Its been some time since we've heard anything concrete from USSF President Sunil Gulati about the USMNT coaching job, which still belongs to Bob Bradley and likely will until after that August friendly in New Jersey against Brazil. That is, unless these Fulham rumors prove accurate.
Ex-Chile coach Marcelo Biesla's named was floated a week or two ago, but that's about it. As it stands the only name anyone worth their salt can seem to come up with as the man to lead the U.S. to Brazil in 2014 is eternally optimistic German legend Jürgen Klinsmann. (Apparently everyone is okay with a U.S. National Team coach who speaks with an accent of a rejected Mike Meyers character.)
Obviously Gulati is a smart, shrewd character and at least that's the image he presents outwardly to the public.
Reading between the lines, he wants the Federation to go in a different direction, namely a foreign direction after almost 15 years of Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena and Bradley.
He's probably right, too, it is time for some fresh ideas, a new set of eyes. If Ghana can come within a Luis Suarez handball of the semifinals without its theoretical best player behind unheralded Serb coach Milovan Rajevac, then the U.S. can look outside its borders for a coach. It's not like the U.S. is Holland, which can reach down to Feyenoord and pluck up Bert van Marwijk to coach the national team. Some day, yes, right now? No.
In light of what transpired in South Africa the last month, here's the first question I'm asking any prospective candidates for the job, because (cue the Peter Falk "Columbo" voice) ... this is the way I see it:
"You see that 20-year-old kid we started at forward all four matches, Jozy Altidore? You're familiar with him, yes? You've seen his physical gifts on the field, right? ... So what are you plans so his name is on the Golden Boot shortlist for 2014?"
This isn't another lament that 20-year-old Thomas Mueller won the 2010 Golden Boot AND Best Young Player. There's simply no fair way to compare a kid raised in the Bayern Munich system who played in the Champions League final to Altidore, who got stuck at the disaster that was Hull City.
It's infuriating, yes, but sort of a weird statistical quirk or coincidence more than anything.
The fact remains the U.S. has gone two consecutive World Cups without a natural forward/striker scoring a goal, which was specifically cited by Gulati after the loss to Ghana in the Round of 16 as an issue that needs to be discussed.
And as it stands the U.S. forward pool is at kiddie pool depth right now.(*)
(*) No, this is not a Jozy Diver joke or insinuation, swear.
Beside Altidore, the U.S. sent over two middling MLS guys -- Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley -- as well as Herculez Gomez. Not to knock this guys, but even the most ardent MLS lovers would hesitate to call that collect world class -- Altidore included. The U.S. doesn't need to be blessed with overflowing talent like Spain or Argentina, but a nation of 300-plus millions should produce at least more than a half-dozen viable World Cup options.
Yes, the Charlie Davies car crash and resulting injuries (and false hope)compounded matters beyond any coaches control and will remains one of those lamented "what ifs" for years to come.
Still, it is remarkable that the U.S. has produced an assembly line of top class goal keepers, a steady group of defenders, some nice midfielder grinders and some true attacking midfield gems, yet the list of elite level strikers, leaves us all waiting for Godot (or Guffman if you prefer). You'd think, with the emphasis placed on scoring at the youth level, that it would only be a matter of time for U.S. star striker to emerge.
Maybe that's the problem, too. We've been waiting for this player for so long that whenever a player with some talent emerges like, say, Eddie Johnson we're quick to anoint him and then when he doesn't pan out -- for whatever the reasons -- we're upset.
As it is, the standard bearer remains for U.S. strikers is either Eric Wynalda (who's post-career commentary probably overshadows his on-field contributions) or Brian McBride, a blue collar worker who put his body on the line in 90 minute intervals.
Why the U.S. or, specifically Gulati, needs to address this issue sooner rather than later is deciding if Altidore is a building block for 2014. Wouldn't most coaches worth their salt drool at the chance to work with, develop and put a player like Altidore on the field in his starting XI to lead the forward line?
Altidore along with Michael Bradley are probably the two guys from the 2010 roster you can say will be hitting their soccer primes in 2014 without playing with too many "if" scenarios. You can safely pencil them in at forward and midfield and cross your fingers they stay healthy and build around them with aging players like Donovan and Dempsey and some fresh blood at other positions.
Here's my thought on Altidore and why the next U.S. coach needs to have a plan.
There is no debating Altidore has the skills and raw physicality to perhaps blossom into an elite level striker. Sure he goes to ground just a little too much, but we've seen him overwhelm defenders at all levels and at least show some kind of knack for scoring, at least vs. CONCACAF opposition. It's too early to give up on him, so we'll have to spend the next four years to see if Altidore can make that next step, the leap from promising prospect to an actual, living, breathing elite goal-scorer.(*)
(*) Judging by his endorsements, at least, adidas already thinks he has.
The question though is this, can Altidore thrive as a lone forward in the international game?
Why do I mention this?
For whatever it's worth from a tactical standpoint, of the eight teams that made the 2010 quarterfinals, only two -- Uruguay and Argentina -- played what you'd count as a traditional two-forward system. Maybe come 2014 the now-preferred 4-2-3-1 will be out the door with a new flavor of the month, but I'm not so sure.
Even clubs seem less inclined to the tradition 4-4-2 forward tag teams of yore.
It's probably unfair to cite the formations or playing style of Spain, which is blessed with some much talent across the field it could win the World Cup with Fernando Torres a shadow of himself. A better comparison is Germany, which has plenty of strikers, yet stuck to Miroslav Klose (and Cacau in the third place match) isolated alone up top.
Teams at all levels seem less inclined to pair to same-minded players, when they can field more versatile, slippery attackers in wider positions or in secondary striking roles, playing off a target man.
At his best, Altidore and Davies formed that traditional tag-team of speed and power. Even at Hull City, Altidore seemed a little better when he played in a slightly withdrawn position behind a big target like Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. Don't forget, too, in his brief time in MLS Altidore had the luxury of playing beside Juan Pablo Angel.
So perhaps as Altidore matures -- where he winds up this summer remains a mystery, with Villareal holding all the cards -- and by the time he's 24 he's more capable of playing that now in-favor single striker, both winning balls and scoring goals.
Maybe the U.S. remains committed to the 4-4-2 backbone. Maybe Davies, miraculously recovers from his long list of injuries, and is the player we saw tear it up in 2009.
Maybe Altidore finds the right club home, gets the playing time he needs and emerges as the long ago promised U.S. soccer striking star.
Perhaps a player, who like Altidore was 16 at the end of the previous World Cup, comes from the fringes and enters the fray as the next U.S. soccer messiah.
It's a lot of what ifs and conjecture. Without access to a cache of plutonium and a tricked out Delorean, we simply will not know how the next four years pan out.
The next coach of the USMNT, does however, need a plan for an issue like this, who sees the tactical changes in the ever-evolving game of soccer. A coach who can take his best players and meld them with a system.