Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sunil or later

Et tu, Klinsi?

Not content with adding more misery to the country's most shambolic World Cup in the modern era, Juergen Klinsmann's latest flirtation with the United States national team has sparked yet another round of garment-rending and teeth-gnashing on the US soccer scene.

In short, the former Germany and Bayern Munich manager revealed during an interview for a Kansas City Wizards pregame show that he had held negotiations with the US Soccer Federation over possibly taking over as head coach of the men's senior team. He said there were "very positive conversations" but ultimately backed out of the talks because the USSF and president Sunil Gulati would not put into writing what had been verbally agreed with Klinsmann. The parties have done this dance before, with Klinsmann walking away from negotiations to take charge after the 2006 World Cup because of disagreements over his level of authority with the team.

"It's obviously always about authority. When you have conversations with a club team or a national team, it's who has the last word in what issues, and that's where we couldn't get into the written terms," Klinsmann said.
"Verbally we agreed on that the technical side is my side, and I should have a 100 percent control of it. Written terms, they couldn't commit to it. At that point I said, 'Well then, I can't get the job done because I have to have the last say as a head coach for my entire staff, for all the players issues, for everything that happens with the team.' Unfortunately they couldn't commit to that, and that was basically the end of our talks, and then they agreed then to continue with Bob as the head coach, and that's totally fine."
Bob Bradley, who was the Under-23 team coach in 2006, took over the senior team on an interim basis in December before eventually taking charge full-time in May 2007. After three years in which the US won one Gold Cup and took second in another, finished a stunning second in the 2009 Confederations Cup and won its World Cup group for the first time, it appeared the USSF left the team in safe hands when it handed Bradley a four-year contract extension last month.

Not so much, apparently. The recriminations have already begun, with Jason Davis of American Soccer Show and Match Fit USA fame suggesting the real villains of the piece are Gulati and the USSF -- assuming, of course, Klinsmann's account is accurate. Even if there is some spin to it, his retelling will likely set the tone of the discussion as the entirety of the response out of Soccer House has been "no comment." Don't expect that to change soon. After all, if there's one thing at which Bradley, Gulati and the USSF excel, it's keeping schtum.

(An aside: That curt dismissal of Grant Wahl should indicate the level of PR savvy in the USSF. There's a small number of real, honest-to-goodness journalists covering American soccer on a regular basis, and this is how the best and brightest get treated? Imagine the disdain they hold for us jobbers.)

The ball is in the USSF's court and it needs to respond. Keeping quiet and hoping the story will blow over could have long-term consequences that outweigh any attempts to save face. Giving the cold shoulder to the blogosphere will not dispel the image of the federation as a parochial, closed society that is naive and incompetent when it comes to conducting business, a claim leveled by the Boston Globe's Frank Dell'Apa. While I disagree with Dell'Apa's insistence that Klinsmann is the right man for the US job, I do agree that US soccer risks hitting an international plateau without some level of reform.

If the USSF stays quiet, that could hurt the federation in negotiations with future coaches. Good soldiers like Bradley and Thomas Rongen only have so much shelf life, after all. What are future employees to think of an organization that has twice had its back-room failures exposed? Plus, what of Bradley himself? He has shown admirable loyalty to the USSF, but even someone as stoic as him has professional pride. One could hardly blame him if, knowing he was once again Gulati's Plan B, he left the federation with egg on its face and the prospect of another coaching search should an enticing job offer arise.

Let me be clear: I am no Europoseur. Bradley's performance earned him a second World Cup cycle and he is under contract until 2014. If the USSF is honestly so seduced by Klinsmann's high-minded ideas and the German star is truly interested in crafting the future of soccer in America, the federation should find a way to bring him in as a technical director but leave Bradley in charge of the senior team. While the national youth set-up and scouting network are in need of a revamp, all of which would fall under his purview, Klinsmann's insistence on imposing a national style of play just doesn't wash. His comparison with Manchester United and Arsenal falls apart because those clubs have their pick of players across the globe and can sign those who fit their system. The US doesn't have that option, and whatever style is dictated from on high may not suit the available talent or the game situation. I would rather the US be multiple (to borrow a Shawn Watson-ism) in its approach than devote itself to one style and struggle for a Plan B when that approach fails.

Regardless of how close Klinsmann's statement is to the truth, the USSF needs to act soon. The continuing silence from Soccer House does no favors for the federation, Bradley or US soccer as a whole. Doing nothing only furthers the image of the USSF as penny-wise and pound-foolish, a charge that surely galls an economist like Gulati.

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