Gullit a bold choice for the Galaxy
CARSON, Calif. -- Ruud Gullit won't be the greatest soccer coach to ever arrive in Los Angeles. That honor belongs to countryman Rinus Michels, who guided the Los Angeles Aztecs of the now defunct North American Soccer League back in 1979. Of course, those days are long gone, and Gullit is undoubtedly the highest-profile and most exotic coaching hire in Major League Soccer today.
Big names such as Bora Milutinovic, Hans Westerhof, Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira all failed to coach their teams to winning records.
It's not just the salary cap that hobbles many foreign coaches, the mentality of many American players is also unfamiliar to outsiders. Most MLS players are college graduates. In general, they have lives and options outside of soccer. They have a more egalitarian view of team structure and hierarchy and do not genuflect even to those they respect. The pressure many of these players face is internal, for the game in the U.S. still escapes the media attention and fan demands that exist elsewhere.
MLS coaches don't have the simplest option, benching an underperforming player, as a ready option. Of course they can do so, but the depth on MLS squads is so limited, that the drop-off after the starting 11 can be dire.
With the quality of teams all hovering around a similar median, a little extra motivation can go a long way. With Gullit at the helm of a team that features David Beckham, other squads will be especially keen to prove to all foreigners that their MLS team is no pushover.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy team is an organization in turmoil. Beckham has been plagued by injuries and is reportedly looking for a loan to another team in the offseason to regain fitness. Landon Donovan, the team's star before Beckham signed, is apparently disgruntled at the departure of former coach Frank Yallop, believing team administrators pushed out his longtime mentor.
Gullit will have to make some tough decisions almost immediately, because the grace period for teams to keep a previous designated player on salary ends this year. Donovan cannot remain with Los Angeles unless the team is able to trade for another slot, or unless MLS changes the DP allocation rules.
The situation calls for a rebuilding year, one that would give Gullit a chance to adjust to the league, but with a player like Beckham on the roster, that grace period may not be granted.
Until Yallop arrived, the Galaxy had never missed the MLS playoffs, but have now done so two years in a row. With 14 teams in the league next season, making the postseason will be more difficult than ever.
However, Gullit also has a unique opportunity to impact the history of U.S. soccer. The league is more mature than in the days when overseas coaches were befuddled with how to deal with players. In fact, Chicago's Juan Carlos Osorio has pointed out that MLS is ripe for tactical leadership.
What attracted the Galaxy administration to Gullit was his wide range of experience, and not just as a player (twice World Soccer Player of the Year) and a coach (Chelsea, Newcastle and Feyenoord) at the very top levels of the game. The owners of the Galaxy also wanted a coach to be comfortable with the media attention the team now garners. Yallop never seemed at ease with large numbers of press and his discomfort at times showed.
If Gullit can create more versatility on the Galaxy squad, putting complementary pieces in place around Beckham, it would be possible for Los Angeles to become a truly unique team -- the "Jewel of MLS" general manager Alexi Lalas once envisioned. If Gullit can deal with all the pressure and media questions with his trademark charisma, it could ease the burden on Beckham himself to be the game's ambassador.
Gullit has already made history as the first MLS coach of African ethnicity. In a country as diverse as America, it is startling that the world's game has taken this long to reach that landmark.
As such, the Dutchman has already beaten some long odds. If he can bring to MLS some of the "total football" approach that his own coach, Michels, once championed, then Gullit will truly be a pioneer.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.