(Friday, December 8, 2006) -- When former United States men's manager Bruce Arena was fired in July, I wrote that new U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati might well have painted himself into a corner. Now that months of searching for a new coach have proven fruitless, how narrow that corner has become is more and more apparent.
In announcing that Arena's contract would not be renewed, and that a world-wide search would begin for a successor, Gulati set out a list of attributes he would look for in a new coach. First and foremost would be a record of success at the international level, followed closely by a depth of understanding of the American game and the American system.
Gulati went on in the same vein and when he finished his list of qualifications, it was apparent he was essentially describing Arena.
Arena's tenure did not end well. Both sides said some harsh things both publicly and privately. This left Gulati with the difficult task of finding a successor who would be generally recognized as someone who instantly appeared demonstratively better than the coach he had fired.
Reportedly, Gulati's world-wide search looked most intensely at four coaches: former Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who lives in California, former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, who has worked with USSF before, and Gerard Houllier, coach of French champion Lyon.
Klinsmann was the odds-on favorite. Pekerman was probably number two, especially based on his long tenure coaching Argentina's youth national teams to world championships. But his biggest drawback was that he speaks virtually no English.
Then there is the question of money. The USSF is an organization with a long history of internal squabbling. It is composed of parts that have very different missions, some representing the youth game as played under the control of state organizations from Maine to Hawaii, others representing adult recreational soccer and still others representing the professional game and the international teams.
Arena was paid about $800,000 a season, a modest amount by international standards, but a huge amount when compared to what soccer coaches have made in this country in the past. Many of the factions within the U.S. Soccer "family" were upset about the amounts being paid to Arena and other national-team coaches. But to hire the level of coach that Gulati clearly wants is going to take a salary offer well in excess of what Arena was paid.
This is clearly a risky proposition given the internal politics of the organization, so Gulati is limited in what he can offer, lest he face a revolt in the ranks. That appears to be one of the factors in the talks with Klinsmann breaking off.
When Gulati was elected the new USSF president last March, it represented a triumph of internal politicking. He ran without opposition and was elected by acclamation after he was able to stitch together a coalition of all the disparate interests within the organization. If he is now to come forward and say he is paying a new coach maybe three or four times what Arena was making, even if he can find a sponsor or group of sponsors to pick up most of the tab, he will run the risk of destroying the new found spirit of cooperation within the organization, and returning it to the era that existed before his predecessor Bob Contiguglia took over nine years ago. Back then, the different factions barely spoke.
Another complicated issue revolves around the entire U.S. youth development system. From the moment he took over as USSF president, Gulati has said one of his top priorities is to revamp youth development, especially to try to insure minorities be given a much improved focus. If Arena had a failing, it was that he concentrated too much on the national-team program and not enough on the question of youth development. So, Gulati needs to find a new coach who is willing to devote considerable time and effort to youth development. This is not something with which most national coaches worldwide concern themselves, but the U.S. presents a unique situation.
So the search goes on. Bob Bradley, who was Arena's assistant at D.C. United and with the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, will take over on an interim basis through the winter and spring during, a period in which the Americans might will play a few friendlies. Perhaps, after the European season ends in May, Queiroz or Houllier might come available.
Had Arena's top assistant and confidant Glenn (Mooch) Myernick not passed away so shockingly, the whole process might have been easier. He could have taken over on an interim basis, even through the conclusion of the European championships in 2008, when several big-name coaches, such as Dutchman Guus Hiddink, now Russia's coach, might come available. By then, Klinsmann might be more receptive to getting back into coaching.
In any event, things are not going smoothly for Gulati. It will be interesting to watch how he digs himself out of a hole that to a great extent is one of his own making.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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