Bruce Arena is back in charge of the U.S. men's national team, replacing ousted manager Jurgen Klinsmann for his second term after guiding the Americans from 1998-2006.
Arena represents a relatively short-term fix for the U.S., with federation president Sunil Gulati confirming upon his re-introduction Tuesday that he's signed on through the 2018 World Cup. Whereas Klinsmann represented a long-term project and change of direction for the U.S., Arena figures to be more of a caretaker, a bandage over a wound and one who isn't likely to be guiding the team after his objective is met (or, gasp, missed).
So what does the long-term future for the U.S. hold? Our Planet Fútbol roundtable panel of experts takes a look into the crystal ball and projects who will be best suited to take the baton from Arena when the time comes:
Coaching the U.S. is an unusual job. There aren’t many other countries where the national team manager would’ve survived the equivalent of a fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup or been awarded a raise and promotion before his first World Cup. There aren’t many countries where the manager would be asked to oversee player development and coaching education as well as the entire national team pool. The primacy of the program, U.S. Soccer’s interest in stability and the prevailing opinion that the national team coach should be interested in the overall growth of the game as well as simply winning the next one aren’t typical. These conditions narrow the list of potential candidates.
There may be a time when a big-name, proven foreign manager like Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp will be ready to take a stab at coaching the U.S. There may be a time when the U.S. could entice and afford a coach like Guardiola or Klopp. But until that time comes, American soccer’s interests will be best served by someone comfortable with both the short and long term—someone who can get players to understand and buy in to a style and system that can be successful on the day while assessing the rest of the pool and pipeline. The coach should have a thorough understanding and appreciation for American soccer’s strengths and weaknesses as well as established and reliable contacts abroad. And he should be able to get the best out of talented players with diverse backgrounds and personalities.
In 2018, that coach should be Peter Vermes. He built a consistent winner and won three major trophies in Kansas City. He oversees a comprehensive academy system and a successful USL team. He helped turn Graham Zusi and Matt Besler into World Cup players, got the best out of Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara and identified the likes of Roger Espinoza, Aurélien Collin, Dom Dwyer, Krisztián Németh and Uri Rosell.
Vermes captained the U.S. and knows what it means to wear the jersey. He’s been a technical director for a decade and a head coach for seven years. His time has come.
Who’s the most likely coach to take over the U.S. men’s national team after World Cup 2018? There are several possibilities. Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, a hipster legend, has had contact with U.S. Soccer before and would bring a pressing style that could fit the U.S. player pool well. In a perfect world, another Argentine, Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone, might be the ideal fit as a coach who consistently gets more than the sum of his parts at the highest level. But both Bielsa and Simeone barely speak English, while Simeone would be unlikely to say yes, so I think they’re less likely for the job.
To me, the most likely hire post-World Cup '18 is Tab Ramos, a U.S. lifer who favors technically-skilled soccer and has gone about his coaching education deliberately, starting with many years coaching youth teams out of the spotlight before becoming the U.S. Under-20 coach and senior national team assistant. Ramos knows the U.S. system and its players extremely well and got good performances out of his U.S. team at the Under-20 World Cup in 2015, going out on penalties in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Serbia.
(Listen to Ramos tell the story of his coaching education during our recent podcast interview with him.)
The U.S. coach in my opinion after World Cup 2018 should be either Ramos or New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, the 2015 MLS Coach of the Year. If you’ve watched Marsch’s teams, they have a clear identity: A high-energy pressing approach that would fit the U.S. personnel well after suffering from a lack of identity the last few years under Klinsmann. Marsch’s teams are meticulously prepared, and he has shown a willingness to give young players an opportunity, which is crucial. Marsch knows the international game, having worked for Bob Bradley as a U.S. assistant before and during World Cup 2010.
One area where Marsch will need to improve over the next couple years is getting more out of his Red Bulls in the playoffs, where they have underwhelmed the past two seasons. But Marsch would still have the 2017 MLS season to show improvement in the biggest games.
So there's an obvious risk that comes with this choice–one made while extrapolating a couple of years from now–given that Pareja currently has no senior international experience. But say Pareja enjoys the same amount of sustained success he's had at FC Dallas. Perhaps an MLS Cup is finally achieved to go along with the silverware haul from 2016. No coach on North American soil will then be more primed for the leap, and that includes some obvious contenders in Marsch, Vermes, Caleb Porter and Gregg Berhalter. And no, the next U.S. manager does not have to be American or come from MLS. Not at all. But after giving the keys to the castle and a hefty salary to go along with it to Klinsmann, one wonders if U.S. Soccer will be hesitant to do so again to a true outsider candidate.
Take a look at the areas where Pareja especially excels: He's an advocate for playing the kids, and as many a tournament has shown, the international game is very much a young player's one. His clout among the bevy of Latin-American, dual-national prospects coming through the U.S. system can only be seen as a plus, and few understand U.S. Soccer from the ground up and have the experience working in it quite like Pareja. For all of his faults, Klinsmann wasn't wrong in his assessment of the issues plaguing the U.S. development system, and Pareja appears to be as dedicated as anyone to rectifying them.
While he wouldn't necessarily bring a radical change, that's not really what is needed. He's a variation on a theme and one that checks the boxes for the direction the U.S. needs to go.
After five years of constant variations in formations, personnel, and tactics, what the U.S. mens national team lacks more than anything in the post-Klinsmann era is an identity. The best way to regain that is with consistency in all of the above things (and beyond). Marsch has turned the perennially underachieving Red Bulls into MLS’s most consistent outfit since taking over two years ago, and he’ll have two more full seasons under his belt by the time he would hypothetically take over the U.S. after the 2018 World Cup.
In his current position, Marsch has displayed a remarkable ability to balance all the things the U.S. needs to create a cohesive unit. His teams are typically well-prepared to take on their opposition, he gives young players a chance to succeed (See Alex Muyl and Matt Miazga), while also valuing veteran contributions (Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Luis Robles). He plays an up-tempo attacking style, but not at the expense of good team defense. He knows American soccer inside and out. He has a vast knowledge of the game, but doesn’t talk down to fans or needlessly make an example of players, who seem to love playing for him. With the media, he’s one of the more forthright and honest coaches available in the country.
Marsch may not be the sexiest pick, but he ticks all the boxes for what the U.S. will need for 2018 and beyond.
One thing to keep in mind when considering Gulati's decision is that it doesn't have to be made anytime soon. That's crucial, because the list of qualified candidates at the moment isn't long. There’s not a single résumé among MLS up-and-comers that currently screams “national team coach.” There could be one in August 2018 (or sooner).
Among those up-and-comers, however, Marsch is the top candidate. First, there's the familiarity—not a prerequisite for the job, but certainly a plus. Marsch knows MLS, having played in it for 14 years and managed in it for three. He's also comfortable with the national team setup, having served as an assistant under Bradley.
More importantly, however, there are the attributes that have made Marsch MLS’s top manager over the past two seasons. He’s gotten the most out of youngsters, unheralded veterans and superstars alike. He’s implemented an intelligible system to which players have bought in, something Klinsmann failed to do. And that system is conducive to an up-tempo, exciting style that, to some extent, fits the present-day U.S. personnel.