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Aug 14, 2006

Gulati taking a measured approach

The race is on to name the next coach of the U.S. national team, but it is going at a slow pace. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati is taking the "better safe than sorry" approach.

Gulati and USSF general secretary Dan Flynn are on a widespread search, but a recent interview with Gulati indicates MLS coaches are being given a long look and Juergen Klinsmann is in the plans, although those plans might be long-range.

The U.S. head coaching position is among the most stable in the world, and this mostly has been an asset to the development of the national team program. This policy likely will continue under Gulati, who has had input in previous coaching searches but is in a position to have the final say for the first time.

In other words, U.S. soccer supporters have been putting their trust in Gulati for some time, and they should realize his track record is positive.

This time, though, the dynamics are different, with the U.S. in a position to rebuild the team.

Eight years ago, Bruce Arena did not consider himself a candidate for the job. Although Arena was obviously the top domestic coach, having set the standard for play in the MLS with D.C. United, he had not been playing the rules of diplomacy. Arena's direct assessments and unsympathetic style had pushed him to the margins of the federation. The USSF made the right move by hiring Arena in 1998, but the process did not establish a formula for future success. There is no obvious Arena successor among U.S. coaches.

But Gulati could well be looking at another D.C. United coach -- Peter Nowak.

"We have started talking to people in serious discussions now, both domestically and abroad," Gulati said recently. "It is a continuing process, and we are not in a rush. The team will probably have one or two games in the fall in which an assistant coach could take the team. But it is more important to get the right person than to do something quickly. It is not critical that we name a coach in a month or two. The people we are talking to, some of them are currently working in the league [MLS] or abroad, and our timetable and the framework for the process are flexible. It could happen by October, November or December.''

That time frame coincides roughly with the conclusion of the MLS season. Crucially, it also gives Klinsmann some time to evaluate his situation.

Meanwhile, the USSF is keeping the phone lines open.

"Juergen was a talented player and has shown himself to be a talented coach," Gulati said. "He should be involved, whether down the road as an adviser to an MLS team or whatever he wants to do. He is unique. He was very successful with Germany in a short period of time, and I have gotten to know him and to see that he has a lot of positive characteristics.

"You would be surprised, there are some very well-known coaches who have said yes, we would like to sit and talk about this. It is a very desirable job. The pay structure is not as high as the Premier League or for an international coach in Europe. But there are a lot of positives and it is a big challenge.

"This is a worldwide search. But you never know if you've chosen the right person until after the fact. That is one of the reasons why we are taking our time. If you do this the right way, you do not have to do it very often.''

Gulati's timetable would appear to exclude Europe-based coaches unless the USSF is willing to pick up someone whose contract might be terminated because of a negative start to the club season or European Championship qualifying. More likely, Gulati is looking south of the border for foreign candidates.

Gulati noted Bora Milutinovic was hired in 1991 after establishing his reputation in Costa Rica and Mexico. In 1998, Carlos Alberto Parreira was considered for the U.S. position.

But this is a tricky proposition.

Competing in the CONCACAF region does not prepare the U.S. for European opposition. Yet the most important tournaments the U.S. enters are in this region. The Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying can be complicated and grueling tests, yet succeeding in them does not give a good indication of a team's strength relative to the best countries in Europe and South America. The Copa America would be a better preparation for the U.S., and Gulati is attempting to work out the logistics of entering the tournament, scheduled to start June 26, two days after the Gold Cup final, in Venezuela.

We should know more by the end of the MLS season.

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