King Kaufman's Sports Daily

With its 2006 World Cup over, what the U.S. needs is a flamboyant, charismatic coach to sell an exciting version of the game to elite young American athletes.

By Salon Staff

Published June 23, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

Keeping in mind that I'm a rube and that what I don't know about soccer would weigh down Jupiter, I think I have the answer for the U.S. soccer program.

After leading the Americans to a 2006 World Cup showing that was as disappointing as his side's 2002 run to the quarterfinals was pleasantly surprising, Bruce Arena won't be around for a rare third World Cup as American coach. His contract runs to the end of the year.

Here's who the U.S. needs to replace him: Ozzie Guillen.

OK, not Ozzie Guillen specifically, but somebody a lot like Ozzie Guillen.

Again, not knowing squat about the soccer coaching market or what kind of coaches are successful or what effect a coach even has on a soccer team, it seems to me that a guy like Bruce Arena is exactly the kind of guy the United States shouldn't have as coach.

He's a solid tactician and developer of talent. He's measured, reasonable, smart, successful.

What U.S. soccer needs is somebody with some international stature, preferably not an American, who is flamboyant and charismatic and who coaches an aggressive, attacking style.

See what I mean? Ozzie Guillen, soccer division.

U.S. soccer needs someone not just to coach the team -- and some success on the field is a goes-without-saying requirement -- but to sell it to the United States. Someone to sell the game of soccer, get people excited about it, not just because of the U.S. qualifying for the World Cup every four years, but because it's a genuinely exciting team, win or lose.

The U.S. needs someone who can make that next crop of preteen Dwyane Wades, at the point when it's time to make the decision to concentrate on one sport, to join traveling teams and start dreaming in earnest about pro ball, to say, "Not basketball. Soccer."

Even had Arena's team beaten Ghana Thursday to advance to the knockout round, it wouldn't have done that. It was a team that lacked finishers, lacked the ability to be aggressive offensively.

That wasn't Arena's fault. He just didn't have the athletes. That's why the Americans need a spectacular coach, a guy who's going to make headlines, draw attention and turn the team into a highflying side. Better to lose 3-2 thrillers than desultory shutouts where the other team's net looks like some far-off mirage that can never be reached.

But how can it be that the United States doesn't have the athletes? How does the U.S. get out-athleted by Ghana, which is what happened Thursday?

According to Spiegel's special World Cup edition, the United States has 14 people for every one in Ghana, 143 soccer players for every one in Ghana -- I presume that's counting AYSO kids as soccer players -- and $109 of GDP for every $1 of theirs.

But Ghana looked like the better team Thursday not because it was plucky, not because it had a better game plan -- I don't think, but remember I'm a rube -- but because its players were generally faster and more athletic than the Americans.

It's not like the United States doesn't produce athletes. They're playing basketball, running track, playing American football.

There aren't too many countries that can compete with the U.S. in numbers of great athletes produced. We have a huge population, a sports-loving culture, large sections of the country where the weather allows for year-round outdoor training, and plenty of money for facilities, equipment, healthcare, training and nutrition.

Salon's resident film critic slash soccer writer, Andrew O'Hehir, pointed out to me that "it's been observed by many soccer fans that Kobe Bryant grew up playing soccer in Italy. If you imagine him as a striker, or a defender, he'd be pretty intimidating."

He would, but never mind Kobe, the son of an NBA player and a cager of rare skills. How about someone like James Posey or Udonis Haslem, to name two members of the newly crowned NBA champs. They're role players in the association, but huge, spectacular athletes by world standards.

I'd love to see England's 6-foot-7, 155-pound English striker Peter Crouch -- the guy who does the robot dance after he scores -- go shoulder to shoulder with Haslem, who's 6-8, 235.

Casual American sports fans are slowly and steadily warming to soccer, a warming trend that intensifies at World Cup time, then cools over the next four years, leaving the interest level higher at the start of each World Cup than it was at the last one. That's been happening since the tournament was held here in 1994, maybe even for a tournament or two before that.

But for an elite American schoolboy athlete to choose soccer over basketball or football, something odd has to happen. Maybe he's small, or he's originally from Ghana, or he lives on Landon Donovan's street or something.

Somebody has to come along and persuade a few of those elite kids to play soccer.

O'Hehir told me, "The hardcore U.S. soccer fan's response would be: It's gradually happening." And I agree, it is. But gradually happening gets you Landon Donovan. What American soccer needs is a little more suddenness, someone who's going to create an atmosphere that will get a few of those 12-year-old Dwyane Wades, Chad Johnsons and Hines Wards to pursue soccer through high school and college.

I'm aware that Arena looked like a genius after 2002, and that he and the players on this year's team have done a lot to build a solid foundation for U.S. soccer. I'm also aware that I'm not the first to suggest what I'm suggesting, that there was sentiment to hire a foreign coach in 1998, when Arena -- a hugely successful college coach at Virginia -- got the job, and that hiring a charismatic international soccer figure to come to the United States is easier said than done.

There are a lot of hurdles, not the least of which is the welter of high school and NCAA eligibility rules that a foreign coach would have to learn and deal with.

But hey, if this stuff was easy, every country would win the World Cup.

George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times Friday, "Maybe lucky in 2002. Maybe unlucky in 2006. The result stands ... And somewhere in the United States, the next Ronaldinho, a youngster of 10, may be thinking he wants to be part of this."

Maybe. And four years from now, he may think back fondly on his soccer-playing days as he and the other boys on his summer traveling basketball team settle in to watch a World Cup match.

And if what he sees is thrilling enough, his little brother may try to follow a different path to big-league sports. The United States needs to find the coach who can create that buzz.

Previous column: Ozzie's F-word

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