Sunday, November 19, 2006
It's recently come to light, through Los Angeles-based Spanish language newspaper La Opinion, that former Argentina coach JosÚ NÚstor Pekerman will soon be named the new head coach for the United States National team.

Laying aside the credibility of the source - who recently published an article confirming that Zidane, Ronaldo, Crespo, Beckham and Figo will all be in MLS next year - if the report is to believed and US Soccer have truly missed out on former Germany coach JŘrgen Klinsmann, it will have been a monumental failure on the part of the brass.

Not only is the US National Team in dire need of the new ideas that Klinsmann would bring to the program, the publicity coup would be the biggest in its history, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, next to Klinsmann, Pekerman makes Bora Milutinovic seem like someone who could breath life into the 'has been in limbo for almost six months' program that is US Soccer.

Pekerman's resume as youth national team coach is quite impressive, with three world youth title's under his belt, partially stemming from his having some of the best youth players in the world at his disposal. He still seems to be a conservative old hat compared to Klinsman, the young gun.

From the end of World Cup 2006, even before Bruce Arena's dismissal, there was one name on the list of must-hires: Klinsmann. The plusses for both sides made it seem to be only a matter of time before terms became official.

Klinsmann was practically an intern in the US Soccer program from his retirement until he took on the Germany post, loves the anonymity that comes with living in the United States and though his coaching pedigree is quite brief, it includes bringing together a team many predicted for an early exit and leading them to a third place World Cup finish.

It's hard to believe that Klinsmann gave up the Germany job to coach club football in Spain or England, or that he wants to cut all ties with a game he has been involved in his entire life.

He was a professional athlete and coach, and it is only the very rare instance where one at the top of his game leaves his chosen sport abruptly or even quietly - although, it would seem his style to do so.

Of course, there were the immediate naysayers claiming that Klinsmann's pedigree as a coach is far from sufficient to take over the reins of an up and coming US side, and that what is needed is a coach with a little bit more coaching experience - someone along the lines of Pekerman.

So the question becomes, who is better suited for head coach of the United States National Team. The old experience or the young gun?

As the old axiom says: you're only as good as your last game.

Pekerman's last game came against the Klinsmann-led Germans in the quarterfinals of World Cup 2006. While the game was decided on penalty kicks, it was coaching decisions that determined the final outcome.

Pekerman's game plan, once having gone on top through Roberto Ayala's header four minutes into the second half, was a weak attempt at protecting the lead instead of going for the jugular - and the win.

With a 1-0 lead on the home country, and clearly playing the better soccer, Pekerman left two legitimate stars in Javier Saviola and Lionel Messi on the bench when substituting perhaps the best player of the game, Juan Riquelme, for midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, who is not to be confused with either Saviola or Messi.

Later, with a chance to take back control of the midfield, Pekerman once again looked past his dynamite duo and inserted 6'3" forward Julio Cruz.

It was certainly more of an attempt to neutralize the German size advantage than it was to take back control of the game, which Germany had clearly done since Tim Borowski came on in the 62nd minute.

It has been said that Pekerman made all the right decisions - Riquelme was exhausted, Cruz is a good forward - but leaving Messi and Saviola, two of Argentina's most creative playmakers, on the bench reeked of prevent defense.

In other words, trying to hold home side Germany to zero goals, knowing that if they did score, Argentina would face a squad that had never lost in a World Cup penalty shootout.

It was Klinsmann who took control of that game and matched his counterpart's decisions perfectly, and it was he who eventually walked away from the field a winner.

One coach played to win, and the other played not to lose. Who would you want on your side?

That German national team came into the tournament only favorites to advance past the first round, and came away with a third place medal in a tournament where many had thought they would be an afterthought.

Not only did Klinsmann turn around a team that had a disastrous Euro 2004 showing, he did it by making tough decisions that brought him under a lot of fire, and he stayed with them.

In the end, he was praised throughout the world for his tactical decisions and had Germany being lauded for playing some of the most attractive soccer of the tournament.

In their head-to-head battle, Klinsmann was the hands down victor. But there's more to it than that.

Pekerman has lived in Argentina his entire life, does not speak English and probably has never seen many of the players in the US pool, aside from perhaps the occasional highlight film.

Klinsmann lives with his American wife and children in the United States, has taken part in US camps, knows a lot of the players and has been an active part in the development of US soccer for the last six years.

Pekerman's success at the youth level, while unparalleled, hardly translates to senior team success, and soccer is not the complicated game it is sometimes made out to be. The role as a motivator is the most important part of a soccer coach once that whistle blows.

Bruce Arena's fortÚ was instilling a belief in his players that, not only could they win, but that they would win. Guus Hiddink has done it in two straight World Cups with two different teams, and the relationship that Klinsmann forged with his players went much further towards his team's success than Pekerman's soccer knowledge did for his.

Hopefully, for the good of US soccer, Klinsmann won't become like an old fisherman's tale: The one that got away.