U.S. Soccer Still Searching For Leader
by Trevor Whenham - 01/11/2007
Get more World Cup betting information including betting bonuses, World Cup odds and our famous World Cup picks, which in 2006 earned $100 bettors over ten times their initial investment. ($100 bettors earned $1,820 click here for details)
The World Cup has been over for six months now and, from the American perspective, the picture hasn't got any better. It was still a performance that was awful to the point of embarrassment. There has been lots of soul searching on all fronts about what happened and why. Everyone seems to have different answers about what went wrong and what to do about it, but there is one belief that seems to be universal - it was all coach Bruce Arena's fault.
Arena took over the job as national team coach in 1998 after a similar period of crisis. The U.S. went into the 1998 World Cup with reasonable hopes that had been building since the team won the 1995 Copa America soon after coach Steve Sampson was hired. They qualified for the World Cup handily, dropping only one game. The tournament itself was disastrous, with three losses, including one to international political rival Iran. Sampson was fired soon after the tournament, and Arena arrived as the savior. Arena had left the University of Virginia to lead D.C. United to the first two championships in MLS history before losing in the final in 1998 to Chicago, coached by Bob Bradley (remember that name).
Arena built a solid international team. The obvious high point was the 2002 World Cup. The quarterfinal appearance there probably set U.S. soccer expectations unreasonably high for all of history, and laid the groundwork for Arena's eventual demise. Arena followed up that huge performance with Gold Cup wins in 2002 and 2005, and a FIFA ranking of No. 4 in April of 2006, the highest level the country has ever reached.
And then the 2006 World Cup happened. Or didn't happen, as the case may be. The team scored just twice in three games, they only tied eventual champions Italy because Italy's Cristian Zaccardo scored on his own goal, and they finished a disappointing fourth in their group behind qualifiers Italy and Ghana, and the also disappointing Czech Republic. Many people questioned what Arena was doing during the tournament. The game plan for all three games was almost exactly the same, with no compensation for the different styles of their opponents, making it very easy for opponents to play against. Players were playing in odd positions, they were playing a conservative style with only hints of the explosive enthusiasm that was so successful in 2002, and Arena was strangely and almost obnoxiously secretive. It was very ugly and, not surprisingly, Arena was fired soon after the debacle.
The biggest sign that the U.S. Soccer program was overvalued in the minds of its members was the difficulty in replacing Arena. In many other countries, coaching vacancies have been filled quickly. In some cases, like Russia, the coach for the 2010 World Cup run was in place before the 2006 World Cup had even been played. The Americans didn't have that foresight, presumably because they weren't expecting the disaster that occurred, and they have struggled to find someone to take what should be a prime international job since.
It's not that the national team program didn't know what they wanted. Soon after Arena was booted, the target was identified - Jurgen Klinsmann, the German striking superstar and coach of the 2006 German World Cup team that finished third. It seemed like a perfect fit. He has the international experience to raise the profile of the program and sustain some lasting positive results. He lives in California and he is married to an American former model. It seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the two sides couldn't get a deal done. Early in December, Klinsmann withdrew from consideration after talks broke down.
You really have to wonder what could have gone wrong. If the American program was trying to do anything other than open the vault and give the coach full control then they clearly aren't interested in building a truly elite program, because that's exactly what happens for coaches in other countries. Regardless, it didn't happen. The program didn't have a coach five months after Arena had left, and they needed someone to head up the program because there was a camp in early January and exhibition games against Denmark on Jan. 20 and Mexico on Feb. 7. That's where the aforementioned Bob Bradley comes in.
Bradley was hired in December as the interim coach of the team. It's not exactly clear what interim will mean. He's around at least for this stretch of games, and he could be asked to stay longer. That move would likely not be particularly well received by the critics who were so vocally opposed to Arena. Bradley didn't just coach against Arena in 1998, but he spent the two years before that as Arena's assistant at D.C. United, and he also worked for Arena at the University of Virginia. He is widely identified as Arena's protégé. He's also known to be gruff and stoic, and doesn't seem to have a personality that will attract outsiders to his program.
If Bradley doesn't stick around long term, and chances are very good that he won't be asked to, then there are several new rumored candidates. After failing to land Klinsmann it seems that the team needs someone high profile and from outside the program. Some of the rumored names include Gerard Houllier who coaches French team Lyon, and Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz. The most intriguing and exciting name that has cropped up recently is Jose Pekerman. Pekerman coached Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, and led that country to World Youth Championships in 1995, 1997 and 2001. A coach of his caliber might, for a brief moment, make Americans aware that the U.S. has a soccer team all the time, not just once every four years.