A year since Bruce Arena quit, the US still have an interim coach. Why?
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With a degree of spin not seen since Roberto Carlos in 1997, US Soccer addressed the first anniversary of the grimmest night in its history with a cliche-strewn mission statement that began “Today we look forward” and made liberal use of the word “future”.
But let’s glance back.
Bruce Arena resigned as head coach on 13 October last year, three days after a 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago saw the US fail to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Here’s another date to remember: 24 October 2017, the day that one of Arena’s assistants, Dave Sarachan, was named interim head coach while the federation searched for a successor. He still is and they still are.
A one-game assignment for a November friendly against Portugal has morphed into eight matches and counting. Sarachan will be in charge on Thursday when the US host Colombia in Tampa and for another friendly next Tuesday against Peru in Connecticut. There’s an outside chance he’ll still be in the dug-out for the friendlies against England and Italy in November.
Results have been good. Sarachan’s eight matches have brought three wins and three draws, the only losses coming against Brazil and Ireland. The US beat an undercooked Mexico 1-0 last month and held a rehearsal-mode France, 1-1, five weeks before Didier Deschamps’ side were crowned world champions in Moscow.
Ditching the geriatrics for a youth movement was inevitable; still, players such as Tim Weah, Matt Miazga and Weston McKennie are emerging as genuine talents under Sarachan’s stable, low-key leadership. He has given debuts to 18 players and, of course, insists this has not been 12 months in cryosleep. “I think looking back on all of these friendlies since Trinidad until now, there’s been a progression. It’s by no means a finished progression, but it’s moving along in a good direction,” the 64-year-old told reporters on Wednesday.
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Wherever it’s going, it’s not been pulsating. Aside from a 3-0 victory over Bolivia, the Americans have not scored twice in a game under Sarachan. Attendances are poor: only 32,489 for the Brazil friendly at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey last month. Sarachan’s elongated tenure inevitably sends a message that these games matter little. Who could blame fans who conclude that if US Soccer is in no hurry to appoint a permanent boss, they are in no rush to watch the matches?
As it enters year two of its rebuilding process the team is a construction site without an architect. Perhaps this is some sort of ironic critique of the modern cult of the manager that fancies highly-paid dugout dictators as the critical difference between success and failure, regardless of the skill of the players. A rebuttal of the axiom that a team’s identity is defined by its tactician.
Potentially, US Soccer’s bold definition of the term “interim” is a courageous stand against the turbulence, short-termism and impatience that also characterise the sport. It could be a tacit admission that the club game is far more significant to a player’s development than anything that happens during an international call-up and that nothing really matters outside of a World Cup cycle.
Or maybe it’s a continuation of the excessive caution of the Sunil Gulati regime, where inertia was mistaken for patience. Arena’s predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann, after all, had more than five years in charge, even though it was clear long before his exit that a miasma of tactical and motivational woes were clouding a one-time visionary who had developed problems with his foresight.
After the T&T loss the former US Soccer president sounded like a man nailing his shoes to the floor as he stood in a whirlwind. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” Gulati told reporters.
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He added that he would “look at everything,” though the clear implication was that he wanted to believe this traumatic outcome was not the result of a systemic failure but the caprices of sport: a feature of football, not a bug in US soccer’s programming. To have acceded to demands for instant change and dramatic reform, then, would have been to succumb to a thoughtless mob baying for blood.
Skilled procrastinators can always make excuses seem like reasons. Here are some: Sarachan’s competence has quelled any sense of urgency. It was understandable to wait to hire a permanent head coach until after February, when the low-profile insider, Carlos Cordeiro, was elected as Gulati’s successor. And defensible to hold off until after the summer’s shindig in Russia - after all, in the build-up the US was focused on securing the right to host the 2026 World Cup jointly with Canada and Mexico.
When summer rolled around it was worth waiting for the dust to settle post-Russia to see if any intriguing options might be available. (Juan Carlos Osorio, for example, left Mexico and took charge of Paraguay last month.) Once Earnie Stewart was hired as general manager in June - starting work in August - it made sense to let him conduct a thorough recruitment strategy.
But there are no sure things, no certainty that the methodical way is best. Arena, a conservative pick clearly valued by Gulati as a known, experienced and predictable quantity, turned out to be the wrong choice.
Assuming Sarachan is not handed the permanent role, a young group who are bonding and developing will soon experience some upheaval under a new coach who will only have a handful of training camps and exhibition games before next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, the first (vaguely) meaningful encounters since the last World Cup qualifying cycle. If the permanent hire makes drastic changes, does that mean much of the past year has been wasted?
After such a long search, settling on an MLS coach who’s been in plain sight for many months - a Peter Vermes or Gregg Berhalter, say - is going to seem underwhelming, even if it ultimately proves wise. And the desire for an urgent, dynamic transformation that would logically begin with a new head coach to set a new tone was not a reckless wish but a reasonable one. Instead, those who felt US Soccer needed a grand gesture got a lengthy deferral.
In that context, judgment of Sarachan’s stewardship is almost beside the point; an opportunity to make a clean break with the past was missed. There is taking your time to carefully consider the options. And then there is avoiding a knee-jerk reaction by encasing the joint in plaster and virtually immobilising it.
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