WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, May 16, 2007) --- United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati's grand plan for the future of the U.S. men has come to an end -- at least for now.
By removing the "interim" from Bob Bradley's name and making him the full-time coach through the 2010 World Cup, Gulati abandoned his quest to replace the departed Bruce Arena with a major international coach.
In Germany last summer, even before the World Cup kicked off, there were rumors abounding that the somewhat mercurial Arena was not getting along all that well with his bosses at the USSF. By the time the tournament had ended in the disappointing three-and-out elimination, it was clear that Arena was tired of the job after eight years, and the powers at the USSF office in Chicago were tired of Arena.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to still being a huge fan of Arena as coach, the best the U.S. has produced. While I think he made a few mistakes in how he prepared the team for its opening World Cup match, and perhaps in his choice of some of the players, the Americans were pretty well doomed from the moment they were drawn into the Group E with the Czech Republic, Italy and rapidly improving Ghana. Had the U.S. had the same draw as, say, Mexico, it likely would have advanced out of group play with ease and might well have gone even deeper than it did in 2002 when it advanced to the Cup quarterfinals. .
If that had happened, or even if the Americans had not lost captain Claudio Reyna to injury in the 14th minute and pulled out the match against Ghana, it would have moved ahead to a meeting with Brazil in the Round of 16. A loss to the then-defending champion Brazil would have been expected and the pressure to retain Arena likely would have been enough for Gulati to reluctantly do so.
But although he will deny it, when Gulati he took the helm of U.S. Soccer in March 2006, he had a plan to move the U.S. men to the next level by hiring a world-class coach with a history of success. Arena was under contract through the end of 2006 and then the team could be turned over to his long-time assistant Mooch Myernick through 2007 while Gulati waited for his man.
His man, of course, was Jürgen Klinsmann. After leading Germany to third place in last summer's World Cup, Klinsmann resigned, saying he wanted to take time off to be with his family at his home in California for at least a year. Gulati was sure he could bring him on board by next January with Myernick as his assistant.
Then fate intervened. First, Arena forced a resolution of his job situation when he received a take-it-or-leave-it offer from Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls. Then, tragically, Myenick died of a heart attack last October.
So, Gulati was left stitching together Plan B, which had Bradley as the interim coach through the end of the European season while he waited for Klinsmann to make a decision. Gulati also reportedly looked at Argentina coach Jose Pekerman; Gerard Houllier, who coached Lyon of France, and Carlos Queiroz, an assistant at English power Manchester United..
Of course, one must remember that Gulati was hunting for a coaching elephant with the equivalent of a financial popgun. At its annual general meeting this year, the USSF approved a fiscal 2008 budget that allotted about $1.7 million for coaching salaries -- head coaches and assistants -- for all of its men's teams, including youth teams. A top-flight national-team coach for a soccer power these days alone commands two or three times that entire budget. So Gulati was faced with the task of either finding someone who would work for relatively little because coaching the U.S. men would look good on his résumé, or else finding a sponsor willing to kick in a few million dollars to augment the budget -- and then selling the deal to the disparate membership of the USSF.
Over the last weeks, the pressure has been ratcheted up on Gulati to name a permanent coach. Why, I'm not sure, except that people don't understand that national-team coaches come and go, and many countries won't name theirs for another year. So, Gulati figuratively bit the bullet and gave the reins to Bradley.
In Bradley, the national team is getting a good coach. When Gulati announced the USSF would not renew Arena's contract, he indicated he wanted to take the U.S. men in a new direction, but now he's heading down the same road. Arena and Bradley, as close friends, share coaching philosophies that are nearly identical.
On the plus side, Bradley is well liked by the players and seems to communicate well with them. He will probably be more diplomatic than Arena with the bosses in Chicago. On the minus side, Bradley does not have Arena's experience of getting teams ready to play in some of the Central American and Caribbean snake pits the U.S. must visit in World Cup qualifying, and we will learn if he can prepare a team for specific games the way Arena could.
Still, Bradley has a record of success and will have the opportunity to help grow U.S. prestige on the international stage. But don't be fooled by Bradley's contract through 2010 -- contracts are made to be bought out. In a very real sense, international coaches are always hired to be fired.
Arena's eight-year tenure was an anomaly. If Bradley loses the Gold Cup this summer to Mexico or Copa America is a disaster -- both possibilities -- his time could be short-lived. Then again, success at those tournaments could start his era on a high note. Along with his promotion comes much goodwill. Now, Bradley must make the most of the opportunity.