The deciding factor
Like many who followed the U.S. team to Germany, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn, the organization's CEO and general secretary, had hoped for better results in the World Cup. Unlike most, the duo has both an opportunity and a responsibility to affect future outcomes.
"Most disappointing is not advancing. That's what we've come for," Gulati said.
Flynn agreed, but his regret was also tied to the an awareness of how many others felt the same.
"A greater number of our fans came out," Flynn noted.
While other teams assume a vocal presence of their countrymen will turn out at games, it has been a relatively new phenomenon for the U.S.
"Every player, to a person, wanted to get out of this group so badly," Flynn said. "The fans, against Italy, were just outstanding. Against Ghana, they were fantastic."
His regret that such fervor went for naught was palpable.
"Their support was just unbelievable," Flynn said. "Just not meeting our collective sense of where we wanted to be was really disappointing."
There were positives to be found, Gulati said: "Most encouraging, unquestionably, is the response of the soccer community to the U.S. team in the World Cup."
Gulati could appreciate the historical context of the progress.
"Spectators, television ratings, number of people who have come across media coverage, all of that is completely different than 16 years ago, or eight years ago, or even four years ago. 1994 was obviously different because we were hosting [the World Cup]. The interest then was in the event. This has been about the interest in the team."
However, even Gulati acknowledged something of a letdown when the increased exposure was not matched by an extended run.
"The thousands of people in the stands, the ratings on ESPN, the number of media outlets and journalists -- all of that is extraordinarily encouraging. If we could have gotten another game or two, it would have been even better."
Looking ahead to what needed to be done to achieve those better results, Gulati did not entirely agree with coach Bruce Arena's assertion that young talent should go to Europe. As one of the key organizers for Major League Soccer since its inception, Gulati believed the league had merit as an ideal situation for a number of prospects.
"It's a great starting point for some players," Gulati explained. "I don't think, for instance, Clint Dempsey's been hurt by playing in Major League Soccer."
He was aware of what the game abroad had to offer, though.
"Claudio [Reyna] and Bruce [Arena] also value the other experiences to be gained playing in a different environment," affirmed Gulati. "There are individual decisions for players on what they want to do and when they want to do it."
"We need a balance," Flynn said. "Eddie Lewis or DaMarcus [Beasley] and Brian McBride, all came from MLS to play abroad. I'm a proponent that we need to have both.
Both are very good for the development of the game."
There was nearly complete agreement with Arena's assertion that the league needed to take a leading role in cultivating younger players.
"We're not saying anything different on youth development," Gulati declared. "The league has to be more involved now. The league is a member of U.S. Soccer, so I'm probably using U.S. soccer in a more generic term than Bruce [Arena] is. I'm not just talking about the federation."
Flynn was encouraged by the players that were relatively anonymous on the youth level who had matured to the world stage.
"Some players emerged," he said. "Clint [Dempsey] or Gooch [Onyewu], they got experience, went through the qualifying process and the big show; I think it's a great plus."
Aside from improved competition and youth development, one element that Gulati believed was crucial for U.S. soccer success was to tap into was the Hispanic community, not only for fan support, but also for talent on the field and the sidelines.
Gulati acknowledged that there was a long way to go.
"We haven't done a good job in that area, and we'll get better. We will spend time, energy and resources, on reaching out to the Hispanic community that already has a passion for the game and loves the game."
Yet Gulati kept his realistic goals for the outcome of such marketing.
"I don't necessarily expect to be the first team of the first generation, but I'd like to be, at a minimum, the second team of the second generation, if not their first team."
He clarified his point with an example.
"If someone has roots in El Salvador, then at least root for us when we're playing Guatemala."
Ratings for the World Cup, including the U.S. matches, are consistently higher for Spanish-language media outlets.
"We don't have to teach the Hispanic community to like soccer," Gulati said. "We've got to teach them to like our team, to like MLS. It's a different challenge than the African-American community, where the game isn't quite as predominant. But the Hispanic community -- that's like saying potentially, your best audience -- we're ignoring.
"So whether it's players, whether it's leaders, coaches, whether it's referees, we've got to do a much better job of getting [Hispanics] to be part of what we are as a governing body, as a national team. That'll happen. That's something I believe in very strongly, personally, and it's something we'll do."
Of course, other USSF officials have declared similar things before, yet Gulati pointed to recent developments that went beyond mere rhetoric.
"We've started doing a lot of publications in Spanish -- refereeing programs, coaching programs."
Apparently, there was even a push by the federation to get the U.S. coach to speak the language of the Hispanic community -- which Gulati does fluently.
"Bruce has taken some Spanish," revealed Gulati. "He didn't get quite as far as we would have liked in those eight years. When we've had coaches that could speak Spanish, that's helped."
With Claudio Reyna's retirement, the number of Hispanic players on the national team has dwindled.
"We'll have a Spanish-speaking player," Gulati vowed. "Not only because we want one, but because if we don't, then I think we're doing probably something a little bit wrong. We've had ones for a long time, key players: Hugo Perez, Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Claudio, Landon [Donovan] and Pablo [Mastroeni]."
Beyond the language element, it was the creative verve and importance of the positions that Latino players often occupied that convinced Gulati that their contributions were crucial.
"Not only Hispanic next generation players, but in the middle of the field in a key attacking playmaking role, we've had a torch passed from Hugo to Tab to Claudio. Who's going to hold that torch? That's a big concern. It doesn't have to be a Hispanic player, but it has often been for us. I think a player like those three players brought something very different to our team, the way our team looked, the way our team played."
The search for such players and to integrate other new talents into the national team would have to begin relatively soon to be successful.
"Clearly -- '07 would be the year where new players would have to emerge," Flynn declared .
His focus, though, was concerned with providing the sort of opposition that could best prepare the next crop of national team players for the next World Cup.
"It's not so much new players as it's getting them good competition," Flynn said. "I don't think it's the quantity of players, but getting them in a quality environment where they can best be measured. That's going to be our challenge."
The first true test Flynn and Gulati face, however, concerns the decision of who should lead the U.S. team.
This week, Arena is scheduled to meet with Gulati and Flynn. The expectation is that Arena will want to extend his eight-year stint as coach of the U.S. squad.
When Arena was first hired, he was picked by then-USSF President Robert Contiguglia over foreign options such as Bora Milutinovic, Carlos Quiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira. Some considered Contiguglia's move a bold one back then, and made partly to assert the capability of an American coach in the world's game.
"I'm not sure I would have agreed with the analysis eight years ago on having to prove something for American coaches," Gulati mused. "If Portugal scores a goal against Korea -- did American coaches prove any less four years ago? We don't qualify -- that's not a successful result, does that mean American coaches are any less qualified? Well, unfortunately, that's the way they get measured, but that's a pretty harsh statement."
"Where I agree with Bob [Contiguglia], is I think that it's very important that whoever is going to coach our team understands the American game," Gulati said.
"It's a pretty big challenge to walk into the U.S. and start with acronyms like NCAA, MLS, single-entity. Sven-Goran Eriksson or any other coach walking into a top European league has different issues. There, you need to watch 20 or 18 top-level teams. Here, you've got European schedule, MLS schedule. We've got college soccer, we've got Olympic teams -- that's pretty important to the U.S., unlike it is elsewhere. We've got Copa America and Gold Cup. All those things sorts of things -- distances -- that are a little bit different than they are in England or Holland and Germany."
The psyche and mentality of the U.S. team was also unique, Gulati opined.
"We've got American players that, for the most part, have been to college. That's a different environment, a different set of challenges for anybody. So I think it's important [to consider in a coaching candidate] -- it doesn't mean American-born, it just means someone who understand the American setup or learns it very quickly."
Perhaps Arena's own past success has helped give American soccer the freedom to look beyond nationality when making the crucial choice of who to guide the team.
"All of our programs, coaching refereeing, have come a long way," Gulati said. "We'll pick the best person to lead."
The decision will probably be made relatively quickly, since Flynn is looking to schedule games to help the team, the fans and U.S. Soccer itself to move forward from the disappointments of the 2006 World Cup.
"This will be a benchmark by which we'll measure the future," Flynn vowed. "2002 will always be there -- and we'll have to claw our way back. I'm not overly concerned about [the disappointment]. I think our fans, our core fans, will be anxious for us to get back on the field. By the end of this year, look for a game, to kind of get us off this and on to the future."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com