U.S. Soccer's challenge is hiring a head coach quickly but also with consideration

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When the United States men’s national team plays a friendly with Brazil in New Jersey on Friday, it will have been 330 days since it last had a full-time head coach. It won’t have one then and it won’t have one for a while longer.

It will have been 333 days since the debacle in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, when a fairly fluky confluence of results conspired to keep the United States from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Certainly, the Yanks hadn’t deserved to qualify on the strength of a catastrophic campaign, but they were unlucky nonetheless.

Head coach Bruce Arena resigned three days later, having fallen just short in his attempt to put out the many fires left behind by the dismissed Jurgen Klinsmann. And Dave Sarachan, Arena’s longtime assistant, has been in charge on an interim basis ever since.

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Officially, the new World Cup cycle begins this week with the first international window since the USA-less event in Russia this summer. Unofficially, you might argue that the Americans have been at it since Nov. 14, when they played Portugal to a 1-1 tie in the first of six pre-World Cup friendlies.

As such, almost a year of precious rebuilding time has already passed. That’s a long time by any measure, but especially in international soccer, where camps and games are scarce. Believe it or not, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will likely begin in late 2019 or early 2020 – depending on how the qualifying schedule is adjusted for the unusual late-November kickoff for this edition of the World Cup. And next summer will bring a competitive CONCACAF Gold Cup, a rare chance to learn and grow in an A-team summer tournament.

By all accounts, Sarachan has done a nice job. His record of 2-1-3 – with wins over Paraguay and Bolivia; ties with Portugal, France and Bosnia and Herzegovina; and a late loss to Ireland – is certainly respectable. More importantly, he has offered debuts and significant playing time to a raft of very promising young players. In the last year, 13 players aged 21 or younger have appeared in at least one U.S. game – four of whom were teenagers.

In all, 18 players have made their debut under Sarachan. And, sure enough, his roster for the Brazil friendly, and the one against Mexico in Nashville four days later, counts just three players older than 25 with a total average age of 23 years and 241 days, as of Sunday.

Dave Sarachan has done admirably as USMNT manager, but he’s not the long-term solution. (SI)
Dave Sarachan has done admirably as USMNT manager, but he’s not the long-term solution. (SI)

Yet Sarachan isn’t the long-term solution. And consequently, these were all wasted opportunities for the new head coach to begin crafting a squad for the coming years and implementing a new style and system.

A perfect storm of circumstances, however, has kept U.S. Soccer from making a full-time hire, gradually extending Sarachan through the end of the year. And it likely won’t make one until a full year without a head coach has passed.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2-1 loss in Trinidad, where a mere tie would have sufficed to at least make the playoffs, the federation was shell-shocked by its first qualifying failure in a generation. That triggered a period of grieving and introspection. Regardless, a quick pivot to a new coach was precluded by quadrennial elections for U.S. Soccer president. Incumbent and towering favorite Sunil Gulati eventually decided not to run, unloosing a wild and wide-open competition for his unpaid job. Gulati’s right-hand man Carlos Cordeiro eventually won out in February.

Cordeiro had little time to settle into the presidency or set about implementing his vision. Because he arrived in the thick of the final push for the joint bid for the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada. For four months, Cordeiro traveled the world making the case for a second World Cup to be held stateside. He was successful in the end, but the process had taken almost all the federation’s bandwidth, with scores of employees pulling double duty with the bid.

In the meantime, it had been decided that a new technical director structure would be implemented for the senior national teams. (Klinsmann filled both roles, but there hadn’t previously been a technical director for the senior teams.) That new position would sit above the head coach in the hierarchy, and so had to be filled first.

Earnie Stewart was announced as the pick on June 6, but the Dutch-American U.S. national team veteran would stay on with the Philadelphia Union until Aug. 1 in a compromise to unwind his contract there. Although others might have, Stewart chose not to begin the search process behind the scenes, honoring his commitment to the Union.

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When he finally did begin the job, Stewart decided he wanted to consult with various people around American soccer and sketch out a profile for his head coach before he began interviewing candidates. As of this writing, he has not yet started talking to potential head coaches.

Such a painstaking process is sensible. A thin silver lining to the disaster of missing a World Cup was that it offered a broad mandate to implement real changes. The thinking now, under Cordeiro and Stewart, is to create systems and protocols within the senior national team structure that is replicable and consistent throughout the program, carrying down to the youth national teams. That, in turn, would offer a clear picture of what a national team coach – and player – should look like. But all of that had to be established first.

In a lot of ways, this is a drastic rethinking of how to hire a national team coach. Before, federation executives would see who was available, have talks, make a hire and largely leave it up to the new man to figure out how to get results. An identity and a playing style was the residue of that process.

Now it’s reversed, in a sense. The identity, playing style and personnel profiles will be predetermined, to be filled out with people who check the boxes. It isn’t a reaction to the Klinsmann mess as such – other coaches had sweeping powers as well – but it makes it less likely that a new coach could make so much significant policy all by himself, safeguarding continuity.

These are sensible reforms, taking considerable time. And that put U.S. Soccer in a bit of a bind. This perhaps isn’t the optimal time to be without a full-time head coach for a year. Time to almost completely refurbish a veteran team is a-wastin’. But then when is a good time?

Stewart, then, is both under the gun to hurry up and to take his time and get things right so that the annus horribilis of 2017 won’t ever be repeated. He needs to hire a new coach already. And he needs to do so in a considered and patient fashion, lest he make a costly mistake.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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