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Jul 18, 2006

Chain of succession

It is entirely possible to borrow the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and apply it to the U.S. national team coaching vacancy. In this case, however, the object of desire -- that would be former German coach Jürgen Klinsmann -- is the target not only for the beholder, USSF president Sunil Gulati, but for everyone else, as well.

Klinsmann, who only months ago was riding a wave of negative German press for his radical coaching methods and average results, is seemingly also the people's choice to replace previous incumbent Bruce Arena.

On the surface, it looks like the perfect match. Klinsmann is a legend in German soccer lore for his prolific goal scoring and proved his coaching mettle in the recent World Cup, leading a youthful German team to a surprising third-place finish. Factor in his multilingual skills, his lengthy residency in California and his familiarity with MLS, and it appears a no-brainer hire for the U.S. Soccer Federation.

In building a résumé for a coaching position, Klinsmann has amassed it all. He has enjoyed international success at the highest levels as both a player and a coach. He has displayed innovation (introducing new training techniques to the German team), a capacity to learn from other coaches and a savvy media persona. He favors an attractive attacking style and a willingness to experiment with lineups and youth. In short, he's the prototype of what you would look for in a national team coach.

When asked by reporters about the additional characteristics he would seek in candidates, Gulati said, "There is a big advantage to knowing something about the American setup -- the soccer setup as well as the cultural setup. Is it a prerequisite? No. But we've got some unique institutions in the U.S., whether it's our league setup, whether it's the NCAA setup, whether it's youth soccer, whether it's the geographic challenges. All those things make this a different sort of place to try to learn quickly."

Given that Gulati is also on record as acknowledging an interest in Klinsmann, there's no doubt Klinsmann is in the driver's seat when it comes to the U.S. coaching position. The only question remaining is whether he'd accept the job.

Klinsmann is a free agent, of course, having left his position as Germany's coach and citing burnout as the primary cause of his resignation. He also has said recently he has no interest in the U.S. job. How much of this is a smoke screen and how much is fact?

Given the unrelenting media pressure he faced leading up to the World Cup, and the constant commute back and forth from Germany to California, it's not surprising Klinsmann is feeling fatigued. That said, he's far too young and vigorous and has such a great love of soccer that it's hard to see him feeling this way forever. Given that the U.S. national team has no games of real importance until next year's Gold Cup, there's no particular urgency to have Klinsmann decide now. It's also worth bearing in mind that as the darling of the German media and public, Klinsmann is astute enough to realize the magnitude of the public relations hit he'd take if he suddenly turned around a couple of weeks later and accepted a position with the U.S. team.

When you factor in the other perks of the U.S. job, such as the challenge, the proximity to his family and the opportunity to work in a low-pressure media environment (this is the man who played under a pseudonym for the Orange County Blue Star in the USL's Premier Development League a few years ago), the position seems tailor-made for Klinsmann. The guess here is that Klinsmann takes a few months off to bathe on the beaches of sunny California and come December announces he's reinvigorated and ready to take on a new challenge.

Even so, nothing should be taken for granted in life, so presumably Gulati has a Plan B option on the off chance Klinsmann decides early retirement suits him better. Looking at the list of other candidates being bandied around at present (MLS coaches Steve Nicol, Peter Nowak, Bob Bradley and Frank Yallop and Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz), none really brings the qualities Klinsmann provides.

Does this mean anything short of hiring Klinsmann to replace Arena would mean a letdown for the USSF? No. Having said that, the USSF would be best served by hiring a foreign coach. Arena's undoubtedly the best coach in America. Therefore, hiring another domestic coach such as a Sigi Schmid or Arena's assistant Glenn Myernick makes no sense whatsoever. If that ends up being the case, the USSF should simply have retained Arena. Nicol and Nowak are intriguing because of their international playing backgrounds but are question marks because of a lack of national team coaching experience.

For the U.S. to progress on the world level, it requires a coach that has a stronger grasp of the tactical nuances of the elite international teams and international style of play. For all Arena's impressive track record as coach and the admittedly excellent job he did in salvaging the U.S. national team after the '98 World Cup debacle, he had two shortcomings that were exposed somewhat in the recent World Cup.

First, although a great player manager, Arena was never a strong X's and O's coach capable of making the necessary in-game tactical adjustments on the international level. Second, in terms of style, it's time the U.S. started gravitating away from the direct ball philosophy of relying on set pieces and crosses from the flanks to score. This direct style, although effective against lower-tier teams, is a one-trick pony that often comes unstuck against teams of superior technical quality. For evidence, one need look no further than the way both England and the U.S. struggled to create quality scoring chances from open play during the World Cup.

Although the U.S. still lacks the abundance of technical players to play a short passing creative possession game along the lines of that of Spain or Portugal, the fact is the younger generation of U.S. talent -- such as Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu, Justin Mapp and Lee Nguyen, et al. -- all show far more precocious on-the-ball ability than U.S. players (Tab Ramos excluded) typically have shown before. It's time to embrace a more rhythmic style and move away from the drilled-down structured approach the U.S. has adopted in recent years. A domestic coach simply is not going to bring this outlook.

In addition, although the infrastructure of U.S. soccer -- with MLS' differing seasonal schedule, NCAA soccer and the various youth programs -- does contrast sharply with that on the international scene, it's probably overstated that a viable candidate for the U.S. position needs to have a familiarity with all of this going into the job.

The simple fact is that international experience and an understanding of the international game is a far more important intangible in any candidate. Familiarity with MLS and the U.S. domestic scene can be acquired easily. MLS has only 12 teams and a small player pool, so it wouldn't take long for any outsider to sit down and scout the entire league. Whatever the learning curve is, the new coach -- whoever he is -- will have plenty of time before the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to nail all that down.

That said, here are the men I think the USSF should turn to if Klinsmann declines:

a) Move heaven and earth to secure the services of either Luiz Felipe Scolari (currently coaching Portugal) or Guus Hiddink (coaching Russia) after their contracts expire after the 2008 European Championships. Scolari and Hiddink are unquestionably two of the finest coaches on the international level, and Hiddink in particular is a genius, as evidenced by his work in the last two Cups with underdog teams (Korea and Australia). The hitch here is that the U.S. would require an interim coach to oversee the team till 2008, but if the opportunity to land either of these coaches is there, it's an inconvenience the USSF would be wise to accept.

b) Failing that, two other names spring to mind. The first being Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who led Senegal to the quarterfinals in 2002 and is the manager of al-Ittihad and the United Arab Emirates national team. Metsu's teams always have played with flair and panache, and he has had success wherever he has been. To see the impact he has on a team, compare the way Senegal -- with essentially the same lineup -- failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup after impressing observers in 2002. Metsu also has been the only coach to successfully bring out the maverick talents of enigmatic and temperamental El Hadji Diouf. On that basis alone, you'd imagine he could coax more out of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.

The second option would be Eric Gerets, the legendary Belgian defender now managing Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray. The book on Gerets is that he has had ample experience at the World Cup as a player and that, on a managerial level, he's a phenomenon. He has won at every level, winning Belgian championships with Lierse and Club Brugge and adding Dutch and Turkish league titles, as well (with PSV Eindhoven and Galatasaray, respectively). Gerets' teams are typically an attractive blend of stylish attacking flair with tactical soundness.

It's not clear whether either man would find the U.S. position desirable, but their interest level certainly should be gauged.

In the end, it's all probably moot because it's more than likely Klinsmann will take the U.S. job, but in the event he doesn't, one hopes the USSF will think outside the box and bring in someone else who can elevate the U.S. to the next level.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com.