Dallas
RSL saved its season with last week's stirring comeback win against the Hoops, but that match also should serve to wake up an FC Dallas team that needed a smack in the mouth. Expect Dallas to rebound and put a serious dent into Salt Lake's playoff hopes. FC Dallas 2, Real Salt Lake 1.
Colorado Rapids at Chivas USA
The Rapids have a chance to create some breathing room for the fourth playoff spot in the West, but they face a Chivas USA squad that is tough at home. The Goats put together a memorable attacking display as they stay on Houston's tail for the No. 2 seed in the West. Chivas USA 3, Rapids 1.
Last week: 2-3
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.