NEW US COACH TO-DO LIST
For all those who were looking forward to the next US Men's National Team coach having a German accent with a recent record of success, I feel your anger and disappointment.
Jürgen Klinsmann would have brought instant credibility to the program and he understands what it takes to build a world class team in spite of the critics (who were hammering him in every tabloid in Germany before the World Cup).
Alas, former Chivas USA and MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley has been named interim coach, with USSF President Sunil Gulati refusing to commit to any length of time that the title will be interim.
Bradley is not a bad coach by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, he is a very good coach and did an excellent job leading Chivas USA to third place and its first playoff berth in MLS this year.
In his 25 years of coaching, however, the newly appointed head man has not accomplished what Klinsmann accomplished in 18 months in Germany, and his lack of international experience does not bode well for the men's national team.
For those that think Bradley doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting the job full time, remember that a guy named Steve Sampson was also interim coach when he took an unheralded US team all the way to the semi-finals in the Copa America in 1995 (let's not forget the 3-0 drubbing of Argentina), on the way to the full-time gig.
Did I mention that the US is playing in the Copa America this year for the first time since that 1995 appearance? Do you believe in coincidence?
But I digress...
Whether Bradley, Klinsmann, or Mickey Mouse is head coach of the US Men's team, there are serious decisions and choices that need to be made, and quickly. America no longer has the luxury of being taken for granted by teams when they play us as Portugal did in the 2002 WC opener.
European teams take us seriously now, so, without further adieu, here is one Yank's opinion of the top five things Bradley must do to bring this team back on track.
1) Select a strong captain
The Claudio Reyna era of captaincy closed with the Ghana defeat in Nuremburg last June. It was an era of mixed results, primarily due to injury.
Probably the first to be called 'the Future of American Soccer' Claudio, entered the US National scene with great promise when he was still playing for Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia but injuries wrecked his first and last World Cups, a Jen Jeremies knee to the back his second.
The Reyna that everyone will probably choose to remember is the one who played in the Korea/Japan tournament which culminated in his being named to the All-World Cup team and the unforgettable picture of his being draped in the American flag after leaving it all on the field versus Germany.
A successor has to be named with Captain America officially retired and it has to be someone with authority; someone who has the guts to walk up to other members of the team and scream "you're not pulling your weight, you're letting us all down."
There are three bona fide candidates to wear the armband in Colorado Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni; Hannover 96 defender Steve Cherundolo, and Standard Liège defender Oguchi Onyewu.
All have presence, grit, and a determination to succeed and Cherundolo was even voted vice-captain of his club team. So who gets the nod? All three are strong candidates, but I believe that only Onyewu has all the right qualities to lead the USMNT today, and in South Africa in 2010.
2) Bench Landon Donovan
Is that harsh? So what. Bradley should make an immediate statement with this team and if he shows that starting is an earned responsibility, it will send a message to the rest of the players that they need to challenge themselves: if you're considered a world talent (and Donovan is that for sure), you must play where the best talent in the world do: Europe.
MLS is a good league, don't get me wrong, and has been great for the development of young US players. But it's the Triple A of soccer on the world stage when compared with the Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain (though the latter three don't come knocking often on American doors).
Plenty was written after the World Cup about how Donovan needs to stop feeling 'comfortable' and put himself in a more challenging environment and he only has a short window to do that. If he isn't playing with a European club in a top league by 2008, he rides the pine in Johannesburg.
Top players must and do go into the most competitive environments. It's hard to think of any present Brazilian national team player who's not in Europe. It's true in other sports as well. Ask Ichiro Suzuki why came to play baseball in Seattle when he was at the top of his game in Japan or Dirk Nowitzki why he doesn't play at one of the top European basketball clubs.
3) Re-invigorate the youth system
Here's a question: if our youth development system is so good, whether it's the Olympic Development Program (ODP), or the IMG run Bradenton Academy, how do players like Jay DeMerit and Benny Feilhaber not even get a sniff at these programs and go on to success on the European stage? If it weren't for talent spotters like Sigi Schmid, we might still be waiting for Feilhaber to make his mark.
There have been rumblings about ODP for several years now, that its become more of a "who you know" organization and is not doing its bit to promote the best young American players. Several players have (privately) stated their dislike for the program.
Bradley has also been named head of the Under-23 side and should use this position to urge the USSF to look into the youth development policies. Certainly something can be done in the talent evaluation department and shifting towards the academy setup that works so well in Europe could be another priority.
How much can Bradley actually change the current system? Probably not a whole lot, but the USSF needs to review it's current situation and the next US coach should lead the charge.
4) Find forwards who can score
Unless Brian McBride can make a younger clone of himself, the USMNT will enter the next phase of qualifying for South Africa with attackers that don't exactly strike fear into opponents hearts, or optimism into Americans' hearts.
Josh Wolff, Eddie Johnson, Conor Casey (before he tore up his knee), and Taylor Twellman have all had a shot at claiming a full time role, with EJ having had a fantastic start in the 2006 qualifying campaign, but injuries and inconsistency have been their bane.
All have failed to deliver recently, and there seems to be no one on the horizon who can step up and fill McBride's shoes. We seem to be developing good play makers (Convey, Feilhaber, Bradley Jr.) but are missing that poacher element in front of goal.
Taylor Twellman may still fill that role, but he is as of yet unproven on the international stage and if Conor Casey does find a new team and some playing time in the near future, he also still has a shot.
We also have Kenny Cooper in MLS, Preston Zimmerman with Hamburg who will be eligible to play in January and Boston College phenom Charlie Davies currently on-trial with Ajax, but none of them have any international pedigree to speak of, save if you like, Cooper's reserve stint with Manchester United.
5) Play meaningful games
In March 2005, I paid very good money, not including parking to watch the USMNT play Colombia in a friendly in Fullerton. As I sat in that 3rd row seat, I looked at a team that was so unrecognizable, people kept asking me who each player was, and I was struggling!
What was even more amazing was the fact that the Yanks ran roughshod over the Colombians 3-0 (and it wasn't that close). Of course, the next morning I read that the Colombian team was comprised mostly of their under 21 player pool. I wonder what Bruce Arena and the USSF learned from that game? Always play inferior opponents?
The Copa América is a start, but the USSF must start playing more world superpowers not named Mexico.
When was the last time we played a friendly with France or Italy (World Cup finalists), or anyone ranked higher than us in their stadium?
It may look ugly early, but there will greater long term benefits. Just using the run up to the 2002 World Cup, the USMNT played Germany, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Holland and Uruguay.
They were crushed by Germany in Rostock, played off the field in the second half versus Italy in Sicily, lost to Ireland in Ireland held their own versus the Netherlands in Boston though still losing 2-0. They beat Mexico and Uruguay and with the exception of the Oranje, all were World Cup participants.
We didn't do too bad in that tourney if I recall.
Bradley has a monumental task ahead of him, and might not even be the coach who takes the United States through qualifying for South Africa, but he'll surely be working like it's his job to lose.