Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Different Kind of Coaching List

Since the surprise announcement of the US Soccer Federation discarding men's national team manager Bob Bradley, all the jockeying between exotic names and big resumés -- on tap since at least 2006 -- bubbled back to the surface. But, with the 'Dear Santa' lists of big names becoming cliché, I thought I'd try a slightly different angle. The romanticism of the moment might be exciting, but names unto themselves (like change for its own sake) are far less important than the big questions that a coaching change inspires.

Only time will tell whether letting go of arguably one of the more underrated and unappreciated coaches in international soccer is a smart decision. There are, however, less comprehensive questions that deserve to be fleshed out about both Bradley and whatever successor takes his place.

What kind of risks are inherent to a coaching change?

Bluntly put, any manager in the sport would envy a record of reaching 4 finals of 6 tournaments entered, and a 43-25-12 record overall. Even in a World Cup hangover year widely painted as a regression or 'stale' period, Bradley's team posted no worse than a 50/50 record of 5-5-4. Although Concacaf lacks the density of second tier teams found in Europe and South America, finishing top of the Hexagonal, reaching three Gold Cup finals and winning a World Cup group should not be taken for granted. For all of the legitimate criticisms about personality and style, the team under Bradley developed tremendous team ethic and consistency.

Of all the potential successors, how many can boast real consistency in a national team format -- where players practice infrequently, options are limited to passports not checkbooks, and games come few and far between? Even (the available) Marcelo Lippi -- who brilliantly marshaled a scandal-plagued Azzurri side to the 2006 World Cup trophy -- faltered in the group stages of both the 2009 Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup. Louis Van Gaal, also out of work, failed to qualify Holland for the 2002 World Cup, in spite of his club record. Not even the wizardry of Guus Hiddink could qualify Euro 2008 semifinalists Russia for the 2010 World Cup.

That's anything but to dismiss their talents or fitness for the job, but it goes to show why consistency should not be taken for granted. How will a successor build consistency?

After the public, on-again-off-again (maybe on again?) courting of Jürgen Klinsmann, USSF President Sunil Gulati turned to Bradley as an interim option, before again looking to Klinsmann, and then back to Bradley. But, if both might have felt only half-wanted, they shared something else in common: both were intimately familiar with the convoluted structure of soccer in the US. It's simply not like other nations, because of its sheer size, the divisions, college athletics, salary caps, etc. Will the successor 'understand' the US soccer system? If not Klinsmann, or an MLS coach like Jason Kreis, Sigi Schmid or Dominic Kinnear, will the new manager adapt? It's not essential to know the structure beforehand, but the learning curve can prove near-disastrous -- as Sven Goran Eriksson's tenure with Mexico evidenced.

Finally, what are realistic targets for the team -- say, for 2012 -- and could these have been achieved by Bob Bradley? One foreign manager with the Metrostars on his resumé, Carlos Queiroz, certainly has the credentials, but is like Bradley, a meticulous, coaching-oriented tactician who similarly lacks real bravado and political flair. Change for its own sake doesn't make sense, especially when you buy a manager's release from contract.

There is something bittersweet about this moment for Bradley, given that his own success has led to inflating expectations, and in turn pressures tied to the post. If the USSF is willing to deem a knockout round exit in the World Cup, and a loss in the Gold Cup final as unfulfilled expectations, does that raise the bar for a successor? Is it realistic to expect a quarter or semifinal appearance minimum with this player pool?

The fan sentiment in the US is fixated on stature and name-recognition. England supporters have shown little patience for elite club manager like Fabio Capello. How long would a compatriot of his, like Carlo Ancelotti have until a record and those expectations weigh him down?

Though excitement of a blank slate and possibilities will dominate the next few weeks, from Aug. 10 friendly against Mexico, thinking will need to get more serious. Onward, these are the kinds of questions to which any successor will have to start finding answers. Only then will we be able to gauge whether this decision is as smart as it is bold.

- Johannes de Jong

1 comment:

ARotberg said...

i think this is a great post. don't go chasing someone from europe who doesn't understand the system they would be dealing with here and who could be a risk of leaving in a few years. you need someone who will inspire wholesale systematic changes - klinsman (despite his up and down career) is that guy imo.