Who’s the boss? Indecision only compounds U.S. Soccer’s current quandary
One federation roared into action upon its shocking World Cup elimination. Another one roared a little … then more or less checked out for a nice sandwich.
You be the judge of which approach you applaud, or at least appreciate.
Proverbial heads are rolling in Italy, where the desire for radical change reached hyperdrive the minute the final, painful whistle blew on the Azzurri’s failed World Cup quest. The national team coach and the federation president are the earliest casualties.
The danger is that sensible pace of transition and change devolves into something closer to blissfully retaining the status quo.
That rapid springing action, paired with the assumption that a drive for radical reinvention won’t soon abate, is spotlighting something of a contrast to things happening here, where U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has gone quiet – which means the mad dash for change, whatever that looks like, is in limbo at the moment.
So U.S. Soccer finds itself in this awkward spot, flailing a bit to find the balance: Push harder for something more immediate, something that looks and feels more like radical makeover? Or step lightly at more deliberate pacing, riding the slow lane of sensible reform – even if the sense of urgency everyone felt a month ago is frittered away?
According to a story in the Washington Post, there is “zero urgency” in the U.S. men’s national team reconstruction process, which makes some sense on some very practical level. But to plenty of good U.S. Soccer supporters, the passionate pulse of it all, that’s like seeing the kitchen on fire – but stopping to order up a good lunch before getting around to dialing 911.
It’s an awkward spot.
U.S. Soccer’s January plans
With support at an obvious ebb, Italian soccer federation president Carlo Tavecchio resigned a week after World Cup elimination. "We missed the World Cup and it has become a tragedy," he said. Hyperbole aside, we might admire the way even the most tradition-steeped and calcified governing body recognized the call to get things going in another direction, and do it lickety-split.
But that’s not happening in the United States. Not exactly.
There are things that need deciding, even with meaningful matches so far away – and is anybody even sure who is deciding them?
We know the men’s national team will finish its annual January camp with a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Jan. 28. The buried lede: There will indeed be a January camp for the U.S. men’s national team.
Given that everything about the program deserves inspection, and given that a January camp rates as “uncommon” around the world, did we know for sure?
Still, who runs the camp? Is it Dave Sarachan, the interim coach who managed the team’s 1-1 draw with Portugal? Someone else? Indications are that we’ll get some answers from U.S. Soccer as early as the end of November.
There is also a matter of friendlies going forward. We know there will be opportunities in March, during the next FIFA window. And we know there will be opportunities for plenty of friendlies ahead of next year’s World Cup as teams hold pre-tournament camps, some of which could well be right here in the United States.
So much of the horse trading on scheduling those friendlies will happen at FIFA’s World Cup draw Dec. 1 in Moscow. So, who is trading on the U.S. behalf? Most likely, it’s Tom King, U.S. Soccer's managing director of administration, and U.S. Soccer CEO/secretary general Dan Flynn.
To some, that’s going to sound like a little too much “same old, same old.” Important decisions about matches ahead not being made by “soccer guys,” but by a status quo of rather anonymous administrators.
The U.S. men’s national team’s epochal failure in World Cup qualifying appeared to mark a moment of clarity for the game, raising inquests not just into the senior men’s team, but the women’s national team, the professional game and youth development.
Since then, we’ve had a slow walk of candidates for the presidential post, including a few administrative types with some intriguing ideas and two high-profile candidates, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino.
The election isn’t until February. With reports that a coach might not be hired until summer, what does that mean for the pressing questions U.S. Soccer faces right now?
Direction from the top
Direction on this should come from the top, which is an issue because Gulati has gone underground.
That’s understandable. After all, don’t we all want to hole up when things go sideways, just sort of keep our heads down? Especially with an election coming up in February, creating a natural point for change? Gulati has yet to say whether he is running.
On the other hand, it’s a weird time to go quiet. All this silence is a bit, well, a bit disquieting. The danger is that sensible pace of transition and change devolves into something closer to blissfully retaining the status quo. That we all lose the fire and desire to dislodge the hardened and perhaps harmful practices that need dislodging.
In response the Washington Post story, which indicated a U.S. men’s coach was unlikely to be selected until after the summer’s World Cup, former U.S. international and current TV analyst Stuart Holden tweeted his agreement that a technical committee should first be established.
Forming a new committee doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but that creates another problem: Who selects it? And when? Would Flynn (who runs the federation’s day-to-day business and who makes more decisions than people realize) and Gulati select the committee? If so, doesn’t that look like a little too much of that ‘same old?’ Or, more likely, are we waiting until February elections to pick some people to pick a committee that will pick a coach who will pick a style?
Is this pragmatism - a staple of Gulati’s leadership - the rate of response that is needed? Has U.S. soccer culture reached a true state of actionably demanding change?
The U.S. isn’t Italy, after all, with its 60-year run of World Cup appearances and its four championships, the most recent in 2006. So it seems right that American failure gets misdemeanor treatment while Italy gets the full felony feel, so to speak.
But isn’t a startling lack of emotional urgency exactly how we got here in the first place? Wasn’t everyone just a little too sure that things would work out? No reason to fight a little harder against Costa Rica in New Jersey, nor grind a little harder down in Trinidad, right? Things always work out, after all.
Until they don’t.
In the Americans’ recent 1-1 draw with Portugal, talented young men like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga reminded us of a potentially dazzling future – so long as the institutional slog of it all doesn’t drag that whole thing down. And that’s where U.S. Soccer’s slow response – embodied by Gulati’s indecision over whether to seek reelection – gets a wee bit worrying.