Tag Archives: Bob Bradley

Lasting Memories of World Cups Past and Present

Peter Wilt celebrating the US win over Algeria with the World Cup Trophy in one hand and the "Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" in the other. Fake World Cup Trophy, real joy.

Peter Wilt celebrating the US win over Algeria with the World Cup Trophy in one hand and the "Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" in the other. Fake World Cup Trophy, real joy.

In his weekly column, Milwaukee Wave President & CEO Peter Wilt gives us his World Cup memories from an indoor star on the big stage to Bob Bradley’s goalkeeping dilemma.

My memory can be rather selective and when it comes to past World Cups, there are usually only one or two moments from each that stand out for me.

Here are my most memorable moments of the last five World Cups along with thoughts on memories from South Africa 2010:

1990: I was working for the Milwaukee Wave — the first time — and one of our players, Jimmy Banks, a defender from UW-Milwaukee, earned a starting role under his former collegiate coach Bob Gansler who guided the United States to its first World Cup appearance in 40 years.  I may be using my selective memory, but I believe Jimmy is probably the first, last and only full time professional indoor soccer player to play in a World Cup.

Just making the tournament was considered a success.  After watching from the bench as the US was undressed by Lubos Kubik and Czechoslovakia 5-1 in its opening match, Jimmy Banks started in place of Steve Trittschuh  in the 1-0 loss to Italy and 2-1 loss to Austria that ended the return to World Cup play for the US.

My sole distinct memory from that tournament twenty years ago was 52 minutes into the Austria match when Andreas Ogris split Banks and Desmond Armstrong on a torrid run that led to the game’s first goal, chipped over Tony Meola.  Watching Jimmy getting beat wasn’t a pleasant memory, but I was still proud that one of our Milwaukee Wave players was on the world’s biggest stage.

Peter Wilt at the 1994 Opening Game at Soldier Field with Pele. Fake Pele, real Peter Wilt.

Peter Wilt at the 1994 Opening Game at Soldier Field with Pele. Fake Pele, real Peter Wilt.

1994: I was working in Los Angeles for the CISL during the US-hosted World Cup.  My trips back to the Midwest gave me the opportunity to attend several matches at Soldier Field including the tournament’s opening game between defending champion Germany and Bolivia.  Watching the opening ceremony in the south end with Chicago soccer legend Pato Margetic, I saw Oprah Winfrey fall through the stage, Diana Ross miss a staged penalty kick, Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry ejected from the match and Germany’s Juergen Klinsmann score the tournament’s first goal.  After the match I went to Kitty O’Shea’s inside the Conrad Hilton Hotel and watched the infamous OJ Simpson Bronco chase.

Oscar de La Hoya becoming the "Golden Boy" in Barcelona. Real Golden Boy, real Olympic Gold Medal.

Despite those incredible moments from the opening match, the single memory that stands out most from the tournament occurred two weeks later in Pasadena at the United States vs. Colombia group match.  I was sitting in a luxury suite high above the Rose Bowl next to boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya.  The 21-year-old future champ had already won Olympic gold in Barcelona and was 13-0 professionally at the time.  He was just 19 months into one of the best welterweight careers ever that would include five world championships.

Thirty-five minutes into the match John Harkes sent a long diagonal pass into the Colombia goal box.  Before it could reach Earnie Stewart, its intended target, the ball was  redirected by Colombia defender Andres Escobar into his own goal.   The goal helped lead to Colombia’s surprise demise and elimination from the tournament…and Escobar’s murder ten days later in Colombia.

The specific moment I remember was De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions is now a co-owner of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, turning and lifting his famous and powerful left hand and slapping mine in celebration.  Four years later I was back at that historic stadium slapping high fives to dozens of Chicago Fire players, fans and staff in celebration of the team’s inaugural season victory in the 1998 MLS Cup.

1998: My memories of France 1998, not surprisingly, are nearly non-existent.  The United States flamed out with three losses in group play amid reported personal problems within the team and I was keeping myself busy steering the MLS Chicago Fire’s inaugural season as the team’s general manager.  The Fire debuted just two months prior to this World Cup and our big name superstar and key to early season attendance and publicity success was Mexico’s legendary goalkeeper Jorge Campos.

The Fire won its first two games, then lost the next five, with Campos only available for one of those games (a home opening win over Tampa Bay with 36,444 in attendance), before he joined the Mexico National Team for World Cup preparations.  In his absence, his backup, Zach Thornton led the Fire to victory after victory — eleven straight, in fact.  Midway through that stretch, Fire Head Coach Bob Bradley talked to me about his desire to relegate Campos to the bench upon his return and go forward with Zach in goal.

Bob was concerned about pressure to play Jorge for marketing reasons even prior to the trade that brought him to Chicago.  Despite the public interest in Jorge, the key to our acquisition of the flamboyant goalkeeper from Los Angeles in the first place was the inclusion of Chris Armas.  Bob never would have agreed to take the flamboyant star of the day without also receiving the quiet star of the future.

Bob and I had deep discussions before he accepted the Fire coaching position about what type of organization we would have.  It was critical to him that we would be an authentic soccer team with integrity and would go about things the right way.  My first — and most significant — test was securing a proper training facility, which we accomplished by taking over the Chicago Bears former training ground Halas Hall on the campus of Lake Forest College.  There were other tests before the Campos conversation, but this was a milestone decision that would point the direction of the team for years to come.

To me it was simple.  I just asked Bob one question:  “Who do we have a better chance to win with?”

2002: Not Ji-Sung Park saving our butt. Not  “Dos a Cero“.  Not Hugh Dallas screwing us. Not even having two of my team’s players — DaMarcus Beasley and Josh Wolff — in the World Cup.

It was Portugal.  Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto…the original Golden Generationhad matured and was expected to run over the United States in the opening Group D match for both sides.  John O’Brien in the 4th minute on the rebound of a Brian McBride header - “WOW!”  Then Landon Donovan’s chip deflects off Jorge Costa into his own goal in the 29th minute – “HOLY COW!” And finally, the former Milwaukee Rampage teammates combined for the dagger: Tony Sanneh racing down the right side and whipping it in for a classic Brian McBride header and an unimaginable 3-0 lead after just 36 minutes – “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!”

2006: It was June 17th again – twelve years to the day after Oprah fell through the stage and OJ cruised the I-5 in his Bronco with the world watching.  Section 8 Chicago had a small caravan driving from Chicago to Kansas City for the Fire match at Arrowhead Stadium.  We timed our departure, so we could get to St. Louis in time to watch Portugal beat Iran at the Scottish Arms and then the United States vs. Italy match at Milo’s Bocce Garden, an Italian joint on “The Hill” — St. Louis’ old Italian neighborhood that provided several of the famous 1950 USMNT members who upset England at Belo Horizonte.

The USMNT wasn't the only group to crash in June of 2006. Fake image of Peter Wilt's real crash.

The USMNT wasn't the only group to crash in June of 2006. Fake image of Peter Wilt's real crash.

After the disappointing 1-1 draw, I volunteered to drive the van full of Fire faithful the final four hours to Kansas City.  Rain had slowed us down a bit, but we were still on schedule to make the kickoff when our destiny coincided with that of the US World Cup team.  Both soon crashed without reaching their destination.  The US trip to the knockout round was derailed by Ghana a few days later.  Our trip to Kansas City ended 20 minutes away at the hands of a pickup driver fueled with booze and road rage.  The drunken driver, who apparently believed I had cut him off a mile back, pulled alongside and slammed into our van sending both vehicles spinning round and round and into the median of Interstate 70.  A strong set of cables in the median — and a decent job of Joie Chitwood style crisis steering and Bob Bondurant School of Defensive Driving — kept everyone alive and mostly healthy, though our rented van was totaled.  While I pleaded with the Missouri State trooper to charge the other driver with seven counts of attempted vehicular homicide, the twice previously convicted drunk driver was merely arrested for felony DUI.  I never did make it to the Fire match — and the assailant never made it to prison as he pleaded down to a misdemeanor — but I do have a World Cup memory that will likely never go away.

2010: So, what will be my enduring memory of the 2010 World Cup? There are many candidates and perhaps more to come on Sunday.

  • The two US goals unrighteously called back
  • The despair of the US/Ghana match
  • Watching Mexico defeat France with a restaurant full of Mexicans
  • Watching Argentina beat Mexico in a bar full of Argentines
  • The wild three minutes of Paraguay/Spain
  • The crazy finish of Ghana/Uruguay
  • The steady buzz of the vuvuzelas
  • Or the raw jubilant emotion following the most important United States goal in the last 20 years.

While they are all memorable in this extended moment that continues through Sunday, I don’t think anyone will be surprised when five, 10 and 20 years from now, the memory of 2010 will be voiced over by Ian Darke:

“Howard, gratefully claims it.  Distribution, brilliant.  Landon Donovan, are things going here for the USA?  Can they do it here?  A cross and Dempsey is denied again!  Donovan has SCORED!  OHH, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS??? GOAL! GOAL! USA certainly through.  Oh, it’s incredible!  You could NOT write a script like this.”

…and the United States of America ERUPTS!

What’s Next For Bob Bradley?

Bob Bradley, USMNT

United States Men's National Team Coach Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley has completed a full cycle as head coach of the US Men’s National Team.  By most any metric or standard, he has achieved great success and advanced the program.  Here is a partial list of his achievements in the last four years:

  • He has a higher winning percentage than any coach in US Men’s National Team history: .644 (38-19-9)
  • He won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup
  • He took the US Men to their first FIFA final at the 2009 Confederations Cup
  • He won the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Hexagonal
  • He won the 2010 World Cup Group C
  • He brought more players into camp in one World Cup cycle than any other coach in US history
  • He scheduled more games against European nations than any other US coach
  • He helped with the development and maturation of Landon Donovan into the United States first world class attacking player
  • Selected, coached and galvanized a group of mostly modestly talented (relative to the world stage) individuals into a unified team that fought for each other and the common good

But now I wonder what Bob does next.  While staying on in his current role is a possibility and by reviewing his accomplishments above would make sense, extensions beyond one World Cup cycle are rare and shouldn’t be counted on.  As a certain coach told me when he resigned from the Chicago Fire, “we could have achieved more, but we had a real good run and change is often best for everyone.”  So, if this is indeed the close of a chapter for Bob, what will the next chapter be?

There are already rumors linking him with two prominent jobs that are not yet even open in London and D.C.:

  • Fulham

This  would be an intriguing opportunity for the Princeton grad.  He would be the first American born head coach in the Premiership.  Fulham is a club that has reached out for American players in recent years including current US National Teamers Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.  In many ways, this would be a better opportunity for Bob than continuing into the next cycle with the US Men.  While Fulham currently has popular Roy Hodgson in the skipper’s post, he is likely to bolt for Liverpool in the coming days.

  • DC United

Returning to his MLS roots where he served as Bruce Arena’s top assistant and earning MLS Cup rings in each of the League’s first two seasons.  Curt Onalfo is in the seat now in his first season as United coach.  Bob still has a close relationship with DC United President Kevin Payne and Onalfo’s team has posted a substandard record of 3-9-1, for ten points which is tied with two other teams for fewest in the 16-team MLS.

  • Chivas USA

Perhaps he could take over his former club that is struggling under new coach Martin Vasquez at 3-9-1, which matches DC United’s ten points at the bottom of the MLS standings.  This would allow Bob to remain in southern California, close to his daughters who attend college in the area.

  • Youth Development with US Soccer

Keeping  one of the country’s smartest soccer brains in US Soccer, but redirecting his focus to the sport’s overall development would bear fruit down the road.

Perhaps he will take a less predictable step.

  • Major League Soccer

While I wouldn’t expect Bob to take any position that would keep him off the sidelines and training fields, his experience, knowledge and intensity would serve America’s top professional league well in many areas.  While his professional career has been on the competition side of soccer, his intelligence and perspective would also be beneficial on the business side.  Few people realize that Bob has a graduate degree in sports administration from Ohio University, one of the nation’s most respected programs of its kind.

  • Collegiate Coaching

Bob isn’t one to make decisions based on popular expectations and coaching out of the public spotlight would allow him the opportunity to focus on what’s important to him – his family, his players and the sport of soccer.  A southern California school position would allow him the chance to stay near his daughters and an Eastern school would bring him back to his roots and nearer other family members.

  • Author

Again this is unlikely, because it would keep Bob away from his passion of being on the sidelines, in the locker room and in the editing room working to develop a group of athletes into a successful team.  However, a Bob Bradley book describing his ideas and practices to assemble, develop and prepare a team wold serve as a great resource for coaches in any sport and offer invaluable life lessons to all.

  • Broadcasting

Just kidding.  Wanted to see if you were paying attention.  While I think Bob would be the best soccer analyst this side of Wigan coach Roberto Martinez, I can’t imagine him ever wanting to do this.

Whatever path Bob chooses to take, I am certain he will do so with integrity, hard work, intelligence and considerable thought and he will be successful again.

Chasing The Game: America and the Quest for the World Cup

Chasing the Game“Right or wrong, I felt I was still improving,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said about his stalled playing career. “I was a late bloomer. Was I good enough? I don’t know. When I was done playing in college I still felt I was getting better, that I had something to offer. Yet there wasn’t any place to try it out. Yes, there were reserve teams with the NASL, but there weren’t that many opportunities for Americans. They held open tryouts. You played games where you play against a reserve team. You played in men’s leagues, but nonetheless it was not that easy to find good ways to continue to play. You chased the game.”

That quote comes from page 113 of the aptly-titled Chasing The Game: America and the Quest for the World Cup, a new book by Filip Bondy, a columnist for the New York Daily News. Bondy has covered soccer in America since following the Cosmos in the NASL, with numerous World Cup assignments since 1990, the first time the United States had qualified for the World Cup for forty years (the “decades of futility“).

Bondy’s book is a well-informed journalistic romp through the history of American men’s soccer, flitting chapter by chapter from past to present: in chapter two, we are in 1863, then in chapter three, we are in CONCACAF qualiying for the 2010 World Cup, followed by chapter four, where it’s 1950: (“When the Americans left on a two-day connecting flight for Rio in 1950, their sendoff party was minuscule. A few friends and relatives came to the airport, but no media. Dispatches on the matches from wire services were never more than a couple of paragraphs long and the only American newspaper reporter on the trip was a writer with the incomparable name of Dent McSkinny from the soccer hotbed of St. Louis, home to several U.S. players. McSkinny paid his own way.”)

At the heart of the book is the transformation of American soccer, and the growing opportunities the game gives good young American players: it is a tale enscapsulated by the story of Bob Bradley and his son, Michael, who will play for his father this Saturday in the United States’ game against England. Unlike the ragtag bunch who travelled to the World Cup in 1950, many of the American players who will appear on June 12th have been systematically groomed for that purpose: while the elder Bradley “chased the game” as a talented youngster with few opportunities to further his career in the NASL-era after college, the game quite literally came to his son, Michael.

We read about Bob Bradley’s emptiness in the 1980s, coaching Princeton, “a period of time when college soccer was still the primary destination for America’s top players. The Tigers won a couple of Ivy League titles and reached the NCAA Final Four in 1993. But after a while he found that this university job was incapable of supporting his obsession.”

The formation of MLS in 1996, in Bondy’s story, comes to Bradley’s rescue: assisting Bruce Arena at DC United, success with the Fire and failure with the MetroStars are equally important in the forging of Bradley’s intense managerial style.

His talented son Michael, meanwhile, is able to take up a different path as a young player than his father, due to the clearer path from youth development to the professional ranks: “He grew up, mostly, in Palatine, IL, after Bob accepted the head coaching position of the Chicago Fire. After his amateur team, Sockers FC, advanced to the 2002 national championships, Michael was quickly singled out as an exceptional talent. His parents then reluctantly agreed to send him off for two years to the Bradenton Academy in Florida.”

Reluctantly, we learn, because of Bob’s concern about Michael leaving home at the age of fifteen, as he tells Bondy: “In the U.S., when you have kids you think they’ll be home with you until the time time they’re eighteen years old. And so when all of a sudden, there’s this idea that Michael might leave at fifteen, that’s different. But you can’t talk about having dreams and working hard for dreams and then all of a sudden when the day comes, you say, ‘No,’ at that moment.”

The Bradleys, especially reticent to talk to the media about each other, are portrayed together in rare detail. We see how soccer has become a generational gift, the son’s love for the game and talent carefully nurtured by the father, something that was not possible for Bob in earlier years.

This is, as I mentioned, a journalist’s book. There are moments of insight, but this isn’t a book exploring in depth the value of the new youth development system put in place from Bradenton to Project 40 to the US Soccer Development Academy system. But it does a good job as a primer explaining what this is all about, and how it’s taking American soccer down a different path from the haphazard development of the past.

Jay Berhalter, formerly of US Soccer, is quoted as saying: “We’re looking at this thing, and we decided the system is broken. Watching the 2006 Wold Cup, you could see we hadn’t made enough progress. It’s been great, but not good enough. Unless we’re honest, we’re just going to keep painting the pig and not get anywhere.”

Race and immigration come up as Bondy considers the changing development of the US national team, Rossi, Torres and Castillo’s stories are discussed, but this isn’t a think piece on the meaning of all this.

Still, Bondy has plenty of entertaining and informative raw material to fill the pages with on both the broader picture of this changing landscape alongside the details of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, including interviews with key figures from Bradley to Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer, “the man behind the curtain”, who sees it all playing out: “From his little office at Columbia, he saw the whole ball of wax, spinning and spinning, moving forward slowly and steadily at the same time.”

Yet there are events, my dear boy, events to chronicle — these, of course, impact how that ball of wax spins: handballs called and not called at the 2006 World Cup, or El Salvador’s WIlliam Reyes somehow shooting straight at Tim Howard from eight yards out in a critical qualifier for the U.S. just last year.

Events, indeed, threaten to run ahead of this timely book: DaMarcus Beasley’s international career is (fairly enough at the time the words were written) portrayed as practically over in the descriptions of his poor performances in 2009, when in fact he is now in South Africa for his third World Cup campaign. His selection, of course, was on a knife-edge just weeks ago, so no discredit to Bondy: just a reminder of how quickly a contemporaneous book can feel dated. This book has a shelf-life of about two more weeks before a rushed revised edition will surely be needed.

But the events covered are described in lively enough fashion. Page-turning, short chapters easily spring us back-and-forward through American soccer history. And given the paucity of narratives out there about the American team — apart from now near mythically recalled moments like Belo Horizonte in 1950 — this is a valuable addition to any American soccer fan’s library for the coming weeks, and might also give English fans a few things to think about ahead of Saturday.

As Gulati is quoted as saying on the back cover: “All of my dreams end the same way, with us winning the World Cup. But if we talk about when that will happen, it starts getting a little fuzzy.”

The United States’ Path to Winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup

In January I predicted that the United States would fulfill its 1998 pledge to ensure that the United States men’s national team would become a legitimate threat to win the FIFA World Cup by 2010.  Now that the time has come to put up, I am boldly, and perhaps irrationally, predicting the US will not only challenge f0r the World Cup, but will actually WIN the 2010 FIFA World Cup!

Granted, this pick is somewhat biased due to the many Chicago Fire connections with the US team and is made through red, white and blue goggles, but the mere fact that I find myself able to see a path to the top for the good ol’ U.S. of A. represents a sea change from the first US World Cup appearance of my lifetime in 1990.

Peter Wilt predicts the United States will win the World Cup

Over the last 20 years, the “Dream” of advancing out of the group stage has morphed first to “Hope” then to “Wish” and now to ”Expectation”.  I recall watching the three and done at Italia ’90 and just praying that we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves and my Milwaukee Wave star Jimmy Banks wouldn’t get torched by Italy.  In 1994, as the host nation, I again hoped we wouldn’t be embarrassed and wished that we could surprise the world by advancing out of group play, which we did.  As part of MLS in 1998, my confidence in a solid performance by the Americans was unrewarded by Steve Sampson’s crew.  Four years later, for the first time, I remember having a realistic chance of advancing out of group play, which thanks to South Korea’s final group play win over Portugal, we did and then went on to surprise Mexico dos a cero before falling to Germany and a missed handball call.

In 2006, we were in a tough group, which muted expectations.  Nevertheless, our boys didn’t play up to the ever increasing expectations, resulting in a call for change at the top — which was granted.  Now we come to 2010, the magical year predicated by the word “Project” a dozen years ago.  “Expectation” of advancing has now replaced “hope”.  Some even think that advancing and then losing in the second round won’t be deemed “success”.  It’s in that context that I made my bold prediction that Carlos Bocanegra and his teammates will be hoisting the sporting world’s most prestigious trophy in 32 days.

Last week, just prior to the kickoff of the United States’ final tune up versus Australia, I grabbed my official “The Highbury Pub World Cup 2010 Bracket” form and hurriedly began making predictions.  It involved making 31 decisions.  The first 27 decisions were mainly made with my head.  The last four were admittedly influenced by my heart.  When I put the marker down, there was one team circled in the center of the page as my predicted winner – the United States of America.  Perhaps equally surprising was the other team in the center of the page, the one that wasn’t circled indicating the runner-up - Italy.  It just so happens that I am half Italian (the Vilona familyis Calabrese) and all American.

"It's only a dream..."

"It's only a dream..."

Ten of the 16 teams I selected to escape the group stage were pretty obvious.  The other six were educated guesses, gut feelings and random long shots.  Once I slotted teams into the second round spots, the knock out round picks came pretty easily.  If by some random chance, these matchups come to fruition, there will be some amazing round of 16 and quarterfinal games including a rematch of the World Wars (Germany vs. England) and a battle for Iberian supremacy (Spain vs. Portugal) in the round of 16 and Mexico vs. USA, Holland vs. Brazil, Argentina vs. Germany and Italy vs. Spain in the quarters!  Those are all dream matchups…meaning, I must’ve been dreaming when I made these picks.

Groups F and G were the only two groups in which my picks followed the odds.  In each of the other groups I have higher FIFA ranked teams finishing below their lower ranked opponents who I’m picking to advance to the second round:

A much younger Peter Wilt shows his blind patriotism goes back decades!

A much younger Peter Wilt shows his blind patriotism goes back decades!

Group A: Mexico (17) finishing above France (9) and Uruguay (16)

Group B: South Korea (47) advancing over Nigeria (21) and Greece (13)

Group C:  USA (14) finishing above England (8)

Group D:  Ghana (32) advancing over Serbia (15)

Group E:  Denmark (36) advancing over Cameroon (19)

Group H:  Australia (20) and Switzerland (24) advancing over Chile (18)

The upsets take a break with all my round of 16 picks going to form.  Then in the quarterfinals I’m back on the upset trail with Holland (4) over Brazil (1) and Italy (5) over Spain (2).  One of my semifinal picks goes to form, while the US over Holland pick may require a dose of faith and a Dutch epidemic of strained hamstrings.

Then, once the US gets to the final against Italy….anything can – and will – happen.  My predicted path for Bob’s Boys winning the Cup requires getting results against three higher ranked nations: England, Holland and Italy.  IMHO, the US is underrated and England is overrated and a draw could be enough to position the US atop Group C.  Victories over an Arjen Robben hobbled Holland and aging Italy would certainly be upsets, but I believe the chemistry of the US team along with its mix of emerging young talent, veteran leadership and underdog status will surprise teams as the US makes its way to Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on July 11.  Final score of the final match?  USA 2, Italy 1.

A boy can dream, no?


XI. Reasons This Is The Chicago Fire’s US World Cup Team

Chicago Fire logoThe United States World Cup Team in South Africa will have a distinctly Chicago Fire flavor.  In fact, one can make a strong case that the Fire has had more influence on this squad than any other single club has since five members of St. Louis Simpkins-Ford were on the 1950 US World Cup roster that upset England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The reliance on Fire connected players and coaches will be an important factor to creating a unified team chemistry that will give the US its best chance of success.

Here are the XI. players and coaches that give the Fire even more influence on the 2010 US roster than Simpkins-Ford did on the 1950 US roster.  Listed after each name is the position with the US World Cup squad and the years affiliated with the Chicago Fire:

XI.     Michael Bradley, Central Midfielder, 1998-2003: He was only eight years old when he began kicking the ball around with the likes of Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Ante Razov and Chris Armas on the Chicago Fire training field.  Before he left the Fire for New Jersey at age 13 with his dad, Michael’s list of training partners included Eric Wynalda, Hristo Stoitchkov, current US teammates DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra and current US coaches Mike Sorber, Lubos Kubik and Jesse Marsch.  The son of the Fire’s first Head Coach and the current USMNT Coach, Bob Bradley,  never played a game in a Fire uniform, but he shined the players shoes, helped with equipment, discussed the team every day with the head coach and trained with the Fire before and after practice sessions throughout the team’s first five seasons.

The next four players never played for the Fire’s first team, but they were recruited by and played under current Chicago Fire Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich with the Fire’s PDL team, the Chicago Fire Reserves.

X. Brad Guzan, Goalkeeper, 2004-2005: Guzan grew up in suburban Homer Glen, IL and starred with the Chicago Magic under Matkovich.  Matkovich annually assembled one of the top collections of college stars in the country and for two seasons his goalkeeper was Guzan.  He was very well regarded as a youth goalkeeper and I recall the first time I saw him play for the Fire Premier, aka Reserves, as a gangly 19 year old in a US Open Cup tie against SAC Wisla, a local amateur team.  While the Fire Reserves won the match 5-1, I was disappointed by Guzan’s play.  Just as the peasant-turned-newt did in “The Holy Grail”, however, he got better.   His 0.388 goals against average was the best in the PDL in 2004.  He went on to star for Chivas USA where he earned MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2007 and currently is Brad Friedel’s backup at Aston Villa where he has shown his knack for saving penalties.

Matko’s Memories: “Brad Guzan, he’s like my son. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I knew he was going to make it because he’s a tough guy. He’s got a lot of talent from a young age. You know how you can tell when a guy’s young, you know he’s going to make it because his head is on right? He’s the perfect guy for that.”

IX. Jay DeMerit, Central Defender, 2001-2002: The Green Bay, WI native and former University of Illinois-Chicago defender played two seasons with with the Fire Reserves where he was mainly ignored by then Fire head coach Bob Bradley and me.  His rags with English seventh-tier club Northwood to riches with Watford story has been well told and now he is on the cusp of making a real difference on the soccer world’s biggest stage.  This time, he wasn’t ignored by Bradley. 

Matko’s Memories: “He’s super athletic kid, good guy, good willingness to work. It’s interesting to see how he ended up where he is because he ended up just going overseas on a walkabout with this other guy named Kieran, who was an English guy. And he ended up sticking England. Ever since then, it’s been nothing but successful. When we had him, he was a very good defender. We were able to play 3-5-2 with him on the field. I remember him marking Pat Noonan and taking him out of the game; Pat didn’t have a shot at goal. He was just so good athletically. He’s one of the best defenders we’ve ever had in the Fire Reserves. I can see why he’s where he’s at.”

VIII. Jonathan Spector, Right Back, 2003: The second most famous soccer player from Arlington Heights, IL, Spector played briefly with the Fire Reserves, before signing with Manchester United.  I saw the highly touted Spector play in one of his few appearances with the Fire Reserves and it was in the midfield.  A few months later, he was moved into the back by Sir Alex Ferguson and was training with his new club, Manchester United.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had Jonathan one year. We got him out of the Residency program. We actually played him outside/left mid. He was only 16 when he played for us, he was very young. But he was a special guy. He had the profile to make it. When he was in with us and to start him it was a good experience for him playing with us in the PDL because he played with older guys. I think it really helped him when he was back down in Residency.”

VII. Ricardo Clark, Central Midfielder, 2002: I certainly didn’t spot future stardom every time while scouting Fire Reserves games, but Clark’s talents were obvious as a 19 year old in his only season with the PDL club.  His loping strides and deft touch reminded me of a young Manuel Lagos.  The following winter, he turned pro early and was selected second overall by Bob Bradley and the MetroStars.  Bradley was pleased that DC United used the first pick to take New Jersey native and local favorite Alecko Eskandarian as he preferred Clark for his new club’s needs.  The Fire picked third overall and were disappointed, but not surprised, when Clark was taken leaving us with Nate Jaqua, whom we also felt would be a solid MLS player.

Matko’s Memories: “We only had one season with Ricardo. He played U-19 and he played in the Fire Reserves.  When he came obviously you can tell this guy had talent right away.  He was in and out of the national team pool. At the level with the PDL he covered a lot of ground. Had the ability to take games over and dominate the middle of the field from a holding spot. When we had those teams he was only 18/19 but he was one of our better guys at that age.”

VI.     Mike Sorber, Assistant Coach, 2000: The St. Louis native was Bora Milutinovic’s MVP for the US in the 1994 World Cup, went on to play for UNAM Pumas  where he was the first American to be named to the Mexican league All-Star team then played in MLS for four seasons before joining the most talented team in Fire history, if not MLS history in 2000.  He played 24 games helping the Fire capture the Central Division title and reach the MLS Cup Final.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

Five players, the coach and the son of the coach of the 2000 Chicago Fire are among 11 2010 US World Cup players and coaches with ties to the early Chicago Fire.

V. Lubos Kubik, Assistant Coach, 1998-2000: The Czech international is my favorite Chicago Fire player ever.  His skill on the ball, economy of movement defending the Fire goal and genteel personality all exuded class as he worked with Piotr Nowak and Chris Armas to stabilize the spine of the Fire through its first three MLS seasons.  The Ring of Fire member has great insight into the game developed over decades of playing and coaching in the top leagues of Italy, France and Germany.  Bradley has used Kubik to scout European and other World Cup competitors as well as American players in Europe.  He also provides insight that is valuable from a former player of Kubik’s pedigree that includes 56 caps, including the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships.

IV.     Jesse Marsch, Assistant Coach, 1998-2005: Jesse was always a coach as a player.  Coaching probably comes more naturally to him than playing.  He made the very most of his playing abilities by working hard and analyzing the game.  Those qualities and his long history with Bradley dating back to his college days at Princeton University make Jesse a great complement to Bradley’s staff.

III. DaMarcus Beasley, Midfielder, 2000-2004: DaMarcus came to the Fire in a draft day trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy just moments after we selected Carlos Bocanegra.  The Fort Wayne, Indiana native flourished in Chicago where his parents were able to drive to all the home games.  He electrified fans with his speed on the ball and through Bradley, learned to become a tenacious defender.  At the time we sold him to PSV Eindhoven, he was the most popular player in Chicago and one of the most popular in America.

II. Carlos Bocanegra, Defender, 2000-2004: Carlos was a high school football and soccer star in southern California.  fortunately for US Soccer, the future national team captain chose to focus on soccer at UCLA.  We worked exceedingly hard the week prior to the 2000 MLS SuperDraft to move up from our #4 slot to get the MetroStars first pick overall, so we could be assured of selecting Bocanegra – and failed.  As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best trades you make are the ones you don’t.”

The night before the draft, we had even arranged a scenario that would’ve given the MetroStars the #3, 4 and 6 selections and put Chicago #1 to assure getting Bocanegra.  The MetroStars said “no”.  The failure to make that deal led to the most productive ten minutes in Chicago Fire history.  Little did we know that Octavio Zambrano was holding onto the pick to use for another UCLA defender, Steve Shak, who went on to play 38 games over two MLS seasons before finishing his career in the USL.  Kansas City and Colorado followed with selections of Nick Garcia and Adin Brown leaving Carlos available at #4 and allowing us to trade the #6 pick along with a 2001 1st round pick to LA for Beasley.

I. Bob Bradley, Head Coach, 1997-2003: The best decision I’ve made in my career was hiring Bradley as Chicago’s first head coach.  Not only did he build the Fire into a great team, he taught me important life skills about communication, family, priorities, accountability, listening and integrity.  He’s taken those qualities with him to the US Men’s National Team.  I’m not surprised one bit that he has the winningest record in US Men’s Soccer history while playing the most difficult opponents and taking a look at the most players in US Soccer history.

Bradley coached seven of the ten others on this list in MLS - five with the Fire, Brad Guzan at Chivas USA and Michael Bradley at the MetroStars.  He has surrounded himself with players, coaches and staff that he is familiar with and whom are familiar with him.

There is a level of trust, respect and understanding in the group overall, but especially among the coaches and the players who have previously played for Bradley.  This relationship has developed over years of working together, talking to each other, challenging each other.  It has built a sense of unity.  The group really came together at the Confederations Cup after they rebounded from a poor start to challenge for the championship.  Fifteen players on that Confederations Cup roster are on the US World Cup roster.  I’m convinced that the unity this team has acquired as a result of the shared history and methodical assembly of both team and staff will lead to America’s greatest soccer success.  That common bond and past relationship has helped build the collection of individuals into a true team and for eleven of them that shared background includes time in Chicago with the Fire or Fire’s PDL team.


Selecting an MLS Head Coach: An Insider’s View

I’ve only selected two more Major League Soccer head coaches in my life than most of this column’s readers have, so please take this coach hiring how-to column with a shaker full of sodium chloride.  I generally believe that coaches should be given the benefit of time as stability is a huge benefit to a team and change in leadership usually creates instability for a period of time and that’s part of the reason the Fire only had two head coaches in my eight years.  The Fire are now on the verge of naming their third new head coach in the past three years.

Bob Bradley's team won MLS Cup as well as the US Open Cup in his first season as a professional head coach.

Bob Bradley's team won MLS Cup and the US Open Cup in his first season as a professional head coach.

Both of my choices had considerable success, especially in their first seasons.  Bob Bradley made the playoffs and won both MLS Cup and the US Open Cup for the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998.  His successor, Dave Sarachan, was arguably even more successful by capturing the Fire’s only Supporters Shield as well as the US Open Cup and Eastern Conference regular season and playoff championship.

While the circumstances were very different in the two cases, the process was similar.

1997

As soon as my hiring as Chicago MLS’ first general manager was made public in June of 1997, resumes began filling my mail box and interested coaches or F.O.C. (Friends of Coaches) began calling me.  There were only ten First Division  professional soccer coaching jobs in the United States and very few opened up.  MLS expansion to Miami and Chicago created two of the League’s first openings and since it was expansion, the situation enticingly allowed a coach to create a team from scratch.

Miami struck earlier than Chicago in naming its team and unveiling its colors and logo, but they delayed in naming a general manager, which in turn slowed their coaching search.  I actually hired future Fire Assistant and Head Coach Denis Hamlett prior to hiring our Head Coach.  I made it clear to Denis and the coaching candidates that Denis had no promises to be retained and it would be up to the head coach whether or not Denis would be part of the coaching staff.

The candidates literally came from everywhere:  U.S. colleges, an existing MLS head coach, a former MLS coach (the list of former MLS coaches was pretty short at that point), former national team coaches from the United States (2) and abroad, A-League coaches, indoor coaches and even a former African World Cup player.

I created a system that tried to rank each of the candidates in a dozen or so categories such as experience in professional soccer, organizational skills, tactical philosophy, familiarity with American players, knowledge of MLS rules, motivational ability, international contacts, language skills, public speaking ability, marketing value and affordability.

While this system was intended to provide specific metrics to guide my decision, it was rather arbitrary and subjective.  It did help me clarify the many qualities needed to be a successful Head Coach in MLS and forced me to consider each aspect of each candidate.  Affordability wasn’t a huge issue in either of my hires as the salary range leaguewide was relatively compact at the time (about $80k to $200k the first time and $100k to $250k the second time).  Recent escalation of coaches salaries in MLS now makes affordability a serious consideration for many teams.

I spent much of July, August and September visiting MLS teams and attending games to learn best practices from the existing teams.  The tour allowed me to meet with candidates in several of the cities and get opinions from those who had been around the League from the beginning.

The final three candidates included two I had never met and former U.S. National Team Head Coach Bob Gansler, who I was acquainted with through my Milwaukee indoor soccer days.  Fernando Clavijo, who Sunil Gulati recommended I consider and Bob Bradley, who agent Ron Waxman first recommended, were the other candidates who stood above the large group of interested coaches.

I formally interviewed only half a dozen candidates.  The discussions were more theoretical than the interviews five years later, because the Chicago team only existed conceptually.  I’ve conducted hundreds of job interviews in  my life and I usually know within a few minutes whether or not I plan to hire the candidate.  The rest of the interview is generally more for courtesy or future reference.  In this case, I did know right away that I wanted to hire Bob…I just wasn’t sure he would take the job.

Bob Bradley Coached the Fire from its inaugural 1998 season through 2002.

Bob Bradley Coached the Fire from its inaugural 1998 season through 2002.

All three finalists had strong positives, but Bob was clearly my choice from our first meeting at Bennigan’s…or was it TGIFriday’s, in suburban Virginia near Redskins Park.  While I certainly asked many questions and dug into his brain, the meeting at Houlihan’s….or maybe Ruby Tuesday’s…seemed to be as much an interview of me as it was of him.  Bob was in a good situation working as Bruce Arena’s trusted assistant.  They were building what they thought could be a dynasty.  Bob had already been passed over twice for his hometown NY/NJ MetroStars head coaching position and he was itching to build something of his own.  But first he needed the confidence that he would have the tools and support…or at least not have the impediments, to build a team the right way, hence the steady stream of inquiries at the Chili’s…or was it Applebee’s?

Thankfully I gave him the answers he needed to hear and we were able to move on to the next step, which was a forum with Phil Anschutz, the owner of the newly named Chicago Fire.  Phil wanted to meet Clavijo, the other finalist as well.  The meetings in the Anaconda Building in downtown Denver were reminiscent of my job interview with Phil just a few months earlier.  He chewed on a cigar and fired away with questions from his chair while the candidate, Bob Sanderman and I filled the couch and another stuffed chair in the ante room outside the oil and fiber optic baron’s comfortable office.

Fernando went first and the meeting went well enough.  Bob followed and the match was self-evident.  Phil had two daughters who attended Princeton where Bob matriculated and coached.  Plus, Bob was…well, Bob was Bob.  Thankfully, Phil agreed with my choice, Bob felt good about the situation and an incredible five-year run was underway.

It was almost exactly five years later when Bob called me with news that I had heard may be coming.  His hometown MetroStars had seen the error of their ways and he was interested in returning home.   He was under contract for another year, but we both knew that I wouldn’t stand in his way.  We discussed the pluses and minuses of leaving the Fire…we discussed the pluses and minuses of staying with the Fire.  He agreed to think about everything we discussed before making a final decision, but we both knew he was leaving.

While I didn’t want to hinder his move, I had a responsibility to the Fire and he was still under contract, after all.  In the lobby of the Official MLS Cup hotel in Providence, RI, MetroStars GM Nick Sakiewicz and I agreed to settlement terms.  The Fire received a draft pick and 2002 Rookie of the Year Rodrigo Faria.  When I got on the bus to head to the stadium, there was a seat open next to Bob.  It was awkward.  He told me I robbed them.  I told him I’d still rather have him than the pick and player.

2002

So there began my second hiring process.  In truth, it began a week or two before when I agreed to let Bob go.  The hotel lobby deal was simply the wrapping on the MetroStars early 2002 Christmas gift.  I used the weeks beforehand to field inquiries on the newly opened position.  I’m not sure why, because I would never want to follow Bob, but the opening generated considerable interest.  Two former European players of the year, including one who was a former World Player of the Year, a former US National Team Captain and the usual list of former national team coaches, former MLS coaches (which was a much larger pool this time around), MLS assistants (including all three Fire assistants), college coaches and A-League coaches.

Dave Sarachan (center) was assisted by Denis Hamlett (left) and Craig Reynolds (right).

Dave Sarachan (center) was assisted by Denis Hamlett (left) and Craig Reynolds (right).

The final three candidates this time were Dallas Burn Head Coach Mike Jeffries, Milwaukee Wave and US National Futsal Head Coach Keith Tozer and US National Team Assistant Dave Sarachan.  Besides coming off a sub .500 season in 2002, we were also on track to be more than a million dollars over the 2003 salary budget, so the selected candidate would have his hands full.  This time I was able to have very specific conversations regarding players and rebuilding the team.  Most times when a coaching change is made, an organization is looking at changing the team’s culture.  In this case, however, I was very concerned about maintaining the culture of the team that Bob had worked so hard at creating.

While I think Keith would have been successful with the Fire, because his skills and philosophy translate from indoor to outdoor soccer, I wasn’t brave enough to make that decision, which would’ve been perceived as extremely risky.  I consulted with the Fire’s team leaders and outside soccer leaders that I respect during the process to make sure I was considering all aspects of the decision.

Mike Jeffries was an attractive candidate to me as he was very familiar with the Fire’s team and culture having spent 1998-2000 as Bob’s top assistant.  He is  very knowledgeable and he had coached the Dallas Burn to two straight playoff spots as well.  Mike was still under contract to the Dallas Burn, however, and Dave’s easy going personality seemed to be desirable for that group of players.

In the end, I believed Dave was best suited at the time to lead the team and carry on the Fire’s culture.  He had worked with Bruce Arena for many years and with Bruce and Bob with the 1996 US Olympic team.  His MLS experience with DC United gave him a good understanding of what I believed was the right way to work MLS rules.  Coming off the 2002 World Cup success in Korea, where he served as Bruce’s assistant, Dave was liked and respected by the national team players and I believed that was important to acquiring and retaining top American players.

It’s impossible to prove the negative, so we’ll never know how the Fire would have been different if Bob Gansler or Fernando Clavijo were hired in 1997 or Mike Jeffries or Keith Tozer in 2002.  But we do know that those important decisions led to a good number of trophies for the Men in Red.  Whoever the next Fire chief is, I’ll be supporting them as much as ever.  Go Fire!!


The Ring of Fire

Last night, the Chicago Fire made their latest induction into the club’s Ring of Fire, which acknowledges heroes of the team’s history.  Added last night was Chris Armas, joining Bob Bradley, Piotr Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Frank Klopas and Pitch Invasion’s own Peter Wilt in the Ring.  Despite the pouring rain all night, Fire supporters, including myself, stayed in the stands to recognise Chris at an excellent half-time ceremony, midway through a critical game that eventually saw the Fire reach the MLS playoffs after a 1-0 win over Chivas USA.

Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire honoured at Toyota Park

Five members of the Ring were present for Armas’ ceremony yesterday, with only Kubik missing. The pride Armas took in being honoured in that company was visible on his face during the ceremony, as a reminder that in a very short time — the Fire were only founded in 1997 — the club developed a culture of respect for the badge often missing in MLS. All six in the Ring were central to the Fire’s expansion year cup and league championship double of 1998.

Chris Armas addressing the crowd

Chris Armas addressing the crowd

Armas was perhaps the most tenacious American midfielder of his generation, making 66 appearances for the United States, though he was cruelly robbed of an appearance at a World Cup finals due to his ACL tear in 2002. He served the Fire for a decade as a player and assistant coach. Armas now lives with his family in New York, but when he said he felt like he had a second family with the Fire community in Chicago, it did not sound hollow.

U.S. manager Bob Bradley with Chris Armas

U.S. manager Bob Bradley with Chris Armas

As I wrote here recently, I’m concerned that in ten years, the Fire may not have the same feeling to it for the players, staff and supporters of the present day. I hope I’m wrong, and last night we were reminded why people don’t snigger at a club only twelve years old talking about the “tradition, honor and passion” to its history that Armas spoke of.  It’s why even in the pouring, pouring rain the uncovered supporters in Section 8 kept singing all night.

Section 8 flag display

Section 8 flag display

It’s why we supporters get-together to make banners recognising Chris Armas and another Chris soon to leave the club, Chris Rolfe (#17 below). The latter is leaving under something of a cloud with the club, but when he came over at the end of the game to toss his jersey into Section 8 and when the only remaining Fire original on the team CJ Brown also came over and did his infamous victory jig, it was a reminder of why we do keep going for the club whatever happens. May the Ring of Fire live on.

Banners

Phtoto credits: Marty Groark, official photographer for Section 8 Chicago.

Assembling and Retaining a Good Team in MLS

The 1998 Chicago Fire MLS Cup and US Open Cup championship team included many talented hard working players with good character including Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Chris Armas, Diego Gutierrez, CJ Brown and Jesse Marsch.

The 1998 Chicago Fire MLS Cup and US Open Cup championship team included many talented hard working players with good character including Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Chris Armas, Diego Gutierrez, CJ Brown and Jesse Marsch.

Last week we discussed the keys to assembling and retaining good personnel for a successful front office.  This week, we will take a similar look at building and retaining a successful team in Major League Soccer on the field.

MLS’ strict salary budgets, weighted lotteries, drafts and allocations have made it a very difficult league to stay near the top or the bottom of the standings for long stretches.  Incompetent, lazy or ignorant decision making can certainly make the latter an exception to the rule, but staying on top requires the right combination of several factors including a little bit of luck.

This column will focus on retaining a strong core, but I do want to mention a few keys to assembling a strong team in the first place.  As in the construction of a front office, the key to assembling a good soccer team is to surround yourself with talented, hard working people with good character.  Include players you have worked with personally or are recommended by people you know and trust.

Experience Mix – While the senior living 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy is doing its best to prove me wrong, I believe that a successful MLS team needs to have a balance of young and veteran players.

Once assembled, retaining a good roster is just as important as putting the roster together in the first place. The following are ways to retain a good roster:

Fair Compensation – It is very important to reward young players who outperform their initial contracts with offers for a new contract at a higher salary in exchange for an extended commitment to the team.  It sounds simple, but too many teams take advantage of young players who outperform their low end contracts, refuse to renegotiate and then lose them on a free transfer once the options run out in four years.

Rewarding these players not only retains the services of your most talented young players, it also sends the right message to their teammates and players throughout the League that yours is a team that treats players well.

After the Fire  won MLS Cup and the US Open Cup as an expansion team in 1998, we were faced with the decision to either exercise all the options and bring most of the same players back at 3% increases. . .or we could extend the contracts while rewarding many of the young players who outperformed their meager contracts like Chris Armas, CJ Brown, Diego Gutierrez, Zach Thornton and Jesse Marsch.  By taking care of this young core of the team, we kept them together, allowed them to grow together and compete for and win championships for the next eight seasons.  It meant that under the strict salary budget, we couldn’t afford to keep some of the older players like Francis Okaroh, Lubos Kubik, Frank Klopas, Roman Kosecki or Jerzy Podbrozny more than one or two more seasons, but the future was in the young core.

When running a team, it’s not always easy to even know what it is the club is doing that’s working to retain players.  So I thought I’d ask one of the veterans of those Fire years.  Here is a first person account from Diego Gutierrez, one of the players who experienced the process first hand as an expansion pick by the Fire from Kansas City in 1998:

I remember the early Fire years as some of the best in my career.  It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special.  That was the case with our Fire teams of ’98, ’99, 2000, and 2001.  Those teams had a number of guys who had come together and had morphed into a band of brothers, a group that would win together and lose together.  We knew about each other’s business, as much as it is healthy of course.  We knew about each other’s families, our aches, our pains and our joys.  If there was a birthday, a wedding, a loss of a loved one… our locker-room was special…We shared much more than just a place to play.  We brought our families together, and we all became identified by the crest.

Retired Chicago Fire veteran Diego Gutierrez says It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special.

Retired Chicago Fire veteran Diego Gutierrez says "It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special."

All of this was tremendously important when it came time to do new deals.  If somebody had a great contract, we got happy for them.  We just knew that by helping the team succeed and succeed collectively, in the end our individual turns would come.  I had the opportunity to make a couple of jumps and explore Europe in the prime of my career… but I have to tell you… I was happy that my young family was content and thriving under the circumstances at that time.  Money was important, but not as important as my wife’s happiness and the tranquility of playing in the place that I loved.  There are many reasons for players to want to test the market (mainly financial), but in reality if you are happy, if you are developing and growing as a player and you have no issues with what you take home, well, it’s tough to argue with that.

In time my turn came, I got my bigger contracts, but I feel like I had the best of everything.  I remained with a group of guys that I loved, we won constantly, and I absolutely loved going to work.  That is the way it is supposed to be.  Peter and Bob created a working environment where honesty and sincerity were paramount, they were the foundation of everything we did.  It kept the place sacred, it kept doubt from ever penetrating anything we did.  If a guy was frustrated with playing time, we talked it over, put it on the table and dealt with it.  As a player, you can’t ask for more.  If your coach and your President/GM are bringing in the right people, they are honest with you and you know where you stand, there are no obstacles for you to go out and do your best.  I think it is safe to say that you play your best when you have peace of mind.  By our results, I think you can judge we were all pretty much at peace.  But if you let those frustrations and doubts into the dressing room that’s when issues start appearing and the whole thing starts to crack.

 US National Team Coach Bob Bradley's communication skills are an important part of the success he's enjoyed throughout his coaching career.

US National Team Coach Bob Bradley's communication skills are an important part of the success he's enjoyed throughout his coaching career.

Diego’s comments are very generous to me as the training environment was certainly much more Bob Bradley’s doing than mine.  Here are some of the things Bob did well that helped us keep our core together:

Regular CommunicationBob Bradley is a great example of the importance of effective communication with both a team and with individual players.  He is very clear in his messaging and makes certain every person involved with the team knows their role within the team including trainers, doctors, administrators and equipment managers. Bob speaks with individual players regularly to give them a chance to understand what they need to do to contribute to the team and to improve. He does the same to the group as a whole, so everyone is on the same page.  He keeps any team issues in house and creates an all for one mentality.

Reward Players For Success – Players who work hard in training during the week and are successful in training need to be rewarded with increased roles on game day.  Besides being a good indicator of helping out the team when it matters, rewarding good training efforts sends the right message to the rest of the team that they must prove themselves every day.

Respect All Players – Favoritism to certain players or using certain players as whipping boys does nothing to build team chemistry and can easily fracture the delicate balance of a team.

Transparency, Trust and Responsibility – Those same concepts that are critical to building a team culture in a front office are critical to building a good environment for the on field team as well.

The Importance of Keeping the Core

The most successful teams are those that keep the core of the team around for long stretches.  A consistent roster maintains the culture and of course creates connections on the field.  Several teams come to mind: DC United, New England, Houston/San Jose, Columbus and Chicago.  Not coincidentally, these same five teams are the top five teams in MLS regular season points both the last five years and the last seven years.

Here’s a chart of the top five team’s point totals the last five seasons:

CHICAGO COLUMBUS HOUSTON/SJ NEW ENGLAND DC
2005 49 38 64 59 54
2006 47 33 46 48 55
2007 40 37 52 50 55
2008 46 57 51 43 37
2009 41 46 43 37 36
5 yr totals 223 211 256 237 237

Here’s a list of the coaches (in bold) and players they’ve been able to retain for the last five seasons (and four of last five years in italics):

CHICAGO COLUMBUS HOUSTON/SJ NEW ENGLAND DC
Hamlett
Warzycha
Kinnear
Nicol
Soehn
Shore Lapper
Ching Mariner Simpson
Rolfe Hajduk Davis Ralston Moreno
Mapp Marshall Clark Twellman Simms
Segares Hesmer Mulrooney Joseph Namoff
Pause Oughton Waibel Heaps Olsen
Brown Garey Barrett Reiss Burch
Carr Gaven Mullan Larentowicz Gomez
Thorrington Onstad McTavish
Robinson
Robinson Quaranta

Holden
Cochran

Each of the five most successful teams has retained at least one member of its coaching staff and a core of at least six players over the last four years.  On the other hand, none of the five worst performing non-expansion MLS teams has retained a single coach or more than five players for each of the last five seasons.  Here is the current list of the four and five year coaches and players with the five worst performing non-expansion teams:

NEW YORK DALLAS LOS ANGELES KANSAS CITY COLORADO
Williams
Sala Donovan Arnuad Mastroeni
Mendes McCarty
Gordon Conrad Clark
Stammler Hartman Peterson
Wolyniec Jewsbury
Wolff
Watson

The theory that teams that are able to retain their coaches and core players are the ones that succeed can, of course, be explained away by saying that it is the success itself that causes the teams to retain their coaches and players, and teams that aren’t successful to fire their coaches and get rid of their players.  There is certainly much truth to that, but the above charts also make one think that even the worst teams would benefit by being more patient with their better players and coaches.

An example is the 2005 MetroStars who elected to give up on Bob Bradley in his third year as MetroStars Head Coach.  More patience might have given them the following as a base to build on in 2006 and beyond:

MetroStars
Bob Bradley
Jeff Parke
Eddie Gaven
Ante Razov
Mike Magee
Amado Guevara
Carlos Mendes
Tim Ward
Seth Stammler
Michael Bradley

Instead, a couple years later, the likes of Bob Bradley, Eddie Gaven, Ante Razov, Michael Bradley, Amado Guevara and Tim Ward became names like Mo Johnston, Dane Richards, Dema Kovalenko, Danny O’Rourke,  Edson Buddle and Chris Henderson.  And then a couple years later, all of those players except Richards were replaced by other names.  Marvelle Wynne and Jozy Altidore were added as draft picks, but of course later Jozy and Michael were sold to European clubs and Marvelle was traded to Toronto.  A case can be made that the new players individually were or were not better than those they replaced, but I believe the turnover itself prevents the team from building cohesion as a unit.

Would New York have added to their trophy case in 2006 through 2008 if they had held on to Bob Bradley, Eddie Gaven, Tim Ward, Ante Razov and Amado Guevara and added Wynne, Altidore, Juan Pablo Angel and others?  In theory they would also have included Seth Stammler, Carlos Mendes, Mike Magee and Jeff Parke.  Ante and Amado are obviously past their prime now, but in 2006 and 2007 they could still be impact players.  I’m certainly biased, because of my friendship with Bob, but it really seems that a little patience would’ve been rewarded in that case and I suspect in others as well.

I think the main lesson is the importance of retaining the core of your team and many of the points above can help a team achieve that.

Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion


The Sweeper: Should heads roll for the U.S.’s defeat?

d

Big Story

Mexico’s 2-1 defeat of the U.S. last night is the talk of the town (Du Nord rounds up all the coverage). In his usual fashion, Jamie Tecker at Fox Soccer rips into the governing body for the defeat, writing that “U.S. Soccer seems unable or unwilling to make a change at the top, so it won’t likely be the coach.”  Trecker sees the defeat as part of a pattern of failure in big games, also citing the losses to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final and to Mexico again in the Gold Cup final.

By the end of the piece, Trecker has connected these dots into a pattern threatening the entire future of the sport here.

Keep in mind that sports fans have been burned repeatedly by the hype. They keep tuning in after being told they’re going to see something special. And every time (outside of the Spain match), they’re presented with a group of guys who can’t win the big game. The fact is, these performances — if left unchecked — will kill the sport in America.

That fact seems lost on soccer executives, who keep claiming that these failures are “learning experiences. They’re not. They’re confirmation of America’s inability to grow up and take this sport seriously. And that’s why the USA will continue to lose the big game.

This seems a rather remarkable conclusion. It seems to be based on the premise that fans do not understand the context of each big game: everyone watching the Confederations Cup final knew the quality of Brazil and that running them close was an excellent performance. Most who took the trouble to tune into the Gold Cup final (which wasn’t exactly hyped to the moons) would have realised the U.S. was not fielding its first team. And everyone knew that winning in Azteca was not something the U.S. had ever done. Moreover, if the U.S. is destined to always lose the Big Game under Bradley, how does he explain the 2007 Gold Cup final win over Mexico, the 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus just six months ago (which was far more of a must-win than last night’s game, as the U.S. never banked on taking any points from the Azteca) or the win over Spain in the Confederations Cup?

North America

  • You can see what the win meant to Mexico in this excellent compilation of newspaper covers at Kenn.com, via newseum.org.
  • US Soccer and the World Cup bid committee has launched its World Cup bid website, gobidusa.com, a flashy site with a neat timeline of US soccer history and a rather obvious play on words plastered all over it (The Game is in US…Get it?).
  • But while a huge amount of money is being pumped into the bid and the future of American soccer, the past is in danger of being forgotten: the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York is in danger of being closed down. The The 40,000-square-foot facility was opened only ten years ago, but the facility is not paying for itself and in the short-term will be reducing public hours and may be closed altogether.
  • Benfica signs Justin Mapp! And many other strange and curious players! In an amusing stunt, Benfica’s official site was hacked so that users could announce their own official signings on the site. Hilariously, MLS Rumors bought the story and published it; when they realised they had been fooled, they didn’t do the simple thing and issue a retraction, but simply took the page down altogether. Brilliant! (and here it was)

Worldwide

For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor @pitchinvasion on Twitter.