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Jul 13, 2006

Investment boost is needed

This was one of the few World Cups in which even the losing teams (Germany, Portugal) were greeted by celebrations and massive parades. France was received by President Jacques Chirac, as predicted by coach Raymond Domenech, but was not in particularly good spirits as runner-up.

Italy returned to uncertainty, with sentences pending for a match-fixing scandal, former Juventus player and administrator Gianluca Pessotto still hospitalized after leaping from the roof of the club's offices in Turin.

The CONCACAF teams were all eliminated by June 24. Mexico was the best team from the region, eliminated by possibly the goal of the tournament, an incredible left-footed volley by Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez in extra time. Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, and the U.S. earned a total of two points and were outscored 19-5 in nine matches.

So what will the region's national teams have to do to reach a competitive level with Europe?

There really is no easy answer to this. The simple, one-word response is: money.

Until the financial investment in soccer comes closer to equaling that of Europe, North American teams will never be able to regularly compete with the Old World. So while waiting for that day, the U.S. should set realistic goals and timetables.

The first place to start for the U.S. might be to upgrade the coaching level in MLS.

MLS coaches have not been great at discerning talent, and those who have must work with a hand tied behind their back because of the league's player procurement restrictions. MLS coaches also must become more sophisticated tactically, but that will occur if the league itself becomes more sophisticated.

Steve Nicol provides a good example in New England. Nicol ended his playing career in Framingham, a Boston suburb, as a player-coach with the Boston Bulldogs. Nicol eased into the U.S. system, learning its vagaries away from media and other scrutiny, and has proven to be an excellent judge of talent and of setting up an atmosphere for that talent to emerge.

The U.S. is producing competent coaches, but nobody exceptional. This is not the fault of the U.S. coaches or the system. Rather, U.S. teams simply do not often compete with the powers of the game, whether European or South American. So U.S. coaches and teams are raising themselves to the highest possible level only within a limited space. This is a problem of geography; and this is being confronted by involvement in regional tournaments, the InterLiga with Mexico and the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Once MLS teams start finding consistent success in those events, they must become involved in the Copa Libertadores.

Foreign coaches must be brought into the U.S. system. That doesn't mean the U.S. needs a lot of foreign coaches -- the country has been importing soccer coaches for more than 100 years -- but it does mean bringing in a select few. Toronto has a chance to start the ball rolling on this. If the MLS has several name coaches who could be national team candidates, the choice of U.S. national team coach will become easier in the next years.

Frank Yallop is another good example of a coach with European experience who eased his way into the U.S. system as a player. Another important point is that Yallop (and Revolution assistant Paul Mariner) performed in the Ipswich Town system, which emphasized the passing game. Liverpool also played a passing game, and this has influenced Nicol's predilection for skillful play.

Whoever the U.S. brings in as coaches, though, those coaches should be willing to utilize technical players. Leo Beenhakker, the Dutch coach of Trinidad & Tobago, illustrated this point by utilizing Evans Wise in the World Cup. Wise is very technical, but often too self-indulgent. Beenhakker was able to find a role for Wise as a substitute on the left side of the Soca Warriors' midfield against England and Paraguay. This is the same Evans Wise who was waived by the Revolution in 1998. After Wise's second one-year stint with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, he played the next several years in Germany.

Former MLS coach Thomas Rongen essentially discovered Wise during the player's first year with Tampa Bay, and placed him in a position to succeed; but when things went badly in New England, Wise was gone. Wise is not a player for every situation, but as a green card holder did not take up a foreign spot on the roster, and as a specialist on left wing could have continued to add a spark to the MLS. A Beenhakker might have recognized Wise's value and kept him in the MLS.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.