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Oct 11, 2006

U.S. wish list remains a guessing game

Several months before the start of the World Cup, when Juergen Klinsmann was being subjected to severe criticism in Germany, I suggested he should consider taking over the U.S. national team for his next gig.

As coach of the U.S., Klinsmann would not be subjected to inquiries into his private life by the Bild tabloid. He could live in California, raise a normal California family, not have to travel 8,000 miles to work.

Klinsmann survived the critics and the Mannschaft exceeded expectations in the World Cup. But this was obviously an exhausting enterprise for Klinsmann, and he does not seem interested in becoming a mercenary coach, moving from place to place every other year. Klinsmann returned to Newport Beach and is getting caught up on things.

But the Klinsmann-U.S. connection seems to be a natural one.

Klinsmann's adviser, Roland Eitel, last week said his client has been offered the position of head coach by both Mexico and the U.S. But Eitel confirmed Klinsmann wanted to take six months off after the World Cup (making him unavailable until early January) and is two years behind on work with his firm, Soccer Solutions.

But Eitel did not say Klinsmann has turned down the offers. Most likely, he has put the offers on hold, which makes him a long shot for the U.S. position, since U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati's self-imposed deadline for naming a coach is November.

In a recent interview, Gulati said he would be traveling to Europe and South America this month and that 2007 Copa America organizers expected a commitment from the U.S. by Oct. 20. But Gulati would not reveal which prospective coaches he would be meeting.

So, figuring out who follows Klinsmann on the U.S. wish list is a guessing game.

Gerard Houllier would be an interesting choice but cannot be expected to leave Lyon. Carlos Queiroz has been away from the head coaching position too long as Manchester United assistant, but he has top-level experience with Sporting and Portugal's national team. Luiz Felipe Scolari is under contract with Portugal and unlikely to leave before the 2008 European Championship concludes. Jose Pekerman is available after resigning in Argentina but appears more interested in taking a club position in Spain. Has anyone mentioned Javier Aguirre?

The MLS possibilities include Chivas USA's Bob Bradley, New England's Steve Nicol, D.C. United's Peter Nowak, Chicago's Dave Sarachan and Los Angeles' Frank Yallop. Bradley seems more likely a candidate for the next cycle. Nicol is too much an outsider, but his eye for talent and tactical scheming keep him in consideration. Nowak needs more experience. Sarachan is proving himself at the club level but would be a risky pick. Yallop emerges from this pack since he has played in both Europe and the MLS, coached internationally (in Canada) and had success as an MLS coach.

So, a somewhat educated conjecture of a top-five possibilities to coach the U.S. national team follows: 1) Klinsmann; 2) Queiroz-Scolari; 3) Yallop; 4) Aguirre; 5) Pekerman.

1. JUERGEN KLINSMANN
A possible scenario: Klinsmann could be named coach in November but wouldn't officially take over until January, or whenever his schedule allows it. There will not be much to do in November and December, anyway, so he could spend that time analyzing statistics, checking out psychokinetic exercises and memorizing motivational phrases.

Doubtless, Gulati would welcome Klinsmann under any terms. Klinsmann could become a consultant, assist with age-group teams, be a specialist coach possibly working only with strikers. Even if Klinsmann does not want the head coaching position, there is a place for him in the U.S. soccer system. Klinsmann could even take over the team a few months before the 2010 World Cup, if things sour as they did with Steve Sampson near the end of the '98 campaign, or he could become head coach for the 2014 cycle.

In any case, the U.S. has never had anyone quite like Klinsmann within its grasp. The U.S. has never had the possibility of hiring a coach who reached the semifinals of the World Cup and whose playing experience at the highest levels was of recent vintage. Klinsmann not only has experience with organization and tactics but also can actually demonstrate exactly what players should do in specific situations. Also, if there is any recruiting to be done, Klinsmann would be a persuasive force. Klinsmann might have been able to convince a Giuseppe Rossi to play for the U.S. and he could unearth another -- say, Thomas Dooley somewhere in Europe.

Klinsmann is far from perfect, though. I believe he overdid things in preparing the Germans for the World Cup. There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to preparing teams in mental and physical terms. Klinsmann did get the most out of a mediocre Mannschaft but faced no challenging opposition in the first four matches and was propelled by a nationalistic fever that was becoming almost frightening.

2. CARLOS QUEIROZ, LUIZ FELIPE SCOLARI
Queiroz makes a great first impression and is an excellent organizer who has already presented a detailed analysis of U.S. soccer. Queiroz also is very good at spotting and developing talent and knows what it takes to compete on the international level.

This scenario is a bit of a reach, but Queiroz could take over as a glorified caretaker, making certain everything is in order and paving the way for Scolari when he becomes available. Scolari's no-nonsense, drill-sergeant style would be perfect for the final months of qualifying and the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, but he could not be expected to wade through the U.S. system from 2006 to 2008.

3. FRANK YALLOP
Yallop knows everything he needs to know about the U.S. system and the region and has strong contacts in Europe. Yallop is in touch with the players' mentality but has been coaching long enough to show he was meant to be a coach.

Yes, Yallop is under contract to the Galaxy. No, his hiring would not gain international attention. But Yallop would connect with the players immediately and probably get results. In four years, he might be ready for the World Cup. First, though, the U.S. must qualify for South Africa 2010, and Yallop would be a good bet to get the team that far.

4. JAVIER AGUIRRE
Aguirre currently has Atletico Madrid contending in Spain's La Liga. But Aguirre nearly joined the MLS in the league's early years, when Gulati was pulling most of the strings.

"El Vasco" is an excellent strategist and motivator and has great experience both in Europe as a coach and as a coach and player in Mexico and the NASL. Among Aguirre's teammates with the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1980 was U.S. under-20 coach Thomas Rongen.

5. JOSE PEKERMAN
There are a couple knocks on Pekerman: He speaks only Spanish, and his experience has mostly been with junior teams.

Since Pekerman claims among his relatives Gregory Peck, it can be assumed he would be able to pick up the language relatively quickly. And one would think Pekerman learned from his World Cup experience, including the inexplicable substitutions that were a major part of Argentina squandering the lead against Germany in the quarterfinals.

But Pekerman would doubtless feel more comfortable with a Spanish club, following the trail of countrymen such as Hector Cuper. Maybe Aguirre could bring Pekerman as an assistant to Atletico Madrid, and when Aguirre feels the time is right, leave the team to Pekerman and take over the U.S.

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