Friday, July 29, 2011

When Is the Right Time To Make a Coaching Change?

It is not uncommon to make a coaching change following a World Cup - in looking at the past 2010 FIFA World Cup, the only two managers who had also managed in the previous 2006 FIFA World Cup were that tournament's two finalists - Marcello Lippi (Italy) and Raymond Domenech (France).

Both Lippi and Domenech saw their teams slump badly in the following tournament, not being able to move on from the group stages.

My problem is at the timing of this decision by USSF President Sunil Gulati - why renew Bob Bradley's contract following the 2010 World Cup if he didn't intend to retain him through the next cycle towards the 2014 World Cup?

I don't know if there is ever 'a good time' to make a change, but clearly Gulati doesn't know when that time is, either.

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America writes about the process of moving the US National team coach.

The decision to jettison Bob Bradley as national team head coach comes at a critical juncture for U.S. Soccer. The dilemma of whether to fire a head coach came up in November, 1997, when I stepped into the lobby of a Providence, R.I. hotel that was housing the U.S. national team.

Two veteran players who shall not be named motioned me over and with lowered voices said, “Do you think Steve [Sampson] should be fired?”

This enquiry came with the Americans already qualified and the final Hexagonal game against El Salvador pending. A rift between Coach Sampson and captain John Harkes would occur months later, and just two weeks prior the U.S. had carved out an historic 0-0 tie against Mexico at Azteca Stadium despite playing with 10 men for most of the match.

Yet the players felt enough concern to raise the ultimate question, to which I responded, more rhetorically than pragmatically, “I’d say yes in a heartbeat if you can tell me who can make things better.”

Whereupon they looked at each other and one of them said, “We were thinking the same thing. Making a change this late might upset the camp.”

National teams have changed head coaches much closer to the World Cup than the seven-month period of this situation, to varying results. As subsequent events showed, there remained plenty of time for the U.S. team to self-destruct, and we’ll never know if a change would have rectified the problems, or magnified them.

We do know that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has chosen this as the right time for a change by dismissing Coach Bob Bradley after a meeting Thursday at Home Depot Center. The decision ends a 4 1/2-year tenure that produced some unprecedented successes for the national team along with disappointments. It also comes with the federation mired in a rut of bad outcomes.

“I think there’s a sense that a malaise has set in, not necessarily just with the national team, but with the federation in general,” said former national team defender and ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas. “If you look back over the last year or so, you see a lot of opportunities missed: not getting past Ghana last summer, the failure to get the [2022] World Cup, the flame-outs of the U-17s and U-20s, even the Women’s World Cup.

“Obviously, most of those things are not Bob Bradley’s fault. But Sunil is a very smart guy, and I think he sees this is the right time for a change, and not because we’ve heard a lot of about change these past few years or change for change’s sake, but he does see the need to change direction. I also don’t think he’d do this if he didn’t have somebody lined up.”

In the U.S. Soccer press release that announced the decision, there was a mention that the federation would be releasing more information Friday. Not clear is whether that means a new head coach will be named, an especially pressing concern since the U.S. has scheduled a match against Mexico in Philadelphia Aug. 10.

The two names mentioned most often are former German international and national team coach Juergen Klinsmann and former Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez. Klinsmann, a resident of Southern California, discussed the job with Gulati after the 2006 World Cup and again last year; a close ally of Benitez, Paco de Miguel, helped youth technical director Claudio Reyna present the new U.S. Soccer coaching curriculum in April. Benitez has also been unemployed since being fired by Inter Milan last December.

No matter if a foreign coach is chosen, or one of several domestic possibilities, the federation is at a most critical juncture.

TIMING. The decision to dismiss Bradley probably came shortly after the Gold Cup, in which the U.S. lost a group game for the first time – to Panama, which it later defeated in the semifinals – and in the final took a 2-0 lead against Mexico before collapsing, 4-2. Michael Bradley’s wedding, the Women’s World Cup, and MLS All-Star Game may have caused the delay, and/or Gulati may have needed that time to nail down a replacement.

The U.S. looked embarrassingly short on skill against Mexico, which in the wake of its Gold Cup triumph hosted and won the U-17 world championships. Last spring, as the U.S. U-20 team faltered, Mexico qualified for the U-20 World Cup that starts this week. Bypassing the U.S. at each level spread panic amongst the soccer community.

Though the U.S. has a rematch with Mexico looming, and friendlies against Costa Rica and Belgium in early September, there won’t be any World Cup qualifiers until next year. A replacement will have plenty of time to get familiar with the vast scope and quirky cubbyholes of U.S. Soccer and the American game in general, and begin the process of change, whatever that entails.

The disappointing performance of the U-17s and the U-20 team's failure to qualify for the world championships has renewed cries for an overhaul of player development, which the federation has already started with its Development Academy, among other programs. Reyna has stated his intent to devise a style of play that all U.S. national teams at all levels will utilize, but not everyone believes that is feasible.

In recent seasons, along with expansion, MLS has decreed that its teams must field academy programs at youth levels, and this year has also revived its Reserve Division. Only recently has MLS generated the revenues and resources -- and devised workable procedures -- to put any real muscle into player development.

In most nations, national team coaches do not develop players, per se: they pick them from the clubs, and meld them – hopefully – into a successful team. The U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla., at which U-17 players are housed year-round, is an exception, not the rule, though similar programs have been implemented in a few countries.

“I’m not one of those people who insist on a style from the U-17s to the U-20s all the way up to the senior team,” says Garth Lagerwey, general manger of Real Salt Lake, which has an ambitious and well-funded academy program. “What there has to be, however, is a commonality of what you want those players to look like and the kind of players to pick from.

“It’s a lot easier to develop a style if you have a lot of good players, and I think that’s the starting point we have to strive for.”

It is not for me to determine who should assume all of the responsibilities of the success, or perceived lack of success, by the US National team, but when you see poor performances from our Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 National teams, it looks like our president should assume some of the responsibility, too.

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