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SOCCER

Selection Should Be Easy One for U.S.

Gregg is the obvious choice to replace DiCicco, but soccer federation politics draw out process.

December 09, 1999|GRAHAME L. JONES

Naming a successor to Tony DiCicco as coach of the world and Olympic champion U.S. women's national soccer team should have been a snap.

Instead, U.S. Soccer has turned it into a long, drawn-out melodrama that still has not been resolved. Various names have surfaced as candidates, but no decision has been made.

That, to put it bluntly, is a slap in the face for the one person who should have been given the position right away.

When DiCicco stepped down Nov. 3, having led the U.S. team to its 1996 Olympic gold medal and 1999 Women's World Cup victory, assistant coach Lauren Gregg was far and away the obvious candidate to succeed him.

She still is, but U.S. Soccer continues to drag its feet.

The federation has become embroiled in a coaching version of musical chairs, involving the college game, Major League Soccer and the national team program.

As a result, the U.S. women, who play a World All-Star team tonight at 7 at the Arrowhead Pond in the latest stop on their indoor victory tour, are still in limbo.

DiCicco, who was 103-8-8 as coach, is technically still in charge, although his final assignment ended Saturday after he had led a squad of next-generation players through a weeklong training camp in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the world champions are left wondering who will be leading them to Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Several names have been bandied about, with University of Portland and U.S. men's Olympic team Coach Clive Charles the most frequently mentioned.

Right now, he appears to be U.S. Soccer's preferred candidate. But the reason why is mixed up in all sorts of political intrigue.

Bruce Arena, the U.S. men's national team coach, would like to have his longtime friend and assistant Bob Bradley at his side when the U.S. begins qualifying for the 2002 World Cup next fall.

To that end, he would like to see Bradley named U.S. men's Olympic coach for the Sydney Games. But Charles holds that position and Bradley is coach of the Chicago Fire in MLS.

Charles has done a good job with the men's team and U.S. Soccer really has no valid reason for ousting him from that position this close to the Olympics. Its solution, apparently, is to have Charles simply switch teams--from the men's to the women's.

That is not altogether far-fetched. Charles coaches the men's and women's teams at Portland, has taken both to college soccer's final four in the past and has developed such world champions as Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan.

Portland, obviously, does not want to lose a coach of his caliber. Charles isn't altogether sure he wants to give up the Portland position, and the Fire, certainly, does not want to lose Bradley, who led Chicago to the 1998 MLS championship.

U.S. Soccer could spare itself the struggle it is going through simply by leaving everything as it is, naming Bradley Arena's assistant and selecting Gregg as DiCicco's successor.

No one is more qualified.

Gregg has spent 10 years as an assistant coach, first under Anson Dorrance on the U.S. team that won the 1991 Women's World Cup in China and then under DiCicco.

She also knows the next generation of American players better than anyone. She has coached the U.S. under-21 women's national team to victory in the Nordic Cup in 1997 in Denmark and 1999 in Iceland.

Gregg, 39, is more familiar than any coach in the U.S. with the players, styles and tactics of the U.S. team's main international rivals. Her knowledge of the world's game is unrivaled.

With a master's degree in consulting psychology from Harvard, she also is intimately familiar with the intangibles it takes to win at the highest level. The book she wrote this year, "The Champion Within," is far and away the best primer on what is involved in becoming a world or Olympic champion and is filled with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from her players.

She is close to and respected by both the current U.S. players and the ones who will succeed them after the Sydney Games. As a former All-American and NCAA champion at North Carolina, her experiences mirror those of the players.

Her experience cannot be questioned. In addition to the national teams, she has been an assistant coach at North Carolina and Harvard and a coach at Virginia. While there, she was named coach of the year in 1990 by the National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America, the only woman to earn that honor.

There is some thought in U.S. Soccer circles that Gregg might be unwilling to make the difficult choices when it comes to selecting the 2000 Olympic team.

The thinking is that sentiment might get in the way of her ability to leave some of the older players on the 1999 world champion team off the roster. But exactly the opposite argument can be made.

Gregg's familiarity with the next wave of players could just as easily cause her to want to bring them into the team as soon as possible, especially now that FIFA has moved the next Women's World Cup from 2003 to 2002.

U.S. Soccer will have to make its choice known soon.

On Wednesday, it announced the U.S. women will begin their quest to win another Olympic gold medal by playing in a tournament in Australia in January.

The Americans will play the Czech Republic on Jan. 7 and Sweden on Jan. 10, both in Melbourne, and Australia on Jan. 13 in Adelaide. The team leaves for its first trip of 2000 on Jan. 2.

By then, if it is smart, U.S. Soccer will have named Gregg coach.

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