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Nov 9, 2007

Gullit's appointment doesn't guarantee success

For the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, it was all about the splash. All three rings roiled in the ongoing media circus in Galaxy Valley.

Of course, things didn't go as planned, and we've all beat that poor old warhorse sufficiently.

So when coach Frank Yallop announced his intention earlier this week to crack the escape hatch and leave the zaniness behind (and head for San Jose), we could only hope that rock-solid reasoning would rule the day as Anschutz Entertainment Group and GM Alexi Lalas recruited a new coach.

Perhaps that was aiming a bit high.

The decision to appoint Ruud Gullit has the faint, unpleasant odor of yet another flimsy decision, the latest stop on the Galaxy half-baked express. I love the Dutch approach to the game, and you can't fault the Galaxy for lacking creativity. Still, this looks like a reach, an act consummated for all the wrong reasons, more about Planet Hollywood flourish than rational consideration.

A good chunk of the league's credibility is at stake here. It's important that Los Angeles sort out matters to the point of respectability in 2008. So is it really time to take a flier on a man with only middling success in Europe, who has only coached in one season since 1999 (when he steered Feyenoord to a fourth-place finish in 2004)?

I'd like to be wrong about this one. I really would. (I was dead wrong about Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and I'm glad for it.) But there really are too many unsettling questions here -- and the Galaxy deciders have forfeited the benefit of the doubt.

First, aren't people paying attention to mounting evidence that American coaches (or, coaches with significant chips in the MLS game) are the way to go in MLS? Were Galaxy officials watching as the coiled fellow down the hall, Preki, was awarded MLS Coach of the Year?

Perhaps Tom Soehn deserved it over Preki; D.C.'s man has extensive MLS cred, too. Same with Dominic Kinnear, who oversees a perennial big dog in Houston. Men who once wore an MLS jersey oversaw eight of 13 teams this season, by far the most yet.

As with any managerial selection, final verdict on Gullit's appointment must wait. You can't truly gauge a coach at a news conference.

And Gullit certainly has some upside. He has a sophisticated soccer mind, schooled under the inimitable Johan Cruyff at Feyenoord, later to play alongside Dutch master craftsmen like Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. The late Rinus Michels, cagey and stern, steered a mighty ship as Gullit and a wondrous KNVB side ruled the 1988 European Championships.

So there's no question of tactical sophistication. And this is an area of slight MLS deficiency. Teams aren't particularly effective on the counter attack. They can't scheme for a tie (perhaps a good thing). Properly exploit a man-advantage? Uh, check back later.

When the subject turns to global credibility, Gullit's hiring can only help. This league still suffers from soccer snobs who vote with their fingers on the remote, frequently opting for foreign takeout over MLS meat and taters.

So, truly, I do see the attraction in Gullit. I mean, he's European! And we Americans think everything about Europe is sexy, right down to Amsterdam's filthy central train station. (Seriously, guys. Fantastic city. But would it kill ya to run a mop through there occasionally?)

But foreign managers generally flop in MLS. Examine the records. Like that train station, it ain't pretty. Want to talk about Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira or Bora Milutinovic, big names who flatlined in MLS? Any questions about Hans Westerhof and his pitiful 3-14-4 record? Walter Zenga, anyone?

The ability to learn from our mistakes is what separates us from the furry animals. And yet here we are again, looking for fellows with accents because they represent the "sexy" choice. We do have Chicago's Juan Carlos Osorio as a shining example of a foreign newbie gaining quick command of MLS. So, it can be done.

But Osorio worked his alchemy with mostly existing talent and had prior MLS coaching experience as an assistant with the MetroStars. Gullit has significant rebuilding afoot on a roster weighted with marginal talent. For instance, Gullit must quickly cull a list of protected players in preparation for San Jose's expansion draft.

Expansion draft? They don't do "expansion" in Europe. Say "expansion" to a fellow over there and he's likely to think the tanks are rolling through Poland again. Nonetheless, Gullit must quickly gather his list, ill-equipped with the prickly nuance attached to such matters. For instance, how will the salary cap implications of L.A.'s protected list affect the monster decision looming on Landon Donovan?

Then Gullit will need crash courses on salary caps, roster limits, senior internationals, youth internationals, "protected" roster spots, trades, trade deadlines, allocations, the vagaries of citizenship and green-card status, developmental rosters, discovery signings, waivers, supplemental drafts, guaranteed contracts. We could go on.

Jason Kreis humbly copped to early difficulty in mastering Major League Soccer's dizzying arsenal of player acquisition adventure. And he was a player here for 11 years!

How about that college draft? Soon Gullit will select players he knows nothing about, in an unfamiliar format, from a flawed college system that he's never seen at work. (And if you scoff at the college draft as a valuable tool, then you haven't paid attention as the wily Steve Nicol built New England on the cheap.)

Present at Friday's news conference to introduce Gullit will be Lalas and AEG president Tim Leiweke. Fair enough. David Beckham will grace the room. Players usually aren't front and center during these announcements, as the scene is typically focused on concepts of "team" and "organizational esprit de corps" and such. But Beckham is clearly a different creature in MLS. So, again, fair enough.

But what, in the name of Cruyff, is Simon Fuller doing at the news conference? He's Beckham's advisor, the British pop magnate who dreamed up 19 Entertainment and American Idol. Uh, remind us again why he's significant in this managerial selection? Why not just go ahead and trot out Paula Abdul, too?

That's the point. Where is the solid grounding of reasoning? The failed personnel choices of 2007 showed us that Los Angeles' system of checks and balances is broken, and we need evidence that it's being fixed. Suffice to say, Fuller's presence doesn't move us in that direction.

So we'll all watch with interest as it plays out in 2008. But know this: A brand name is no sure formula for success, and the Galaxy deciders are running out of mulligans.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.