The Next USMNT Coach Absolutely Does Not Need To Be American
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In a wide-ranging interview recently, Landon Donovan spoke of coming out of retirement for a second time, opting to join Liga MX, Mexico-U.S. politics and the state of U.S. Soccer. Donovan, perhaps the greatest American player ever produced, knows as well as anyone what he’s talking about when he discusses the state of U.S. Soccer, but he’s dead wrong in saying the next USMNT coach needs to be an American.
Landon Donovan’s return to soccer was partially surprising and partially not that surprising. He had done it before and was still at an age where he could contribute given the right situation. Whether or not Club León is the right situation is still debatable, as he’s struggled to get enough playing time to truly rate his return.
But one thing coming out of retirement did for Donovan was return him to the spotlight in U.S. soccer at a time when the U.S. Soccer Federation is seeing unprecedented turmoil. The USSF has a new president for the first time in more than a decade, its former president was just demoted from chair to board member of the joint bid with Mexico and Canada for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights and the USMNT has been working under an interim coach since October.
So of course when Donovan gave his first major one-on-one interview with a U.S. news outlet the USMNT was going to be a subject of discourse. After giving his thoughts on new U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (he likes him), on playing for the USMNT again (he’d welcome it) and what U.S. Soccer needs to do moving forward (youth development), Donovan was asked who he thinks should be the next USMNT coach.
Here is his response in full:
“Personally, I would like to see an American. I think Americans as a general comment understand the American player better. They understand the league better. They understand the culture better. And it’s better for the development of our coaches in this country to have that experience. So there are a few coaches that I think would fit that bill as Americans. … I think Peter Vermes has been excellent in Kansas City. I got to know him a little bit last year. (Gregg) Berhalter I think has done a really good job with very limited resources in comparison to some of the other teams. I think Greg Vanney has been terrific in Toronto. Caleb Porter has done a great job. Times are much different, and now there are a number of good young American coaches who have really done a good job, and they’re more in tune with the modern game and I think would be well-suited to coach the national team.”
Landon Donovan, who is also a Canadian citizen having been born to a Canadian father, is certainly entitled to his opinion. The candidates he mentioned are all highly qualified, but we’re going to go on record here and state that we wholeheartedly disagree with the premise that the USSF needs to target an American for the next USMNT coach. But do hear (read?) us out.
Donovan’s assessment is not unfounded. No team has ever won a World Cup with a foreign manager and only three have reached a final with such a coach. The last time a team reached the World Cup final with a manager who was not from that nation was the Netherlands in 1978, when Austrian Ernst Happel saw his Dutch side lose 3-1 in extra time to host Argentina. The only other two instances of a foreigner leading another country to the brink of World Cup triumph were Austria’s Rudolf Vytlačil guiding Czechoslovakia to the World Cup final in 1962 and Englishman George Raynor leading Sweden to an unlikely final in Sweden in 1958.
It would make sense for the U.S. to try to follow this lead. It’s true American coaches typically understand American players better just as a Japanese coach would understand a Japanese player better. Does that mean an American coach is necessarily better for America or a Japanese coach is better for Japan? Not in the least.
In the last two World Cups, foreigners coached the most successful Cinderella teams, notably Colombia’s Jorge Luis Pinto, who led underdog Costa Rica out of a hellish group and to the quarterfinals in 2014. Four years earlier, Argentina’s Gerardo Martino helped Paraguay to the quarterfinals while Serbian Milovan Rajevac helped Ghana to within a Luis Suarez handball of the semifinals. Foreigners are no strangers to success in the World Cup with nations that are not traditional powerhouses. Last I checked, the U.S. is not a traditional powerhouse in world football.
It was German Jurgen Klinsmann who helped the U.S. reach the 2014 knockout stages, navigating the Group of Death past Ghana and Portugal and a narrow loss to eventual champion Germany before a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium. Only a stunning miss from Chris Wondolowski kept the U.S. from reaching the quarterfinals. While the Round of 16 isn't a benchmark for success in the U.S., it was better than Bruce Arena did in 2006 and fellow American Steve Sampson did in 1998, when the U.S. finished dead last among 32 teams.
What I’m getting at is the nationality of a coach should not matter. Nor should knowledge of the American soccer culture matter, a nebulous idea in itself.
Most importantly, no one looking to hire someone for any job should go into it with any expectation that the ideal candidate fits a certain nationality, ethnicity, race or gender — period. Every job should be filled by the most qualified candidate regardless of background.
Would an American who speaks fluent English and Spanish and has grown up coaching soccer in America have a leg up on, say, an Italian who doesn’t know the language or MLS? Sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the American would be a better coach than the Italian. Everything must be taken into account.
After Klinsmann and Arena failed to get the U.S. to the 2018 World Cup, the next USMNT coach must be a hire of the utmost quality. It’s an important time in U.S. Soccer and the decision on who coaches the U.S. must be made deliberately and with care.
One thing the USSF must not do is go into the job search thinking they must hire an American. Despite Landon Donovan’s stated opinion, the next USMNT coach must be the best candidate regardless of nationality.