US Football in Crisis? What Crisis?

The 2008 edition of the European Championships was an unbridled success. The quality of play, the desire to compete by the participants on the field and the enthusiasm of the crowd were all of the highest order.

A few weeks ago. as a preview to the Euros, an opposite type of soccer festival was touring the European playgrounds. Its style was apprehensive, the prevalent thought on the field was the avoidance of error and the joy that was evident during the best European games was largely missing.

If anyone happened to have caught a listless, dour and rather forgettable string of the performances by the United States team, the inferiority to the skill and class of the best European players was all too obvious. To an impartial observer, the US play was averse not only to mastery and exuberance but to any coherent plan and game tactics. The US National team played with the same ineptness that one often sees on the US youth level – bereft of tidy control of the ball, coordinated movement of men and ball and, most of all, purpose.

The players appeared shackled and restrained, robbed of the choices that they would otherwise be instructed to take by their European club coaches and managers. It’s as if a genie of soccer was bottled back up by an evil sorcerer.

That sorcerer’s name is Bob Bradley, also known the head coach of the US national soccer team.

Bob came to preside over his team in a very curious way.

He wasn’t the first choice for the job by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) and its president Sunil Gulati. In the summer of 2006, it was long presumed that the only legitimate candidate for this program was the recently available gaffer of the German team, an ex-international superstar striker Jürgen Klinsmann.

Klinsi, as he is known to the world wide football audience, had several built-in advantages over other available candidates – he was a permanent resident of the United States, making his home within twenty miles from the main training center of the US team, in a beautiful oceanside community of Huntington Beach, California. His English was nearly perfect – especially if one pitted it against a bewildering pile of words masquerading as Bob Bradley’s sentences – and his pedigree was deemed more than adequate.

Taking a heretofore floundering German team, a team that hadn’t progressed out of a group stage in the Euro 2004, to the semi-final match of the 2006 World Cup and a third place finish was considered a monumental improvement by the Germans themselves and Klinsmann’s subsequent resignation from Die Mannschaft presented almost an unbelievably lucky opportunity for the USSF to advance the game to the next plateau on both the domestic and the international levels.

Sunil Gulati, recently appointed as the president of the USSF, was certainly analytical enough to recognize a gift from the soccer gods when he saw one. Quickly, the pursuit of Klinsmann commenced.

While officially Jürgen was “taking time off to be with his family”, an approach was made to his representatives. By the fall of 2006, the action was heating up and the scuttlebutt emanating from the talks was promising. By all accounts, this was a marriage made in soccer heaven – the USSF was getting itself an international quality coach to replaced a fired (and, by 2006, hapless American) Bruce Arena and Klinsmann was getting a gig for which he barely had to leave his own house. The excitement was palpable. The fans, the media and the players involved were praising this development in unison. It seemed as if nothing could derail Klinsmann’s train of destiny as it steamed toward its anointed purpose of bringing the American soccer out of its uncouth wilderness.

Then, a loud thud.

A crash of hopes, dreams and aspirations.

A catastrophic defeat.

While the wedding invitations were being sent around with unbridled glee, Jürgen Klinsmann left the USSF at the altar.

The exact reasons for this abrupt end to courtship were never revealed to the public. The US soccer media was too timid to question the purported authority and Klinsmann himself wasn’t about to spill the beans either. The likely areas of disagreement however aren’t as difficult to find as the American media pretended. All one had to do was to cast an eye on Germany, where the erstwhile Klinsmann assistant – now promoted to the number one slot – Joachim Löw demanded and received a full control over the junior German teams that competed for the Schwarzrotgold. Gulati however reserved the right to appoint the national youth level coaches for himself while Klinsmann undoubtedly wanted a unified program.

The failure of the negotiations surely did not smell like victory for the USSF. With a winter camp – typically used to gather and test the off-season MLS players – rapidly approaching, the team desperately needed a coach but hiring one of quality on such a short notice was a daunting task.

And so Gulati punted and took an easy way out. Instead of expanding his search to include other renown candidates with a commensurate pedigree, Gulati panicked. The camp had to take place hell or high water. Offers went out to several interested parties, which was essentially anyone who was available to bail the the head negotiator out of the predicament that he placed himself in. At that moment, anyone with breath would have sufficed.

But there were plenty of strings attached to the proposal. Without the necessary vetting process, the job was qualified as interim with only a potential of becoming permanent, yet it had to be handled on a full time basis. To sweeten the pie, the candidate was guaranteed a U-20 coaching job, in case a superior candidate was found and hired meanwhile.

Unspoken came the third rule – whoever accepted the money and the corresponding responsibility still had to defer to not only the USSF but to MLS on a number of issues and this represented the greatest challenge to any outside candidate.

MLS, due to the geographical and economic reality of the United States and its sports milieu, is a spring-to-fall league. The first matches take place beginning in April and end in late October for the regular season and in November for the play-offs. In the intervening six months, each team has to squeeze in thirty contests, on top of the US Cup, an All-Star off-week and a few international friendlies. Due to these requirement, a decision had been made by the MLS top brass to not to take weeks off for the international FIFA dates or even rescheduled the games between teams losing its top players to the international calendar.

Regardless of what one thinks of MLS, this rule had some solid logic behind it, as other options would have entailed the loss of stadia, good weather or revenues.

So, while the MLS scheduling conundrum could be taken as an unimportant tertiary story to the US National team, there’s a very important tie in between the league and the USSF – simply put, Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, sits on the board of the USSF and Sunil Gulati himself is also a president of the Kraft Soccer Properties, am organization behind one of the most successful MLS franchises, the New England Revolution.

This tangled web of interests directly impacted the fate of the US national squad.

The MLS powers expressed in no uncertain terms that an incoming head coach of the US national team had to defer to MLS when the conflicts between the club and the national team arose. Nowhere was this more evident than at the 2007 Copa America, where several MLS players were held back from participating in the tournament.

Clearly, such a coercive conduct would not be palatable to an international coach of note. One’s reputation is his record and his record depends on having players of his choosing but that’s precisely what an American coach doesn’t get to enjoy.

No wonder the negotiations with Klinsmann failed. It’s highly doubtful any established European or South American coach would accept a job under such conditions.

And so none did.

When the search for a competent coach proved fruitless, Bob Bradley had the interim tag removed and was signed to a long-term contract.

His qualification was having a middling won-loss record that hadn’t included a play-off win since the early part of the decade. On his pedigree, he was an average coach in a poorly respected league, whose top club is ranked a whopping 284th by the IFFHS.

But he was willing patsy for the Fed.

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