Time's up, Mr. Gulati! We're a week into the month of May — and this is the month that Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, told us we would see the appointment of a permanent coach for the American national team.
The decision has been skillfully delayed by Gulati for 10 months, ever since he fired incumbent Bruce Arena last July. There followed a five month coach-less interlude (there were no national team games to be played, so the vacuum hardly mattered) during which the California-based German Jürgen Klinsmann hovered as the much-favored coach-inwaiting.
But the Gulati-Klinsmann negotiations broke down — reportedly over Klinsmann's intractability on almost everything — and in December Gulati made the surprise move of appointing Bob Bradley as interim coach. In plain English, the meanwhile coach.
It was certainly a sensible and a safe move. As one of the top American coaches, Bradley has extensive knowledge of the American scene and American players. For the past five months, Bradley has been meanwhiling along — quietly, conscientiously, and successfully. His team has played four exhibition games, tying one and winning three — including a 2–0 win over arch-rivals Mexico.
Bradley is still the meanwhile man. But May is ticking away. Gulati had this to say: "We will meet the May timetable that I referred to in December. An announcement about the national team coach will be made soon. But at this point I am not prepared to comment on who, in addition to Bob Bradley, might be candidates."
Gulati's choice of May as the decision month was clearly linked to the end of the European soccer season — indicating that any challengers for Bradley's temporary job were coaches working for European teams who would become available as their seasons ended.
The two names that popped up most frequently were Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese assistant coach at Manchester United, and Gérard Houllier, the Frenchman who is head coach at Olympique Lyonnais.
Queiroz is best known for coaching the Portuguese under-20 national team to consecutive world titles in 1989 and 1991. He already has experience of coaching in America — a mediocre 24-game spell (12 wins, 12 losses) with the MetroStars during their inaugural 1996 season. After the debacle of Steve Sampson's U.S. team at the 1998 World Cup, Queiroz was believed to be in line for the job. He had spent much of the previous year traveling around America preparing a report on the state of the sport. But Queiroz went instead to the United Arab Emirates, and Bruce Arena took over the U.S. national team.
Houllier, like Queiroz, speaks fluent English and is regarded as one of the more intellectual coaches in the game — a reputation helped, no doubt, by his early work as a schoolteacher. His coaching career includes a six-year stint in England with Liverpool, but that is seen as a failure because Liverpool didn't win a major trophy during that period.
Like Queiroz, Houllier has done his most impressive work at the youth level. His work during the mid-1990s as the head of player development for the French soccer federation was greatly instrumental in the rise of France as a world soccer power and its triumph in the 1998 World Cup.
Looking at the current situations of Queiroz and Houllier, it is Houllier who emerges as the more likely candidate. Queiroz is a great favorite of the ManU coach Alex Ferguson and seems set to remain with the club.
Houllier's position is less clear. His two-year contract with Lyon expires about now. It has been highly successful, with Lyon winning the French La Ligue championship both years. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas has repeatedly and forcefully proclaimed that Houllier is staying put ... but not a word has been heard from the man himself.
One thing's for sure: Bob Bradley will soon stop meanwhiling as the national team coach. I'm optimistic that will mean his permanent appointment, because I cannot believe that Gulati will see either Houllier or Queiroz as preferable.
The U.S. has tried several times in the modern era to go with a foreign coach, and it has never worked out satisfactorily. The early coaches included Phil Woosnam from Wales, Gordon Jago and Gordon Bradley from England, Dettmar Cramer from Germany, and Alkis Panagoulias from Greece. None of them lasted very long, all of them evidently seeing the job as temporary until something better came along. All of which, I suppose, can be written off as an era in which American soccer had yet to take itself seriously.
Then, in 1991, there was the Serb Bora Milutinovic, hired specifically to make sure that America could take advantage of its role as host nation of the 1994 World Cup and at least qualify for the second round. Milutinovic accomplished that goal, barely, with qualification as a wild-card team. But neither he, nor any of the others, had any impact at the crucial level of youth development.
Houllier's background suggests he would be more committed at that level. But that is offset by his lack of success at the top international level, where his teams — either club or the French national team — have consistently failed to win a major trophy.
All of the foreigners who have coached America have been European. My feeling is that hiring yet another European would be more of the same — in particular, it will mean a lack of attention to the absurdly underappreciated wealth of Hispanic talent in this country.
In Houllier's case, there is also the problem that I have with exschool masters, who always seem to have a much too theoretical approach to soccer. American players are probably better educated than most soccer players worldwide — what they need is more experience with the street smarts of the game. Bradley is, to me, the best bet here. Yes, he is also something of a soccer intellectual (a Princeton graduate), but he is our intellectual. And no, he has not been a resolute champion of Hispanic talent. So far.
And that brings us back to Gulati, who is really the man who matters most. I believe in his total commitment to integrating Hispanic talent into the American soccer mainstream.
Whether his choice is Bradley, Houllier, or Queiroz — I have made my preference clear — it is Gulati who will play the vital role, partly by making another top appointment. Bradley should be the coach, but he should work with — and no doubt argue with — a technical director who oversees the long-term vitality of the American game. Either Queiroz or Houllier would be suitable for that job but — for the reasons given above — I think the technical director should be from Latin America, not Europe.
But Gulati's importance will be felt most in guiding the next coach and the putative technical director toward giving us a national team that truly reflects the rich variety of talent available in this country.