By Paul Gardner
The firing -- or the letting-go, or the-not-renewing-his-contract -- fate of Thomas Rongen was pretty much a foregone conclusion after his U-20 team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup -- eliminated after a loss to Guatemala.
I have already commented on Rongen’s gracious acceptance of that defeat. At that time I had only read his words -- I have since seen the video, and feel that I was watching a man who knew his time was up.
His replacement, Tab Ramos, has little experience of coaching at the international level, which makes his appointment sound like a rash move. But is it? How important is it to have experience?
I’ll cite the obvious example -- at the club level -- of Jason Kreis, who took over Real Salt Lake with minimal experience and quite quickly turned them into MLS champions -- not only champions, but a team that played better soccer than any other team in the league. A change brought about not by experience but by a fresh vision of what American soccer can look like.
At this decisive moment in the development of the sport in this country, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that “coaching experience” is more than likely to be a negative factor.
Things are changing. The changes are accelerating -- and the “experience” that sounds so crucial is something that will have been acquired in the rapidly receding past.
What is happening to U.S. soccer -- as everyone except the coaches closest to it have understood -- is that a more all-embracing attitude is developing, one that is moving on from a past dominated by unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes “the American player.”
Those old assumptions -- surely, I do not need to spell them out? -- no longer make any sense. And the coaches who still swear by them now stand in the way of progress. They are blocking the future of the sport in this country.
Obviously, they are led by national team coach Bob Bradley. We have been waiting, pretty patiently, for Bradley to give the slightest sign that he is willing to take a much harder look all around him, for him to recognize the huge reservoir of non-traditional talent that is now becoming available in this country. We are waiting in vain.
What on earth is Bradley doing bringing on to his team a goalkeeper raised in Germany? The one position at which the USA has never lacked good players -- and he thinks it makes sense to look to Europe? Enough said.
Tab Ramos -- whether or not he continues as a permanent coach with the U-20s -- quite definitely represents a step in the right direction, if only because he signals a step away from the conventional.
I’m saying that with full awareness that Ramos may not -- may not be able to -- live up to my expectations of him as a breath of fresh air. The realities of the job will always make it easier to go with tried-and-trusted methods, and it is not easy to resist orthodoxy. The saying “Manners change when honors come” is one that seems to me to have particular application to soccer coaches and administrators.
Anyway, do we need a U-20 national team coach? Starting at the bottom of the USSF team ladder: At the moment -- given the elaborate Bradenton set up -- we do need a full-time under-17 coach. Though that needs to be looked at. At the U-20 level, I cannot see the need for such an appointment. The U-20 duties should be handled by the Olympic coach, who should also be an assistant to the senior national team coach.
By the standards of the top soccer nations, Bob Bradley is underpaid. But measured by the work that he has to do (maybe 18 meaningful games in a year) he is overpaid. As are all NT coaches. What do they do with all that time? The ability to play a decent round of golf might well be included as a job requirement. It has become one of the weekend comedy routines, when watching the EPL games, to guess when the shot of Fabio Capello sitting in the crowd, looking rather bored, will come up. He’s “watching players”, we’re told.
Strange to say, we rarely see shots of Bob Bradley during MLS telecasts. Possibly because Bradley chooses to seclude himself in executive boxes (which would be a clear example of manners changing), or because he doesn’t find it necessary to watch MLS players, or -- most likely -- because the television directors haven’t a clue when it comes to picking out celebrities in the crowd.
Capello is paid $150,000 a week, so that in any month he earns as much as Bradley gets in a year. All that for “watching players”? Well, not quite. Capello is working with the expectations of an entire country weighing on him. He was hired with one over-riding aim -- to guide England to World Cup victory. He has to suffer a lot of harsh criticism from fans, and from an often very hostile press. It is a very stressful environment.
The U.S. national team job is not burdened with any such pressures. Among the major soccer powers, Bradley has, in fact, the cushiest national team job in the world. Again, that is not a criticism of Bradley -- except to the extent that he accepts the smooth ride and fails to compensate with a searching self-criticism.
Anyone who has ever attended a Bradley press conference will know that self-criticism is rarely on the agenda. The pervading tone is one of smugness. Again, one had hoped for a change, but it’s clearly not going to happen.
The change, then will have to come from without. Regardless of how the U.S. does -- under Bradley -- in this summer’s Gold Cup, Bradley should be relieved of his job as soon as it’s over. Waiting for Bradley to see the light is now looking like nothing better than procrastination. It is no longer an option. There are, after all, other candidates, American candidates -- I mentioned Jason Kreis, to whom I would add Sigi Schmid, and maybe Dominic Kinnear.
A new national team coach and an Olympic/under-20 coach (who would not necessarily need to be American) are needed to let everyone know that the reshaping of American soccer is beginning now, and it is beginning at the top.