Pekerman an intriguing option
When U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati made the decision not to renew Bruce Arena's contract as national coach, he embarked on a quest to redefine American soccer.
Gulati likely is aware that his choice to succeed Arena will define his tenure, much as that of his successor, Bob Contiguglia, was defined by his somewhat unexpected appointment of Arena.
The rampant speculation was that the decision was entirely Klinsmann's to make. If he was willing to take the job, it was his.
Yet Gulati insisted the search for a new coach would be a thorough one.
Recent revelations indicate that Gulati has lined up solid competition for Klinsmann, who might no longer be the favorite for the position.
Instead, that label might have fallen to another World Cup coach. Sources revealed to ESPN.com that Gulati recently interviewed Argentina's Jose Pekerman for the job.
Pekerman's credentials are especially impressive in an area that is dear to Gulati's ambitions for the U.S. -- the improvement of teams, starting at the youngest generations. No coach has won more youth world championships than Pekerman, who has three. Pekerman's Argentine squads won the FIFA World Youth Championships in 1995, 1997 and 2001.
The players he mentored were not young prodigies who flamed out. Instead, many of the prospects he worked with on the senior and youth levels are considered part of the wave of Argentine talent that constitutes a renaissance of the country's soccer. The list is positively star-studded: Lionel Messi, Juan Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola.
As Pekerman's charges contributed more and more to the reputation of Argentine soccer, his own status increased. He was respected enough to be offered the chance to helm the senior "Albiceleste" team after Daniel Passarella resigned in 1998. Instead, Pekerman declined, reportedly recommending the coach (Marcelo Bielsa) eventually chosen.
He finally accepted the post in 2004, leading the team through qualifying.
At the World Cup, Argentina and archrival Brazil both went out at the quarterfinal phase, but Pekerman was not vilified by his country's fans the way Brazil's coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, was by his. (Incidentally, Parreira also was considered a leading candidate for the U.S. post -- thanks in part to his previous coaching experience in MLS -- before signing on with South Africa.)
That's partly because Brazil's form looked poor in the entire tournament. The stars never appeared comfortable, and they failed to provide much evidence of the "beautiful game" so beloved by Brazilian supporters.
On the other hand, Pekerman had his team ready from the start of the World Cup tournament, playing attractive attacking soccer. Argentina's fans and neutrals alike thrilled to the creative moves, crisp passing and dynamic goals during the tournament.
Of course, such play built up expectations, and a fair number grumbled that Pekerman was too cautious with his substitutions when holding a one-goal lead against Germany. Klinsmann's team was able to tie the score, then advance on penalty kicks.
Others were less harsh, attributing most of the loss to the unexpected injury to starting goalkeeper Roberto Carlos Abbondanzieri in the Germany game. The tying goal was scored on his replacement, Leo Franco.
When Pekerman offered his resignation, Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine federation, reportedly tried to dissuade him. Grondona earlier had been famously quoted as saying, "I would give Pekerman a job for life."
It remains to be seen how strongly Gulati favors Pekerman. A big issue is that Pekerman's English is very limited. Although many coaches use interpreters, the team building that results when a coach is able to communicate freely with his players cannot be discounted.
Another issue might be the U.S. federation's budget for salary. Gulati is an economics professor who is well aware of the bottom line. His work with the New England Revolution also indicates a propensity for thrift, as the Revolution payroll is the lowest in the league.
There's also the fact that none of Pekerman's varied coaching experiences includes American soccer. Gulati has said in the past that he would prefer someone with a working knowledge of the American style and system.
Certain elements remain as positives for Pekerman, however. There is his unparalleled ability to maximize the potential of young talent. For 2010, a new generation of players will need to be developed, especially in the wake of a number of resignations from international soccer by key players, such as Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride.
No doubt Gulati had in mind players like Freddy Adu when he decided Pekerman's skills made it worth investigating his availability.
Players such as Landon Donovan, the U.S. star who disappointed at the World Cup, might flourish under the Argentine coach. Donovan has compared his own game and style of play to Saviola's. The opportunity and the trust Pekerman showed in Saviola at the World Cup triggered an impressive performance by the player, who shone throughout the competition.
Pekerman's own playing career, although not particularly distinguished, fits the profile of firsthand experience that many believe offers motivational credibility when leading a team.
Some might wonder why a coach with an impressive résumé would consider leaving soccer-mad Argentina for the U.S. -- a country that often has shown the sport indifference. Yet Pekerman's early refusal of the Argentine national team job and his eventual resignation indicate a certain discomfort with the pressure of the post.
It's clear the man loves to coach, however. The possibility of working with rising talent while escaping the microscope many others are constantly under might strike him as ideal.
Ultimately, only Gulati knows how high Pekerman ranks on his list of options. At the very least, Gulati's consideration of Pekerman makes clear that Klinsmann is by no means a shoo-in.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org