U.S. coaching changes should not stop with Rongen's exit

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.

21 comments about "U.S. coaching changes should not stop with Rongen's exit".
  1. Mike Fredsell, May 6, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.

    How true, how true. What we also need is a unilateral philosophy like Coerver Coaching for our youth to all go by. It is the best methodology in the world to teach young players to be creative. Several countries have adopted it including France who has won a world cup and a european championship. Klinsman wanted to change things and good ol Sunil was to afraid to let that happen. Unless we change we will never compete with the likes of Brasil, France, Holland and Spain.

  2. Mark Edge, May 6, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.

    Good grief, is it possible I agree with Gardner.
    We should start at the very top, Sunil Gulati. Who is responsible for appointing him!
    The MNT head coach should have responsibility for the entire program, from the 17's up. He should be the one appointing the coaches, no-one else.
    We seem to have the same merry-go-round of familiar coaches, ever since the pompous ass Steve Sampson destroyed it. Yes I know we nearly beat Germany in 2002, but let's face it, the Greeks won the European championships. Even a blind sow finds the occasional truffle.
    It's time for a change.And while we're at it, take a close look at the coaching badges. They're too easy to get. I'm reliably informed that the pass rate for the A license is 80% and is a mere nine day course. The German B is six months!
    Again, find Klinsmann, pay him what hew wants, and give him control of the whole program.

  3. Charles O'Cain, May 6, 2011 at 8:51 a.m.

    I am frankly astonished that Mr Gardner concedes the need for a coach. I would have expected him to propose that the national team be selected by a poll of the soccer writers, and that they play without any imposed order, rather relying solely on their natural creativity to produce beautiful flowing soccer. After all, is that not the way they do it in Brazil and Barcelona?

  4. Gak Foodsource, May 6, 2011 at 9 a.m.

    I wholeheartedly agree that fresh air is so desperately needed within the USSF, but Kreis, Schmidt, and even Ramos are not changes. Tab in particular is a guy who grew up in the old age, was formed in the old age, and who just happened to be fairly technical - therefore he represents the new wave? Because he was the only player in his generation of US stars who could handle the ball? Ramos is as fresh as Alexi Lalas is wise. Id be looking at someone from a Brazilian or Spanish feeder club that has experience making the subtle changes needed to transform talented ducks into swans. Or even a Barça B type coach. don't be fooled by the fact that Ramos knew how to dribble.

  5. Walt Pericciuoli, May 6, 2011 at 9:04 a.m.

    No change will occur until the top man is let go. Sunil must go! The new Senior National coach/manager must have complete control of all things having to do with youth soccer training and development. We should pay whatever it takes. There are several known and established coach/trainers around the world who have demonstated they know how to set up successful training programs from youth to senior levels. I am sad to say, we need to start all over again and it begins with training young 11 and 12 year olds.(or maybe even yonger) Until we begin to produce world class players, we will never have a world class team.

  6. Kent James, May 6, 2011 at 9:37 a.m.

    Given PG's attitude towards coaches, I'm surprised he thinks a selection of a coach would make a difference (Charles O'Cain's comment nailed it!). I don't disagree that it would be could to have a coach willing to take more risks than Bradley, and one who encouraged more creativity. But I think our expectations of what a national team coach can do may be unrealistic. Have there ever been national team coaches who change the way an entire nation plays? A national team coach can't be responsible for developing talented players, that is too much to ask (and besides, it would take too much time; most NT coaches don't last more than a few years and developing players has to start when they're young). I think the best we can hope for from a NT coach is that they do a good job of selecting player from the existing talent pool. Certainly the USSF has an important role in determining how talented that pool is, but from what I've seen, the USSF is doing what it can to promote skillful soccer (encouraging a focus on skill at a young age, small-sided games, being inclusive, etc.). It's up to the rest of us to do what we can to encourage skillful play at the grass roots level. It would be nice if one person could fix all the problems at the grass roots, but more realistically, those changes come when enough people push in the right direction. So it's up to us to do that, not relying on a NT coach to do it for us.

  7. Leland Price, May 6, 2011 at 9:40 a.m.

    Yes. In addition, American soccer would benefit if we cleared out some of the deadwood in the college coaching ranks. These guys with their regressive systems are holding back and derailing quality players. For example, William and Mary - a nationally ranked team with strong talent - plays in such a slow-paced, almost polite fashion, that one wants to scream and search for a razor blade. How slow is slow? No one is tired at the end of the game, so why sub out? That's how slow. This kind of approach - what I call "NFL Think" - is a distinct hinderance to the development of quality American players.

  8. Dennis Everton, May 6, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.

    I'll say this about Ramos. He is the type of player that we have all over this country but don't seem to use that often (I prefer his type of player to the big physical "breck shea" types).

    He knows how to develop players, he has a football academy in Holmdel NJ that is putting out some of the best club teams in the country. Hopefully it translates on a national level. He has an eye for talent and appears to have the ability to develop that talent. It will be a good change to give him a shot.

    I support Tab all the way.

  9. David Sirias, May 6, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.

    Paul I appreciate you saying out loud what everyone who really pays attention this thinking . I will put another twist on the gold cup. It's not enough that bob Bradley wins. He has to win without playing his son every minute ( most of you who follow the EPL know why). If he does not show such restraint I predict a revolt. Literally a revolt of the ultras and other fans Because there is already a seething rage out there over his personnel decisions --all of which, I repeat all of which, have been designed to place his son
    in the best light and not the team.

  10. James Froehlich, May 6, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.

    First, Mark Edge, I totally agree with your comments about the Soccer Licensing scheme. It puts a totally unwarranted gloss on the actual coaching skills of the candidates. As it now stands this process is nothing more than a money making scam that pawns off on the soccer public a large group (not all) of incompetent certified experts.
    Second, I am pleased with the selection of Ramos. Despite his being a graduate of the "old school" he was indeed one of the very few skillful players and if his recent interview with SA is any indication may turn out to be a pleasant surprise---see following---
    "SA: For sure a very positive of recent years is that Barcelona, which plays entertaining and successful soccer, is being watched by American coaches …

    TAB RAMOS: The effect that Barcelona has had on world soccer and will have over the next decade is huge. We were just getting to the point of where it’s almost like to step on the field you needed to be 6-foot-2, and that was all that mattered.

    SA: And Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all stand barely 5-foot-7 tall and finished top three in the 2010 world player of the year award …

    TAB RAMOS: Being a 5-foot-7 guy, I can tell you that if I have a 5-foot-7 guy and a 6-foot-2 guy who play exactly the same, I’ll take the 6-foot-2 guy. But now I know that it’s OK for me to take the 5-foot-7 guy who can play better than the 6-foot-2 guy.

    Not only do I know that, but everybody knows that. That you’d rather have the guys who can play first, and size is second. And I think Barcelona has had that effect on world soccer.

    SA: So do you think this has an effect on American youth soccer where an emphasis on results so often leads to a playing style based on a big, strong kid in the back booting the ball up to the big, strong kid upfront?

    TAB RAMOS: At the youth game it continues to happen. I can tell you at the Development Academy level you rarely find teams who don’t want to play. They all want to play. They want to go forward. Some teams obviously have better players than others, but for the most part it’s really been a good experience.

  11. Theodore Eison, May 6, 2011 at 10:51 a.m.

    I agree that new coaches and ideas are good. I also think we need new soccer writers and that the ones who keep writing the same tired articles over and over should retire. Paul Gardner, please do yourself a favor and retire.

  12. Gak Foodsource, May 6, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

    James, re-read that part about Tab comparing 5'7" guys and 6'2 guys. "being a 5'7" guy, I can tell you that if the two are exactly the same, I'll take the 6'2" guy." That is unforgivable. It took Barcelona to show him that 5'7" is ok? HE was 5'7". He is also a professional, world class player. Not exactly a self taught soccer coach who is just exposing himself to more and more. There cannot be a whole lot going on up there if Tab didn't learn 5'7" can play until he got to his 40s.

    I know he tried to qualify it by saying Barça has changed perceptions, and that everyone now knows 5'7" can succeed, but I honestly don't know if i can trust a guy who, being a technical, 5'7" guy himself, would still select the 6'2" guy before Barça enlightened him.

  13. Thomas Messier, May 6, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

    Bradley has never recognized the talent that we have in our country, especially the Hispanic players. Hasn't a clue how soccer really should be played. I remember him from 20 years ago or so when he was Bruce's assistant at UVA and he never had a clue then either.Tab Ramos played against our club team at tourneys years ago and was a really creative player; let's hope he can bring the same talent to his coaching. At least he should be able to tell who the good players are.

  14. Amos Annan, May 6, 2011 at 12:46 p.m.

    All this complaining about the coaches is ridiculous. You give too much credit to them. It is really about having players with talent. When more of the best athletes choose soccer over football, baseball, and basketball, then you will have a dominate national soccer team.

    Soccer in this country is being corrupted by paid youth coaching that is eliminating the lower economic class athlete.

  15. David Borts, May 6, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.

    I rarely agree, but your commentary is true, accurate, timely and perhaps the last chance for this country to avoid a 2014 melt down

  16. David Huff, May 6, 2011 at 1:27 p.m.

    Why stop with Bradley? Gulati and Flynn also need to go, enough of protecting the 'Brit-style' of football in this country.

  17. John Hofmann, May 6, 2011 at 3:06 p.m.

    The comments here reflect a lot of passion for the success of soccer in the U.S. One thing I don't see often, however, is an understanding, I believe, of our culture. Gulati and the others at the top of the soccer structure, I'm afraid, probably reflect the desires of a great majority of people in this country who have a passing interest in soccer...and I suspect they not only outnumber the fanatics but also represent a huge part of the investment (time and money) in the existing youth soccer structure. When people call for a change at the top my gut feeling is that bringing in people who would try to apply the things necessary at this point to really re-direct priorities towards international success would be at cross purposes with the majority of soccer moms and dads, and the casual week-end observers. People from outside the culture who have political smarts would presumably know this and wouldn't touch our top soccer positions at this point with a ten point pole. My guess is they would lose any soccer conflict over priorities and would be out-of-a-job quickly. In most other countries there is nothing like the many millions of soccer kids/mom & dads/structure like here -- and I don't think there is a disconect as there is here between kids playing "organized" soccer versus kids out developing high level soccer skills on their own. There's a change that's needed, and to talk about being imposed from the top may not be realistic.

  18. James Madison, May 6, 2011 at 8:29 p.m.

    To say that Rongen had to go because of unacceptable results is stating the obvious. Beyond that, Gardner's column is nothing than his usual blah, blah, blah. The reality is that Bradley does what he can with what is available, and we are still at the stage where most of those who are available may be big, strong and fast, but are not soccer PLAYERS. What field player currently in the national pool other than Dempsey and, on one of his good days, Donovan, is a genuine PLAYER? Ramos in his day was an exception, and injecting him into the program at the U-20 hopefully will lead to more PLAYERS being prepared to compete for positions on the senior national team.

  19. Karl Ortmertl, May 7, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.

    Nobody mentions Wilmer Cabrera, the U-17's coach. He does a fantastic job with the kids and it always annoyed me to see Rongen screw up in the U-20's with the same players Cabrera did well with in the U-17's. I wish we could clone Cabrera into the U-20 and National Team coaches. He's from Colombia and I'd love to know if there were more coaches we couldn't steal out of there. He's got a feel for the game that the Rongens and Bradleys of the world can't even conceive of. Hopefully, Ramos is a lot closer to what Cabrera is than what Rongen and Bradley are.

  20. beautiful game, May 7, 2011 at 12:16 p.m.

    Mr. Madison's statement of 'genuine players' regarding LD and Dempsey is a bit far fetched...these players are only genuine when they perform and not disappear on the pitch as is so often. Perhaps the disappearing act has more to do with coach Bradley's tactical phiosophy of 'let's not lose mebtality'. And it's about time Rongen got fired. His tenure exceeded his contributions to an nth degree. Coaches live and die by the player selection process and the tactics they employ with these same players. In this area Rongen was a total failure.

  21. Daniel Clifton, May 19, 2011 at 8:19 a.m.

    I agree with all of the comments regarding starting at the top and getting rid of Sunlil. The institution of the Coerver system starting at a very young age would be an excellent start in the right direction. The US is not going to win the Gold Cup, which hopefully will lead to the end of Bradley's tenure. The change has to start at the top and then with a change at the grass roots level. I don't have a desire to watch the MNT any more. This next World Cup cycle will be a lost opportunity if Bradley remains the men's national team coach.

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