In my last post, I talked about Bob Bradley's shortcomings as the manager of the U.S. National Team. I would like to reiterate, there is much that Bradley has done well, namely getting U.S. Soccer to really go after tough friendlies, like England, Spain and Argentina. I think as a policy, the U.S. Soccer honcos need to be scheduling on top 30 teams for friendlies, with a few exceptions like Canada and Mexico. Bradley has taken the necessary steps to develop the U.S. Program, but he has reached the limit of what he can provide and it is time for the U.S. to ask Bradley to step aside and find a top choice manager.
This post is going to talk about three possible managers, one is clearly a number one choice, but the other two should not be viewed as second choices, call them 1a and 1b, instead.
First, lilke Brian Lomax over at soccerlens.com, I think U.S. Soccer should be making the retention of Guus Hiddink, the current manager of the Russian National Team whose contract is ending after the Euros, as the number one priority. Hiddik guided the South Koreans in the 2002 world Cup. Granted, South Korea was a host nation but Hiddick guided the South Koreans to group wins over Poland and Portugal (and a draw with the U.S.), a round of 16 win over Italy in extra time and a quarterfinal win over Spain on penalties before losing to Germany in the semis and a 3-2 loss to Turkey in the consolation game. In 2006, Hiddick led the Socceroos of Australia out of the Group stage with a win over Japan, a loss to Brazil and a draw against Croatia, before losing to eventual World Cup winners Italy. Now he is leading Russia in the Euros and doing very well.
Hiddick prefers an open style of play, with lots of attack. But he is also adept at tournament football, which means having team that is not necessarily the best 18 players in teh country, but the 18 players who can play best together regardless of the combination on the field. Hiddick has proven that he can identify players who work well together. Furthermore, Hiddick has built teams with amazing fitness, essentially, he puts together teams that essentially outrun and outlast opponents. This factor is of vital importance in tournament play, where teams play a game every 3-4 days.
Hiddick is by far the best manager that will be shortly available and a top class choice. Hiddick made contenders of the South Koreans with less talent that is available in the U.S. (that is not a knock on South Korea but a factor of population size).
But let's assume that U.S. soccer doesn't get or won't go after Hiddick. The next two choices are also foreign managers with outstanding technical skill and knowledge, and both coach in teh MLS right now--Stevie Nichol and Ruud Gullit.
Stevie Nichol, currently the coach of the New England Revolution brings a brilliant tactical skill to his team in addition to being able to identify and use talent. Nichol has brought in young African players to the Revs, and has helped them develop. This season, because of injuries, suspensions, international call-ups and the like, Nichol has had about a dozen different starting line-ups in 15 games for the Revs and they still sit atop the league in points. Combine that flexibility and ability to have young talent that can contribute regularly, Nichol has built a team that has made the eastern conference finals six years running and the MLS Cup Final three years running and looks like a dead lock for the playoffs this year, even without Taylor Twellman scoring up top. Granted, it would be nice for Nichol to win the MLS Cup as manager, but the consistency is stunning.
Nichol is not wedded to any player or any formation if it will serve the tactical needs of the situation. He has developed players consistenly, and those players have proven to be exciting. What Nichol will bring to the U.S. Men's Team is the ability to evaluate and develop young talent, something I think Bob Bradley lacks to a significant extent and the ability to coax the best out of young players, by providing both technical training and the confidence in those players to allow them to play. Nichol favors a more balanced approach to soccer, which means attack is permitted, even encouraged when appropriate.
On the other side of America is Ruud Gullit, the current coach of the L.A. Galaxy and I guess coiner of the term "sexy football." What Gullit has done with the Galaxy in one season is tremendous. He has taken a squad built, for better or worse by Alexi Lalas (who is a far better footballer than general manager), consisting of a three real stars (Ruiz, Donovan and Beckham) and a squad of underpaid rookies, and built a goal scoring machine. The two current leading contenders for the MLS Golden Boot are Landon Donovan, (11 goals in 10 games) and Edson Buddle (9 goals in 10 games). Gullit's worst nightmare would be having both Buddle and Donovan called up to the National Team, since the two of them have scored 20 of the teams 31 goals.
But what is even more impressive is the squad of rookies that Gullit has developed. Players like Sean Franklin, Brandon McDonald, and Ely Allen have developed well under Gullit's tutelage. There is not one player in the regular starting rotation that does not look comfortable on the ball, Abel Xavier the lone possible exception. While the Galaxy give up a lot of goals (and too many cheap goals), that they are outscoring opponents is what is making LA's football quite sexy.
My first choice would be Guus Hiddick, by a country mile. But I can't say in the least that I would be disappointed to see Nichol or Gullit in Bradley's position.
I know that many think Bradley will likely stay in place through the 2010 World Cup, but he shouldn't if the U.S. want to be contenders.