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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Discussion between Grant Wahl and Dan Leo: "It's clear that for the current president of U.S. Soccer, knowledge of the US game matters..."

Editor's Note

This interview was originally published at World Football Commentaries in November 2009.

Image courtesy

of Sports Illustrated.

Grant Wahl
is a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated where he covers college and professional basketball, along with international soccer. He has been with the venerable magazine since 1996, and has written 31 cover stories, along with over 200 featured articles.

Image courtesy of
Amazon.com and
Crown Books.

A few months ago, he published his first book, "The Beckham Experiment," with Crown Books. It was a New York Times best seller.

Dan Leo is a freelance writer from Miami, Florida. He has written about American and international soccer for Soccerlens and World Football Commentaries.

Dan Leo Archive

Dan and Grant will discuss the following topics:
  • The perspective of an American soccer journalist versus someone who grew up in Eastern Europe
  • Comparing mainstream US sports commentary versus American soccer announcers
  • Conflicting views about the USSF (United States Soccer Federation)
  • Foreign versus domestic national team managers for the American project
  • Analysis about Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Ruud Gullit, and Jürgen Klinsmann
A Discussion between Grant Wahl and Dan Leo

Grant, welcome to World Football Commentaries. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you. Let's get started.

A global soccer journalist is likely to have been immersed in the game since birth. An American soccer journalist, to the contrary, is far more likely to grow up with other sports.

What perspective does one gain from knowing the finer points of American football or basketball and what bits of knowledge are missing to a relative newcomer?

Grant Wahl

Like a lot of American kids, I actually did grow up with soccer, but I grew up playing and not so much watching the professional game. When you're a 10-year-old soccer player in America, you can get a handle on the offside rule, but it's harder to get immersed in the tactics and culture of the pro game in the way you might be in England or Argentina. I've tried to make up for that over the past 10 to 15 years since I became a soccer journalist.

I don't think there is a lot of overlap between soccer and American football, but I do think there is between soccer and basketball (the other sport I cover for SI). The passing, the creativity, the flow, the triangles: Soccer and basketball have many similarities, which I think is why you often find that fans of one sport also follow the other. I think it's also why soccer and basketball are the world's two most popular sports. I admit that my weak spot in my soccer journalism (and U.S. soccer journalism in general) is writing about tactics and strategy. Realizing that, I have been trying to make up for it by learning as much as possible. There are many ways to do that. I'm currently reading the book "Inverting the Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson. It's about the history of soccer tactics.

File:Kobe Bryant Washington.jpg
Kobe Bryant in February 2007.
Photo credit: Keith Allison 
Baltimore, Maryland.

Kobe Bryant grew up playing soccer in Italy. As a child,
he supported AC Milan. He actively supports FC Barcelona
and the Los Angeles Sol.

"She (Marta) plays with such a passion, such a love for the game, so much creativity, I just find myself being glued to the TV set watching her play."

Mr. Bryant was quoted in 2009 at the presentation news conference of Marta Vieira da Silva.

Dan Leo

I grew up on European and International soccer but I assert that most kids worldwide are still clueless on the intricacies of WM vs. 4-2-4 despite having an outstanding grasp of the fundamentals - basic movement, ball trapping, shooting, etc. that comes from playing thousands of hours of pick-up ball before adulthood. In the olden days, televised contests had a single commentator who rarely delved into deep tactics while talking to his audience. Those discussions were reserved for specific magazines with a very limited circulations for the most dedicated fans. Where I was from, the half-time analysis did not exist and a cartoon or a short news feature was shown in between the action on the field.

In general, American TV coverage with its slew of ex-coaches, super slo-mo replays and telestrators has always been far ahead of its competition. After coming to the US, I was stunned by the concept of a pre-game show (to say nothing of Phyllis George) and the professionalism devoted to the event. Say what you will about the purely entertainment value of the John Maddens, Joe Garagiolas, Ken Venturis and Al McGuires, their commentaries were priceless to a newcomer. They were my teachers.

And, having watched far too many Super Bowls and Final Fours, what I quickly noticed was how strong the emphasis was on the individual match-ups in basketball and football, where almost every conceivable variable is addressed to a minute detail. In other words, any weak attribute - be it lack of size, speed or an outside shot - is the target of the game day's scheme. But Madden and McGuire made the complex easy and were able to translate their love for their sports onto others.

Is there a similar fusion of knowledge and personality in the US? Is one needed?

Grant Wahl

You present an interesting discussion. Is your question at the end specifically about U.S. soccer? I would say that U.S. soccer is still looking for a television commentator who can combine a deep knowledge of the sport's intricacies with a big personality that can be picked up by viewers. The people who have that personality (Alexi Lalas, Ray Hudson) tend to shy away from getting too in-depth when discussing the intricacies of the sport itself. Maybe that will change in the future.

You do make a good point that soccer coverage outside the U.S. may not get into hardcore tactical discussions for kids, but I do get the sense that it happens more in some countries than in others. I think it could be increased a bit here in the U.S. as well.


Alexi Lalas is one of the most recognized faces in American soccer. He was the first American to play in the Italian Serie A with Padova in 1994, and was capped 96 times for the USA.

"If I were a manager in Italy, I would definitely bring a bunch of Americans over.
They’re cheap, they work hard and they learn very quickly.

Mr. Lalas was quoted during an interview with Steve Amoia in 2006.

Dan Leo

You were correct in that a mythical figure I had in mind was someone who could be both an ambassador of the game and its ombudsman; someone who could praise and criticize without an ulterior motive, a hint of self-promotion or a fear for his job due to the pressure from the top. Which segues into the USSF as the governing body of soccer in this country.

As someone who had long term contacts with the top hierarchy of this organization, what can you infer about its goals and ambitions? A corporate bureaucracy tends to maintain a status quo and hire people indebted to it. Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Sigi Schmid, Thomas Rongen, et al appear to be such types. An outsider may entail greater risks while presenting an opportunity for greater rewards but inert bodies have trouble gaining momentum.

Is the USSF becoming an end game onto itself or is it capable of stepping out of its comfort zone?

Grant Wahl

I have a hard time understanding why the U.S. Soccer Federation often gets characterized as this all-powerful organization exerting so much pressure on coaches, the media, etc. I have not found that to be the case. When it comes down to it, the USSF is still an American soccer organization that is trying to generate increased exposure (and better results) in a crowded U.S. sports landscape that doesn't pay much attention to soccer.

As a media member I know more about my own experience dealing with the USSF, and I haven't found it to be any different than my experiences covering college basketball for Sports Illustrated. There are times when I have criticized U.S. Soccer for legitimate reasons, and I haven't found that my access for interviews has been limited or threatened. Perhaps people at other media outlets have had different experiences, but those are mine.

As for coaches, U.S. Soccer did hire a non-American coach in Bora Milutinovic before the 1994 World Cup, and for the most part that worked out pretty well. The USSF also pursued a foreign coach in Jürgen Klinsmann in 2006. If Klinsmann had been hired, it was likely that he would have made many changes to player development and other areas. I'm not sure whether he would have been successful, but it would have been fascinating to see what would have taken place.

Personally, I don't think there's a magic bullet when it comes to choosing a coach for the U.S. men's team. The most successful World Cup run in U.S. history came under an American coach (Bruce Arena). Would I love to see how the U.S. would do under, say, Guus Hiddink? Sure. But I also think that Bob Bradley has put the U.S. in a position to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and be successful there.* And I think that he has done it without having to be concerned very much with the political structure of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Editor's Note

*Mr. Wahl's comment was made before the US qualified for the World Cup.

Jürgen Klinsmann played professionally in Germany, Monaco, France, Italy, and England. He won the World Cup with Germany as a player in 1990, and managed "die Mannschaft" to third place in 2006 (5W-1T-1L.) He also won the European Cup of Nations in 1996. He was capped 108 times with 47 goals for his country. 

Mr. Klinsmann donated the entire proceeds (US $1.3 million) from his farewell game to charities. Before his coaching tenure with the German National Team and Bayern Munich, he was a consultant for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

"Whatever vision we have today, Jürgen Klinsmann had a lot to do with it."

Mr. Tim Leiweke, AEG/Los Angeles Galaxy, as quoted on page 146 of "The Beckham Experiment" by Grant Wahl.

"Soccer is a transcendent influence around the world."

--- Jürgen Klinsmann

Mr. Klinsmann's quote, along with the cited donation amount, are courtesy of SoccerSolutions, LLC.

Dan Leo

I agree that the US is in a good position to qualify for the WC 2010.* I would argue, however, that its ability to advance out of its group greatly depends on a favorable draw.

Also, my contention wasn't about the USSF's omnipotence per se but rather of its tolerance of mediocrity. If USSF had managed to cobble together substantial funds for its new manager and his assistants, what criteria should Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn have been looking for during their coaching interview process?

"Soccer has never taken hold in the United States because neither a national team nor a national style has been encouraged." --- Dr. Henry Kissinger.

Dr. Kissinger was quoted by the Los Angeles Times in 1986.

If Klinsmann was indeed one of the hottest USMNT candidates prior in 2006, why drop from his resume to someone like Bradley's? Granted, there are no guarantees in sport but would a Top 25 NCAA** basketball program be contemplating a Division III*** type of a coach, which is where MLS is rated statistically? Or should the candidate search have included only previously successful international managers? After all, isn't that the general principle that Tim Leiweke tried to follow with the Los Angeles Galaxy?

Editor's Notes

*Mr. Leo's comment was made before the US qualified.
**Top 25 NCAA equals the elite level of American college basketball.

***Division III is the third tier of the American college sports league structure.

Grant Wahl

If you followed the logic that MLS is too low-level to provide a good U.S. coach, then the man who led the U.S. to its most impressive World Cup performance ever (Bruce Arena) never would have been hired. Would Sven-Goran Eriksson have been a better hire for the U.S. job than Bob Bradley? Personally, I don't think so (nor did I in 2006), and that's not even taking into account that Eriksson would have cost millions more.

It's clear that for the current president of U.S. Soccer, knowledge of the U.S. game matters as one of the criteria when it comes to hiring a coach for the U.S. national team. In fact, Klinsmann's awareness of the American game was one of the main reasons why he was the top candidate in 2006. Does this mean that elite international coaches who have no connection to U.S. soccer should be eliminated from future consideration? No. But does it help to know something about the unique nature of American soccer? I'd say yes.
I do think it's unfortunate that the U.S. isn't always able to participate with a full-strength squad in a major tournament between World Cups like the European Championship or the Copa América. (The Gold Cup just isn't prestigious enough to count.) In the Euro, especially, national-team coaches are required to get results in order to keep their jobs. If you're the U.S. coach, job-accountability tournaments only really happen every four years at the World Cup.

So yeah, I do wish there were more opportunities to measure a U.S. coach's job performance. And while Bradley's teams don't play like, say, Brazil, if you look at the criteria we do have to measure his results Bradley has done well by any reasonable measure. His U.S. team is on track to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.* In the two biggest tournaments in which he has had his full squad, Bradley reached the final of the Confederations Cup (beating world No. 1 Spain and giving Brazil all it could handle in a 3-2 loss) and won the 2007 Gold Cup.

But let's be clear: Bradley's tenure will be measured by how the U.S. does in South Africa.

Editor's Note

*Mr. Wahl's comment was made before the US qualified for the World Cup.

Coach Bradley assisted Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia, DC United,
and the US National team. He won MLS Cup 1998 with the Chicago Fire. He also managed the Metrostars and Chivas USA. According to ESPN, Coach Bradley's 
record on the US bench is 38W-21L-8T as of August 2010.

"The record of the team over the last three years is Bob’s record. It’s the highest winning percentage of any coach we’ve ever had against our toughest schedule outside the U.S."

Professor Sunil Gulati was quoted in 2009 during an interview with the NY Times.

Dan Leo

This leads us to a sidebar on the coaching evaluation.
Bruce Arena's World Cup record of 2W-2T-4L, 8 points from a possible 24, and 9-13 goal difference is rather pedestrian. His recent MLS record is adequate on paper, but he has done it with two DP's (Designated Players such as David Beckham and Juan Pablo Angel who are not subject to the salary cap) in each New York and LA while other coaches have gotten similar or better results on half or even third the budget.


Bruce Arena
of the Los Angeles Galaxy is one of the most  

successful coaches in American soccer history. He was an
All-American college soccer player, and also played lacrosse.
He was capped once for his country against Israel in 1973.
Recently, Coach Arena was named MLS Coach of the Year for 2009.
"We're not chasing around 18-year-old players that can't get games for their club team and tell me they want to play for Italy."

Which brings us to MLS.

I find it odd that MLS, as a developing league, has not gone after the experienced European and South American coaches since that has certainly been the modus operandi in other developing leagues such as South Korea and Japan.

Gullit's stint in LA smelled like a publicity stunt gone awry from day one. Still, even he managed to bring in some positive aspects of the Dutch soccer into the league. The LA Galaxy were scoring at roughly twice the rate under him than they have so far under Arena, yet the MLS general managers have only hired John Carver (6 games managed in England, all as a caretaker), Gary Smith (none), Chris Cummins (none), Steve Morrow (none).

"In the United States they play soccer in the schools and then college and they are 20 or 21 years old and they are coming to me, having been coached straight out of a book. None of these coaches has played at any kind of high level." --- Ruud Gullit 
Mr. Gullit was quoted in 2008 during an interview with the London Times.

In years past, the Metrostars did try for the moon with Bora, Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira but those hires seemed to be of the Gullit type "attention grabbing variety."

Does the absence of the foreign coaches indicate a lack of ambition? A blithe indifference to proven soccer professionals? A deliberately careful business plan to develop from within? A belief that only an American coach can do wonders in MLS? Or does it think that what it has been doing is good enough and there's no reason to rock the boat any further?

Editor's Note

I would like to thank Grant and Dan for this enlightening discussion.

I would also like to thank Caroline Sill of Crown Books for her kind assistance.

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1 comment:

Steve Amoia said...

Grant Wahl on Twitter:

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