And now the bad news: It also isn’t exactly the world’s most plum assignment.
So Sunil Gulati, the shrewd new president of U.S. Soccer, has this dilemma on his hands. The national team is in desperate need of a deft hand from abroad, a man who will lend credence, energy and a new philosophy. And yet Gulati must prepare himself to face rejections, because this, after all, is not the Brazil Football Confederation he represents.
There is little doubt at the moment that Gulati will look first and hardest outside the U.S. for a successor to Bruce Arena, who was handed his walking papers after eight years of good and loyal work. Gulati has more or less said as much, and there are reasons for this. For one thing, no American coach at the moment owns the right portfolio for the task. If Gulati wanted an American coach, he might as well have retained Arena, the most qualified homegrown citizen for the job.
After a dozen years of American coaches (Steve Sampson before Arena), there is need for change, for a fresh mindset. Surely, the first two phone calls ought to be made to Juergen Klinsmann, who just guided Germany to third place in the World Cup, and Guus Hiddink, who has guided two different teams into the World Cup semifinals. This columnist would gladly welcome either. Klinsmann is the happier, fresher face; Hiddink is the more proven commodity.
We know both these men’s strengths from the recent World Cup, of course. Klinsmann is perpetually upbeat, a man of innovation and flexibility. He also has embraced American training habits, right down to the sports psychologist. Ironically, Klinsmann may well have taken some of his cues from Arena himself, refining them along the way.
Klinsmann, we also know, lives a short commute away from the U.S. training center in Southern California. He has quit the German team, after significant success. The question is whether he is willing to rewind, take the helm of a national team doomed by nature to limited success. After all, Klinsmann is a champion, a man associated only with true contenders. By accepting the U.S. job, he would find himself coaching a team thrilled just to get out of the first round of the World Cup. Where is the glory in that? So far, at least for the record, Klinsmann insists he has little interest.
Then there is Hiddink, a pure tactician who is more accustomed to such limitations. He is a coach who makes the best of flawed material, and did so recently by successfully navigating Australia through World Cup qualifying, then into the second round, and then very nearly into overtime against Italy. The Aussies have similar traits as the Americans — both of them are physical sides, well-intentioned, without the true standouts necessary to frighten quality opponents.
It is a great irony that Arena was successful in areas where an American coach was surely supposed to fail; and a failure in areas where an American coach was certain to succeed.
Arena was an adept sideline coach, a man who maximized his talent pool. He was, however, a lousy promoter of the sport at home. Arena never seemed to consider this one of his job descriptions, though of course it was. He was grumpy around the media, and his body language along the sideline was both smug and outraged.
We only needed to watch Klinsmann bring enthusiasm back to Germany, with a new attacking style and accessibility, to understand the difference that a coach can make in terms of galvanizing an entire country.
It is too much to ask Klinsmann, Hiddink or any other coach to turn the U.S. into a soccer-mad nation. But we also saw at this World Cup a breakthrough in the number of Americans traveling overseas to support the team. There were tens of thousands of U.S. tourists in Germany. It is not unrealistic to think that such a coach might be able to offer greater visibility and respect to the sport, in part through sheer enthusiasm, in part through success on the field.
Gulati did the right thing, not the easy thing, letting go of Arena and committing himself to what can always become an embarrassing search. Here’s hoping there is an international coach of achievement who thinks he can get more out of Landon Donovan, and even more out of the American public.
PST: It's been a long time coming and now it's official — Jose Mourinho will leave Real Madrid at the end of the season, opening the door for a rumored move to Chelsea.
PST: Carlo Ancelotti has his eyes on Real Madrid, which is likely to have a coaching vacancy if and when Jose Mourinho leaves. But PSG denied Ancelotti a request to be released.
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