Goulet the rarest of breeds
The European transfer window has come and gone, and America's favorite parlor game of "Who's going overseas?" has been replaced by "How will they do?" Yet even as U.S. fans anxiously track the progress of Eddie Johnson and others, the reality is that only a few players produced by the U.S. system have ever managed to carve out lengthy European careers, and of those players, most eventually make their way back stateside. But Brent Goulet has proved to be the rarest of breeds: an American player who not only stayed the course in Europe, but one who hung around long enough to join the continent's professional coaching ranks.
"I couldn't have in my wildest dreams imagined being an American coach in Germany," Goulet said. "I'm thankful because if I do decide to come back [to the U.S.] I'll have experience that is invaluable."
Yet despite his unique status in the game, Goulet is in many ways an unknown. As a player, his goal-scoring exploits helped the U.S. Olympic team qualify for the 1988 games in Seoul, earning him the USSF's Male Player of the Year award in 1987. Such success took him to England where he had a brief spell with Bournemouth as well as a loan stint with Crewe. And at a time when it seemed only goalkeepers were making any kind of impact overseas, Goulet was a player who bordered on the exotic: an American finisher.
"[Goulet] was a guy who could absolutely cow-tail a ball," said former U.S. national team manager Bob Gansler. "He was both-footed he was very accurate, and he had a quick release. He was a goal scorer. That was his biggest asset."
Yet Gansler's decision to leave Goulet off the 1990 World Cup team is the biggest reason for Goulet's anonymity. One story has it that Gansler never forgave Goulet for coughing up the ball late in a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago, which led to T&T scoring a late equalizer. Gansler contends that the respective games of Peter Vermes and Bruce Murray fit better into his tactical plans, and that Goulet's game was ill-equipped for a substitute's role.
Goulet recalls that prior to a World Cup warm-up against Russia, he was called back to his club side, the MISL's Tacoma Stars, due to an injury crisis, thus missing the friendly. To what extent that decision hurt Goulet's chances, no one knows, but he was never called into the national side again.
But time, not to mention his experience as a coach, has given Goulet a clearer perspective on his World Cup snub. While he believes his goal-scoring ability "was top," he's also quick to point out his shortcomings.
"As a team player, I was way behind the curve, knowing what I know now," Goulet said. "Holding the ball up, how important that is, not losing it so easily, and taking care of the ball I wasn't very good at that whatsoever."
But back in 1990, Goulet's confidence hadn't waned, and he soon returned to Europe with Germany as his destination. His odyssey began with Bonner SC, and his 31 goals in the 1991-92 season helped the team earn a promotion to the third division. Goulet then took his act to Tennis Borussia Berlin, where he scored 21 goals to help his side gain promotion to the 2nd Bundesliga.
"It was never a problem getting a team after that," Goulet said. "I always had offers."
He never stayed in one place for long either. When the goals dried up for Goulet at Berlin, he moved back to Bonner SC for a season before going to Rot-Weiss Oberhausen, and then Wuppertaler SV. In 1998, a move to the Tampa Bay Mutiny of MLS looked to be in the cards, but an injury scuttled those plans. Goulet finally landed in Elversberg, a small but ambitious club that had just won promotion to the German third division.
A broken leg in late 2000 brought Goulet's playing career to an end, but he soon became an assistant coach at the club, and when Gerd Schwickert was fired toward the end of the 2003-04 season, Goulet was handed the reins. He soon found out that the skepticism that accompanies U.S. players in Europe applies to coaches as well.
[The public] looked at me as an American, and no one thought I'd last three months," Goulet said. "Now I've got the longest tenure in our league."
Given Elversberg's tiny population of around 15,000, as well as its modest resources, Goulet's ability to keep the club in the third division has been impressive. That's not to say there haven't been some rough moments. Next year the two halves of the German third division, the Regionalliga Nord and the Regionalliga Sud, will merge to form a combined third division, and only the top 10 finishers in each league this season will qualify. The consequences of relegation are steep, and when Elversberg won only once in its first eight games, the knives came out. A dispute with Elversberg sporting director Eugen Hach nearly led to Goulet's ouster, an outcome the fans certainly wouldn't have minded.
"When things get tight, it's 'Trainer out,' and 'Ami go home,'" Goulet said. "That's the way the fans will be. That's happened a few times, and it's not easy."
Elversberg has since rallied, the differences with Hach were smoothed over and the team headed into the winter break in ninth place. According to Goulet, developing a level of tolerance for such experiences is precisely what American players and coaches need to do. In particular, he sees the lack of a promotion/relegation system -- or at least the scarcity of high-pressure games -- as being a real hindrance to American player development.
"That pressure is something that really forms you," Goulet said.
Goulet added that technically, U.S. players can stand their ground with any in the world. It's on the tactical side that Americans still fall short.
"One example is that you can't go all out for 90 minutes pressing," Goulet said. "No team in the world can do that, not Real Madrid, not anybody. If you do, it costs a lot of energy to make a game. Americans are really gung ho and everything, and we have a lot of energy, but even I couldn't go out for 90 minutes doing that."
As far as the prospect of other American coaches cracking the European ranks, Goulet is both philosophical and practical. When talking of his own rise, the self-professed born-again Christian invokes biblical references such as "time and chance," implying that he was just in the right place at the right time. As for others following his lead, he acknowledges that the competition for spots is too intense to allow an outsider to get in the door.
"It's impossible as an American," Goulet said. "You grab any American coach in MLS, and offer him up for a job in Germany, and see how many bites he gets. It just doesn't happen."
Which means that for the time being, Goulet will remain the rarest of breeds.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.