Monday, December 11, 2006
Search for a new coach far from over
Step right up! Come one, come all!
The circus of the U.S. national team coach search is back in town, more bloated and convoluted than ever. Ringmaster Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, hasn't seen great success since declining to renew Bruce Arena's contract this summer. Many had been expecting the U.S. to name a prestigious foreigner to take the helm of the team. "Every coach in the business would want to coach the U.S. because we have money, we're top 10 in the world, and we're getting better," ESPN analyst Shep Messing said earlier this year. But the U.S. team's ranking has plummeted since then, and one could also argue the same about worldwide esteem after the former coach of the German national team, Juergen Klinsmann, turned down the post after a protracted negotiation with the USSF. Neither he nor the federation has been willing to clarify the sticking points of the failure to reach an agreement. "He was our first choice," said Gulati, who also affirmed that he had laid aside other options in order to pursue Klinsmann, but to no avail. If it wasn't bad enough that he wasn't the federation's primary option, newly named U.S. coach Bob Bradley has been saddled with an interim tag, albeit with the bonus of being named coach of the Olympic team. The tag gives Bradley a roughly six-month period to make his case for assuming the post full time. In other words, Bradley is the first act under the big top. The finale has yet to materialize. "We'll make a decision in a time frame that will be pushed back to springtime," said Gulati. Perhaps wanting to avoid specifics, Gulati kept possibilities open. "Might it be shorter? Might it be longer? That's all possible," Gulati said. "Is Bob a potential candidate? He would be. His track record speaks for himself. I'm very comfortable that we are leaving our national team and our Olympic program in very safe hands." Gulati's words might be more comforting if the inconsistencies between earlier statements and the present reality weren't so glaring. As recently as September, Gulati stated that the federation would not appoint an interim coach. Bradley now exists as a living contradiction to that earlier philosophy. It's not the only case. "We're not going to name an Olympic team coach until we have the senior team coach," Gulati said back then. However, that's exactly what has taken place, leaving a glaringly awkward situation looming if the permanent coach eventually named in the spring isn't Bradley. That someone will then have to work closely with Bradley until the Olympic cycle ends. Frankly, the Olympic team gig was almost a necessary bone thrown to Bradley, considering the precarious nature of the interim post he did accept. The slight sweetening of the offer might have made all the difference in Bradley's decision. Even if someone else takes over the national team in May, Bradley will stay on coaching the U-23 team. It's an especially strange situation, since usually the Olympic appointment is one that an incoming national team coach would like to be in charge of deciding. Gulati acknowledged as much back in September. "Most of the coaches we talked to, if not all, certainly want a big hand in the Olympic team," Gulati said. In fact, along with Gulati, those same coaching possibilities will be looking over Bradley's shoulder as he starts the year off with the U.S. national team in January. Besides Klinsmann, the remaining original group of five finalists for the post are all still apparently in the running for the position. Contrary to some earlier reports, none of the remaining four has dropped out of consideration. "It's a pretty simple reason why," Gulati said. "We kept in touch with them. Bob was one of them, so he had a pretty good idea of what was going on. In two of the other cases, if we said, 'We're ready to sit down and offer you a contract,' they weren't in a position to say yes because they're in jobs. From their perspective, the best scenario would be something that took another five months to reach a conclusion." In other words, six months of searching and interviews eliminated exactly one major candidate. Another one is now on trial. At least three others wait in the wings. Given what Gulati said -- "two of the candidates are internationally based [and] have successful international experience both at the club and international level" -- here's a peek through the curtains to see who might take the stage if Bradley either slips up or is simply told to exit stage left. Carlos Queiroz is currently serving as assistant coach to the legendary Alex Ferguson of Manchester United. Queiroz has longtime ties to U.S. soccer and has been up for the American coaching position before. Considering his international experience with Portugal and South Africa as well as his reputation as a responsible and trusted lieutenant to Ferguson, Queiroz is seen by some as Gulati's preferred choice. Furthermore, Queiroz has MLS experience in his bag of tricks (a .500 record with the then-MetroStars in 1996 before he decamped to Japan after a playoff loss to D.C. United). He returned to the U.S. to investigate and author a report (in 1998) on youth development that eventually led to the residency program at Bradenton, Fla., to train young American talent. Many of today's top U.S. players have come through the system Queiroz helped create. Gulati said that two of the coaching possibilities are involved with their club teams not only in league games but also with European championship games. Not only does Queiroz qualify here, as Man U has advanced in the Champions League, but also so does another prospect, Gerard Houllier, coach of Lyon in France. Houllier's international experience includes technical director duties for France during its World Cup-winning campaign in 1998, though he failed to qualify the squad in 1994 when he was the actual coach. His contract with Lyon ends in May, conveniently coinciding with the end of Bradley's proposed tenure. Both candidates boast impressive credentials in developing young players; Houllier with the likes of Thierry Henry and Queiroz with Luis Figo and Jorge Costa. Yet it's unlikely that any other of the potential choices has a better track record with young players than Argentina's Jose Pekerman, winner of three youth World Cups. It's interesting that even with a rumored pairing of Francisco Clavijo as an assistant, Pekerman was not automatically the default pick after Klinsmann withdrew. It might have been that more objections were raised than expected about Pekerman's limited English. All of the other candidates speak English. Gulati might be waiting for Pekerman to make some good-faith progress in this area during the next six months. There's also the question of just how interested Pekerman is in the U.S. job, since he appears to be keen to explore club options in Europe, as well. However, perhaps everything has been put on hold not only for the re-evaluation process to start over but also for a surprise guest to be invited to the party. "One candidate that was not in our final list said he was not interested but has come back and said that he would like to be in the mix," Gulati said. At this late stage in the game, even with the new extension of time to look at aspirants, adding one more would only be apt if that individual was of very high quality. A wild card like Guus Hiddink could end up stealing the show. Despite all the speculation and second-guessing that will no doubt be swirling around him for the next six months, Bradley was remarkably unflappable. "I'm confident about what I bring," Bradley said. "What lies ahead, none of that fazes me at all. I'm honored to have this chance." Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.