Search is on for a new U.S. women's coach
Greg Ryan had always seemed curiously bulletproof, generally dodging the larger munitions in terms of media scrutiny. His highly favored team looked plodding in the Women's World Cup, but Ryan seemed to get a pass as all heads swiveled toward the Hope Solo fiasco.
When the same thing happens to the U.S. men's team -- such as at the last two World Cups in Europe -- the coach typically has been vilified in newspapers, on TV and in the combustible blogs.
Well, while Ryan escaped the media nicks and cuts, he couldn't escape the surgical slice from U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who has treated Ryan the same way he treated former U.S. men's coach Bruce Arena last year:
Gulati has declined to renew Ryan's contract as women's national team coach.
Ryan's deal ends on Dec. 31, 2007. His last match was Sunday, a disappointing 1-1 draw with a nation (Mexico) that has mostly been a punching bag for the powerful U.S. women's program.
In evaluating Ryan, Gulati said that U.S. Soccer weighed everything over the past two years, but gave additional weight to the preparation for and performance in the Women's World Cup. The move reflects U.S. Soccer's larger goal of keeping pace across the board, in men's and women's programs, youth and professional.
"It's clear that a number of [women's] teams around the world are playing at a much higher level than they had been previously," Gulati said.
Gulati declined to comment on candidates for the job but indicated a preference for someone "with American experience and someone involved in a national team level, either here or abroad."
The U.S. soccer president acknowledged that the men's and women's programs will be evaluated according to different scales. "The expectation is that we're going to be competing for a gold medal at virtually every [women's] competition," Gulati said.
Ryan's team never really looked up to the job in China, struggling right away with North Korea. The odd reluctance to use substitutes was a red flag. Near the end of the tournament, that chemistry-busting, nonsensical decision to bench goalie Hope Solo simply underlined the problems. The fire had already been ignited; a 4-0 beating from Brazil in the semifinals merely served as incendiary to make it burn hotter.
Credit Gulati for seeing past the small-picture moment and recognizing that the issue was larger than Solo vs. Ryan. Considering the calamity of it all, there really was no way to justify Ryan's retention.
So now U.S. Soccer secretary general Dan Flynn, Mia Hamm and Gulati will make up a three-person search committee. They hope to name a replacement within 30-45 days; the process must be expedited because Olympic preparation begins early in 2008.
So who will mastermind the program's first true rebuilding task? Former U.S. women's coach Tony DiCicco, the mastermind of the 1999 Women's World Cup title team, has a WUSA gig lined up. But it doesn't begin until 2009, and he could possibly provide a short-term fix, at least.
Or how about Swede Pia Sundhage, who coached the WUSA's Boston Breakers in 2003? She also served as Chinese assistant in the Women's World Cup. Sundhage recently told a Swedish newspaper that she has been contacted by a U.S. Soccer representative, without further elaboration.
Or might Gulati turn to the architect of the team that whipped the United States, Brazilian women's coach Rene Simoes? He shepherded Jamaica's only appearance in the men's World Cup (France '98). Gulati once interviewed Simoes for a position with the U.S. men's program, although it was unclear whether that was the top spot or some technical role.
It might take someone like that to truly turn around the program, a figure strong enough to resist "old guard" interference. It's not that everyone doesn't appreciate the contributions from the program's fabulous cornerstones. But time does move inexorably forward. The U.S. women's program sometimes appears to have a "Sopranos" tilt to it: Once you're in, your opinion (or playing service) is always sought. Or so the figures seem to believe.
Perhaps a current college coach could successfully bridge the gap, someone close enough to understand the women's soccer culture but not beholden to the figures that currently dominate it. A smart coach could manage the delicate balance of gaining from the important figures without deifying them. Candidates from U.S. college programs could include Santa Clara's Jerry Smith, UCLA's Jillian Ellis (also the U.S. under-20 coach), Notre Dame's Randy Waldrum, Navy's Carin Jennings-Gabarra and Texas Tech's Tom Stone (the former Atlanta Beat coach).
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.