By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 10, 2020) US Soccer Players – There’s a saying, known to some as the first law of holes. It goes like this. “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” After what most would consider an extended period of stumbles, setbacks, and own goals, the United States Soccer Federation is doing its best to stop digging.
At field level, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter is starting his second year on the job, counting down the final few months until World Cup qualifying starts. In the office, some on the inside posit that president Carlos Cordeiro is gradually shifting the organizational culture towards a more inclusive, consensus-based approach.
Sporting director Earnie Stewart now has a year and a half under his belt at USSF. He appears to be pushing along on the hiring of youth national team coaches with a new urgency after many months of inaction. Three YNT positions and USMNT goalkeepers coach have been filled in the past week or so, with more news expected in the coming weeks. On Friday, US Soccer announced that former USMNT player Brian McBride is the new general manager of the men’s National Team.
Whether they’ve fully downed their shovels or not remains in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to beholders, the events of the recent past have eroded public perception of the Fed. So much so that the collective doubt often resembles a stiff headwind, hampering and complicating nearly every outward-facing thing the organization does. With so much negativity in the atmosphere, the consequences of past letdowns keep ticking over, threatening to disrupt the efforts to tell a new story.
This week’s announcement of Anthony Hudson as the new Under-20s coach illustrates this. Not so long ago, Hudson was one of world soccer’s intriguing young managerial prospects. The son of retired English footballer Alan Hudson, Anthony did winning work with Bahrain’s Under-23s. Then he took a fairly modest New Zealand team to within one game of the 2018 World Cup.
Yet the choice has generally been panned. Probably because his last job at the Colorado Rapids was such a prominent and unmistakable disaster in front of US audiences. When an august and sober publication like SoccerAmerica uses a headline like “hire met with derision,” it’s a good sign you’re climbing a steep hill in terms of public relations.
This is not entirely fair to Hudson. His record and the general vibe in Colorado was quite unflattering, but it has little to do with the wider context around USSF. It’s not his fault that public perception of the Fed’s new policy requiring full-time residence in Chicago for these positions has limited the field of candidates. Nor does he have any control over the fact, as reported by The Athletic, that at least one other top contender for the job wasn’t allowed to interview by their current club employer.
At age 38, Hudson is still young in coaching terms and may have plenty of upside, just like a talented player coming off of a rough chapter. His particular skill set may equip him better for selecting and developing young players than steering a pro club to MLS success. The reality is that posts like the U-20 head coach aren’t perceived to be on the same level as head coach of a club.
Hudson’s predecessor, Tab Ramos, is a case in point. The USMNT legend paid dues at the start of his coaching career, consciously choosing to begin at the younger age groups and founding New Jersey youth club NJSA 04. His superb playing career aside, he was still an unproven commodity when he was promoted from U-20s assistant to head coach after the failure to qualify for their World Cup in 2011.
Ramos would stay in that role for the next eight years and did plenty of learning on the job. His first full cycle featured a promising World Cup qualification campaign before a brutal reality check at Turkey 2013, where the young Yanks lost 4-1 to Spain and Ghana on either side of a 1-1 draw with France, showing flashes of quality before being overrun.
Like what occurred last year with Raphael Wicky and the U-17s, fans and pundits struggled to process positive showings against regional opposition with more humbling outings against elites on the world stage. Still, that was more or less the reality of the situation. Collective disappointment also provided useful experiences to help the likes of Kellyn Acosta, Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp, and DeAndre Yedlin to keep climbing towards the full USMNT.
It no doubt helped the coach, too. Ramos led the U-20s to successful qualification in the next three World Cup cycles and reached the tournament’s quarterfinal on all three occasions. He showed a steady rate of growth while also assisting Jurgen Klinsmann on the senior squad’s staff. It probably would’ve taken both a truly exceptional candidate from abroad and highly auspicious timing for the Fed to boot Ramos from his post during those years. The long-term benefits of that stability seem to have since come into focus. Ramos recently departed to take over at the Houston Dynamo with his reputation enhanced and a useful legacy in his wake.
Most of that nuance gets lost in the deeper roar of discontent that seems to greet most any decision by US Soccer these days. Athletes and coaches almost universally stress the pivotal importance of placing process ahead of results in their craft, to keep a steady platform for progress and improvement. The viewing public inevitably tends to concern itself more with what is or isn’t happening in the moment.
That difference could put the current wave of hires in a different light. Turning the page in earnest may require nothing less than a string of resoundingly positive results on the field. The path to that outcome takes more than just getting out of that hole.
More from Charles Boehm:
- What we learned about American soccer in 2019
- Minimalism, empty vessels and FCs galore: American soccer leans into the rebrand
- “Soccer in the City” aims to tell a new story of the American game
- Is American big money finally warming up to soccer?
Photo by Brad Self – ISIPhotos.com