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Dec 8, 2006

Gulati mismanaged the hiring process

With the news that Bob Bradley has been named as the next head coach of the U.S. men's national team, I can conclude the following: This is a terrible development for both American soccer in general and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati in particular.

This is in no way meant to be a knock on the coaching abilities of Bradley. Although his track record as a head coach in MLS has been mixed, it has had its share of successes, and among the pool of American coaches, he always has been one of the brighter lights. But to go from thinking that former German boss Juergen Klinsmann was going to take over to realizing that Bradley will assume the post -- on a temporary basis, no less -- amounts to a buzzkill of colossal proportions. It's like going to a concert expecting to see Luciano Pavarotti, only to watch Clay Aiken turn up instead. Both guys can sing, but given the choice, whom would you rather listen to?

It begs the question of why Gulati parted ways with former head coach Bruce Arena in the first place. My assumption -- and I don't think I was alone in thinking this -- was that Gulati would attempt to distance himself as much as possible from the Arena Era by hiring a big name, one who not only would present a kinder, gentler face to the public but who possessed a considerably richer coaching pedigree. Klinsmann certainly fit the bill, and although he would have inherited the same players Arena had, the possibility existed that he could have led them to better things. Instead, in Bradley, the U.S. is left with a coach who, despite his many talents, is a former assistant of Arena's and probably will squeeze no more out of his charges than his ex-boss did. This is not progress.

I also question whether this saga is less about ability and more about controlling the areas of player development that are under the USSF's purview. I'm guessing both Arena and Klinsmann wanted more say over things than Gulati was willing to tolerate. Bradley, it would seem, had no such demands.

I suppose on the one hand, Gulati could be praised for his patience and that he could be merely biding his time until his ideal candidate becomes available. But from what I can gather, the good folks at the USSF are no closer to finding that person than when they parted ways with Arena five months ago. This can only lead me to determine that the entire process has been completely mismanaged by Gulati.

Remember all the big names that supposedly were interested in the U.S. job? Former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, ex-England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson and current Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz were just a few of the names on the list. It now looks as though Gulati used these coaches as a means of convincing Klinsmann that there was competition for the job when none existed. Once Klinsmann called Gulati's bluff, the USSF president was left drawing dead.

And when Gulati was left trying to pick up the pieces, he couldn't even attract the coach who in my opinion would have been the next best option, that being the L.A. Galaxy's Frank Yallop. Here you have a guy who played at the top level in England and played in MLS and has won championships as a head coach. Yallop also has the valuable experience of already coaching in one World Cup qualifying cycle with Canada. That it ended badly is more an indication of Canada's limited resources (and an insanely tough draw) than any shortcomings Yallop might have. And Yallop would be able to look players in the eye and tell them, "This is what it's like playing in Costa Rica" -- something few other coaches in MLS can do.

Then again, I'd wager that if Yallop had been offered the job on a limited basis as Bradley has, he would have said, "Thanks, but no." At the least, the current arrangement appears to place Bradley in an impossible situation. How much of an impact will the former Chivas USA coach be able to have if every single player knows Bradley could be gone by next summer?

And for those who would think time is on the federation's side, think again. Remember how quickly Arena changed things around in his first year in charge, reinvigorating the team after the debacle of the 1998 World Cup? It was a period that saw the U.S. finish third at the 1999 Confederations Cup and score two victories over Germany. The momentum generated helped give the team a massive dose of confidence and set the stage for a successful World Cup qualification over the next two years.

With the Americans' participation in the Copa America this summer, the stage appeared to be set for a similar opportunity. But given the rampant uncertainty surrounding the team's future coach, that chance has been compromised. And if a new manager is hired some time next summer, then a year basically will have been wasted. You can bet that other nations, both in CONCACAF and elsewhere, are not standing still.

Of course, this is not the first time an interim coach has had such an opening. Steve Sampson assumed the reins of the U.S. team in 1995 on what was presumed to be a temporary basis. He then used a successful Copa America run to secure the post permanently. Now, I believe Bradley is 10 times the coach Sampson is, and I think they have little in common. Yet I'm sure Bradley would be more than willing to see history repeat itself. Will it? One can always dream, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Back in 1998, the appointment of Arena struck me as a step in the right direction. With the selection of Bradley eight years later, that is definitely not the case.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.