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Dec 24, 2004

No more retreads please

With the holidays here there isn't a much better gift you can give a friend than a job. No one understood that better this week than Marcelo Balboa. The Colorado Rapids "ambassador" and de facto general manager was given the task of helping hire the team's new coach and managed to do his best to make the search look thorough. The only problem was that few people ever doubted that anyone but Balboa's close friend, Fernando Clavijo, would land the position.

The well-publicized coaching search was chock full of names but the make-up seemed tailor-made for a Clavijo conclusion. The group of eight finalists consisted of just two men with head coaching experience, Clavijo and former Los Angeles Galaxy skipper Sigi Schmid.

Currently coach of a U.S. Under-20 national team preparing for World Championship qualifying, Schmid was never going to agree to take the Rapids position considering the salary being offered (among the lowest for MLS coaches) and the dearth of talent on the Colorado roster. With Schmid out of the picture, that left Clavijo and a handful of assistant coaches with no previous coaching experience.

The only problem with hiring Clavijo is that he wasn't exactly a success during those head coaching stints. With no titles, or even winning records, his experience alone wasn't enough to make him an obvious choice over some of the very qualified assistants he beat out. His time with the Revolution can hardly be called a success, unless you ignore the numbers.

The Revs were 22-30-13 under Clavijo, posting a .500 season in 2000 (13-13-6, eighth among 12 teams) and finishing with horrid 7-13-6 mark in 2001 (third fewest wins in the league). After receiving the mother of all care packages in the pre-2002 Dispersal Draft (The Revs landed Steve Ralston, Carlos Llamosa, Mamado Diallo and Alex Pineda-Chacon), Clavijo still failed to make the most of the infusion of talent. The Revs stumbled to a 2-4-1 mark before management fired Clavijo.

Perhaps more damning than his won-loss record is the perception around MLS that Clavijo had lost control of the Revolution, that his laid-back approach and lack of team structure were to blame for the Revs struggles more than any talent concerns. That theory gained considerable steam when Steve Nicol took over the 2002 Revs and proceeded to lead them to the MLS Cup final.

To be fair, Clavijo did enjoy a career renaissance in October of 2003 after taking over the thankless job of coaching Haiti. His work with the Caribbean country's poor national team program earned him praise and reminded many why he was one of the more well-liked individuals to pass through MLS.He helped turn the team into a respectable side, but ultimately could not advance past the first round of World Cup qualifying. He finished his tenure with Haiti with a modest 4-4-5 record (The Rapids press release announcing Clavijo's hire had his record with Haiti at 10-2-2, but according to results provided by FIFA, Haiti's mark under Clavijo was 4-4-5).

Clavijo's work with Haiti was admirable, and his recommendation of Haitian striker Jean-Philippe Peguero to the Rapids surely scored him some points. Also, his efforts as Bora Milutinovic's assistant with the MetroStars in 1999 has long been overlooked. That season, the worst in Metros history, Milutinovic effectively gave up on his team halfway through the year and only Clavijo's work with the team's young players kept it from being a completely lost season.

Some would suggest that after failing so completely in New England that Clavijo has learned from his mistakes and is ready for another chance. That may be true but then the same could also be said for former Galaxy and MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano, who, despite expressing interest in the Colorado job, was never considered for the post.

It isn't so much about Clavijo being unqualified, as it is about other candidates being more deserving of the opportunity. This is where it becomes difficult to gauge how, aside from the close bond between Clavijo and Balboa, Clavijo won out over Tom Soehn and Juan Carlos Osorio. Soehn and Osorio are assistant coaches with far more impressive credentials than Clavijo had when he was hired by New England. Soehn has been an assistant coach on MLS Cup teams under rookie head coaches for two straight seasons (with Chicago's Dave Sarachan and D.C. United's Peter Nowak). Osorio has spent the past four years as an assistant coach at English Premier League club Manchester City after serving as Zambrano's lead assistant with the MetroStars during the 2000 season, the most successful in the franchise's history.

Perhaps the most disappointing development in the process was the revelation that U.S. national team assistant Curt Onalfo made the final three candidates, ahead of Osorio. Onalfo was without question the least qualified candidate in the mix. He spent two years as D.C. United's lead assistant coach, during what was easily the worst stretch in the franchise's history, and has since spent two years as a second assistant for Bruce Arena. Onalfo, 35, was the youngest of the candidates and could develop into a solid coach one day, but the fact that he reached the final three is an embarrassment and an insult to all the coaches in the league who have actually paid their dues.

Colorado's serious consideration of Onalfo, coupled with Rapids general manager Charlie Wright statement that he had input from "leaders across the U.S. Soccer community", served as a reminder that U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena still holds a ridiculous amount of influence over what seems like every coaching hire made in MLS. Consider that of the past six MLS head coaching hires to take place in the off season, five were either former assistants under Arena or received his recommendation.

Bob Bradley (Metros before 2003 season), Dave Sarachan (Chicago before 2003), Thomas Rongen (Chivas USA before 2005) and John Ellinger (Real Salt Lake before 2005) have all been plucked from the Arena coaching tree and Peter Nowak (D.C. United before 2004), was approved by Arena as a key member of the D.C. coaching search process. Only Dominick Kinnear, who served as Frank Yallop's assistant on two MLS Cup winning San Jose teams, has been hired without Arena's involvement. Steve Sampson, who would never be confused with Arena's coaching family, was hired by Los Angeles in the middle of last season.

In the end, however, it was Balboa who delivered the Rapids a coach and his friend a second chance. There's something to be said for loyalty but there is also something to be said for the league's dire need for new ideas, and for coaches with a fresh vision of the game. MLS saw the fewest goals in its history scored last year and, with more and more top players leaving for greener pastures, it is imperative that teams do a better and more thorough job of selecting coaches. It can no longer be about recommending and hiring friends or bringing back retreads. The league needs new coaching blood in the worst way, and apparently new management blood as well.

Labor Strife Continues

How ugly are things getting between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its national team's player pool? USSF officials may be convinced that failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup wouldn't be a deathblow to soccer in the United States. As such the USSF is considering this as an option instead of caving into contract demands by the players. Members of the player pool have been told that at least one high-ranking USSF official is convinced of such a theory.

How could anyone entertain such a ridiculous idea? Well, if you consider that the national team saw increased attendances for its games in the years following the World Cup 1998 debacle, a performance that many swore would doom soccer in the U.S., then you can understand how someone might think the sport can survive another disaster.

The only problem with that logic is that unlike the post-France World Cup, when much wasn't expected of the team, the current national team is riding a wave of success that has brought expectations along with it. The growing population of national team fans would not be nearly as forgiving if the U.S. team missed the World Cup, especially if it were missed because of the current labor dispute. The fan reaction to what has already transpired should hopefully serve as evidence enough of just how poorly a failed World Cup qualifying bid would be received.

USSF officials may feel that their focus goes beyond just qualifying for World Cups. That's true, but without a World Cup in 2006, the game won't just take a step back in this country, American soccer will also lose the kind of momentum you can't put a price tag on, even if the USSF thinks it can.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com