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Rothenberg Floats A Trial Balloon

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, August 19, 1998) -- The "trial balloon" is something we're used to seeing in Washington. A politician, in order to gauge how much support there is for an idea or a position, leaks word of it to an influential reporter. Once it is print, the politician can decide whether to go forward based on the reaction.

It's pretty clear that outgoing United States Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg launched such a trial balloon last week when "a source close to" Rothenberg leaked to The Washington Post that the national team's coaching position was about to be offered to D.C. United's Bruce Arena. The story went on to say that Arena would be offered either a two-year contract with a two-year option, or a one-year contract with a series of options.

As trial balloons go this one, while seemingly simple, was actually quite complex. What Rothenberg seemed to be doing was trying to gauge the reactions of three, or even possibly four, very different constituencies.

The first were those in the U.S. Soccer hierarchy who were supporting the hiring of a big name international coach, such as Bora Milutinovic, Carlos Alberto Parreira, or Carlos Queiroz. The second was the reaction of those on U.S. Soccer's executive board to Rothenberg making the decision before the August 22 election of his successor. The third was to see the Arena's reaction to the possibility of being given the job, but with no guarantees he would actually be around for the World Cup qualifications, let alone for Japan/Korea 2002. And the fourth, oddly enough, to try to reach Parreira who has sort of dropped out of sight, and has been unreachable by U.S. Soccer officials for several weeks.

The most important aspect to the trial balloon was that Arena would be offered less than a four-year contract. Here Rothenberg, was trying to have his cake and eat it too. Such a contract would turn the national team over to Arena, whose strength is in player development, during the period of the next year to 18 months when we need to see about bringing along younger players.

But it would give U.S. Soccer the out of being able to dump Arena and to bring in that big-name international coach if Arena is perceived as not being up to the job. This was meant to mollify those who are demanding a big name foreign coach now, and to win support from those who back a U.S. coach. Perhaps most importantly, it would also give Carlos Queiroz two years to get tired of the desert and his deal with the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly as an escape clause after two years.

Well, if the purpose of this trial balloon was to gauge reactions, the good news is that it worked. The bad news is that some of those reactions were not what Rothenberg might have wanted to hear. Bottom line: key members of the executive committee said they would not vote to approve any hiring contract offered by Rothenberg to anyone, preferring that his successor, either Larry Monaco or Bob Contiguglia, be given the right to make the decision.

Arena, meanwhile, said all the rights things publicly. He repeated he was happy at D.C. United and that he still had a job to do there, and that he wanted to be a part of the growth of MLS, and that he was in no way negotiating for the national team job. But privately he seemed to make it pretty clear that he wants and expects a four-year commitment, although it is not certain he would turn down a two year pact with options.

But bringing Arena in on a two-year trial may be self-defeating. It will mean that he has to win at once, not only a majority of the dozen or so friendlies that will be contested in 1999 but in competitions like the Confederation Cup and the Gold Cup. That will mean going with the veterans, and leaving experimentation till later.

So it appears the appointment of a new coach will wait for the election. And by the way, the day the story appeared, the missing Carlos Alberto Parreira did call.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for ScrippsHoward for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.