Can Ruud Gullit revive the Galaxy?

Publish date:

There are more pounds around the middle and less hair up top these days as perhaps the most powerful yet graceful player ever produced in Europe slides toward his 46th birthday, his playing days long past and an oft-aborted coaching career in its fourth phase.

Along the sidelines, Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Ruud Gullit is removed from the action only by the rules of the game. His gaze is just as keen, his voice is just as sharp, and his demeanor just as combative as during two decades of play for clubs in the Netherlands, England and Italy, and 66 appearances for the Netherlands.

"Ruud Gullit could play left back and probably be as good as Paolo Maldini," says Houston Dynamo assistant coach John Spencer, a teammate of Gullit's at Chelsea more than a decade ago. "He was that good. He's the type of player who could play right back, or as a central defender, or he could play wide left, and he would be world-class in that position. He was just such a complete soccer player, to sit back and watch him play any position and know he could excel in any one of them positions was phenomenal."

Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff were visionary artisans, yet their builds were toothpicks compared to the tall, rampaging, muscular, dreadlocked and inventive son of a racially mixed liaison between a black Surinamese teacher and his white buitenrouw (literally, outside wife) who played in a zealous fury leavened by exquisite control, impeccable touch and extraordinary vision.

And nobody, before or since, not Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Platini or Maldini or anybody else you can name, played so many positions so expertly. Sweeper, midfielder, striker, his vast range has nothing to do with the "total football" played by the Netherlands -- dubbed the "Clockwork Orange" for their rhythmic, precise play -- in the 1970s and mythically reconstituted ever since.

Gullit was a total footballer who grew up inspired by a collection of audacious, daring players who twice came agonizing close to a world title. To date, the only trophy-winning Dutch team is the 1988 European Championship squad led by Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Gullit.

Gullit's resume is impressive: three Serie A and two European Cup titles with AC Milan; an Italian Cup with Sampdoria; an FA Cup with Chelsea as player-manager; a Dutch League and Cup double with Feyenoord; the '88 European Championship with the Netherlands; World and European Player of the Year honors in '87.

"He was 6-foot-3, 6-4, and he had the balance and poise of a Diego Maradona or Gianfranco Zola, the way he could move like a small guy," says Spencer. "And he had everything: left foot, right foot, he was great in the air, his touch and his technique and vision. He had everything. He was a world-class soccer player. He came to Chelsea as a sweeper and ended up in midfield and occasionally up front."

Yet world-class players, with the exceptions of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and a few others, rarely mature into top-class managers. In Gullit, confidence, arrogance and stubbornness coalesce. Disagreements with club chairman Ken Bates drove him away from Chelsea, a bust-up with legendary striker Alan Shearer punched his departure ticket from Newcastle; and a fourth-place finish wasn't good enough at Feyenoord. None of his stints lasted more than 18 months.

"It didn't work out with the chairman. It was unlucky," Gullit says of his time at Chelsea, which won its first trophy in 27 years under his tutelage. "I was flabbergasted but I had to deal with it. The only security you have as a coach is that you get fired."

He's come here to America, as did his idol and mentor Cruyff, to taste the American game. Nearly three decades after Cruyff played for NASL teams in Washington and Los Angeles near the end of his playing career, Gullit has landed in L.A. to revive his coaching aspirations.

"Our philosophy is about a passing game," says Gullit of an approach he hopes to adapt for MLS. "We need to pass the ball and go forward and hold position as much as possible. Of course, nowadays that is extremely difficult to maintain that all the time, because players get more athletic, they get stronger all the time, so that was very difficult to keep the ball all the time.

"It's in our system to do it so if we combine it a little more with reality, because sometimes you cannot always resolve a problem like that, then you may have the right cocktail."

Two months into what is reported to be a three-year contract worth slightly more than $6 million, Gullit has already come under criticism -- such as it is in American soccer -- for not instantly converting the richest and most glamorous MLS franchise from faux pas to fabulous. He's not likely to lash out, however, having endured clashes as manager with the cantankerous Bates and iconic Shearer and survived as a player the searing pressure to win at AC Milan.

"There is another game coming," he says of a regimen he compares to military drills under coaches Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. "At the moment that you've won, there was always something more. Plus, also, the Italian league was the most difficult league to play in. It was hard work to get a result out of there. In Italy, people can defend very well, so therefore it was really hard to beat them.

"And if you can imagine, in my time, you could still play back to the goalkeeper. Therefore you had to start over again all the time. So that was hard work."

As a player, Gullit relished the taxing effort that honed his mind and body to extraordinary levels. In preseason, he drove the Galaxy through rigorous sessions that had even the fittest players gasping and lectured his players about diet, nutrition and rest. During drills and small-sided games and scrimmages, he conducted proceedings in a manner unlike that of most American coaches.

"He's very demanding physically, and very demanding on the better players, the star players," says Landon Donovan. "Initially sometimes that's hard for us because of our egos and where we think we are, but ultimately it's good for us if he stays on top of us. There's pretty distinct differences between American coaches and European coaches."

Former Galaxy and U.S. attacker Cobi Jones sees Gullit's style from both sides. He's just a few months removed from his playing career as one of the Galaxy assistant coaches. He played for perhaps a dozen coaches in the U.S., Brazil and England during his long career and if nothing else, discerns little ambiguity in the Gullit Coaching Methodology.

"He's laid-back to a degree, until he sees that things aren't going the way he wants to," says Jones. "Then he'll come down like a hammer. There's no real middle ground.

"He'll let things go, he'll explain things correctly and tell people what he wants, so if you get it right then everything's smooth. But once you go off the path and things aren't getting done, he'll come down on you."

Jones also has perspective on the Dutch persona. Europeans are different than Americans, yet among Europeans, the Dutch are regarded as very different. "He's funny," says Jones. "He's got a good sense of humor. For me, it's a typical Dutch sense of humor.

"With the national team, my roommate was [Dutch-born] Earnie [Stewart] so yeah, it's typical Dutch. They're a little off." Mindful that the Galaxy has missed the playoffs the past two seasons, Gullit played a batch of rookies and younger players in the first few games of the '08 season.

Gullit himself debuted for Haarlem as a 16-year-old in 1978, and on his 19th birthday he earned his first cap for the Netherlands in a 2-1 victory against Switzerland.

"He's going to give everybody their chance but everyone who gets their chance has to perform," says Jones. "He's trying to get to the point that when you're on the field, it doesn't matter if you're a rookie or an experienced player, you're representing the Galaxy and you go out there and play your best. It's about the team. You make switches, you try to find the right lineup, you try to find the players that connect."

Collegians Brandon McDonald, Ely Allen, Sean Franklin, Michael Gavin and Brazilian import Álvaro Pires -- all 23 or younger -- played at least two of the first three games. In the case of McDonald, who played mostly as a defender in college at the University of San Francisco, Gullit noted his competitiveness in a simple training exercise early in the preseason and began grooming him into a holding midfielder.

"I remember the first time I came here, in the locker room we did a little game, two-touch, and he was extremely eager to win," says Gullit. "He was trying to get the ball from me. That means you have a player who is a winner. I'm not afraid to play young players. If they're good enough, the only way to get a little bit of experience is to play."

To win games consistently in MLS, Gullit needs consistent production from the holy trinity of David Beckham, Carlos Ruiz and Donovan, and a competitive mindset the team has lacked since winning the '05 title despite finishing with the ninth-best record out of 12 teams.

To inspire and prepare his players, Gullit can draw on his own playing experiences at Feyenoord, where his career converged with that of Cruyff. The master was long past his best, but to a dynamic young player blossoming into a star, the instincts, thought and anticipation broadened Gullit's view far beyond what could be accomplished solely by sweat and grit. When Gullit went to Feyenoord in '82 at the age of 20, Cruyff was 34.

"Still he had his vision, he had the tactical awareness, and he didn't need to run so much because he knows what to do," remembers Gullit. "He can put you in places to make it all easier for you, like Beckenbauer."

Gullit's personal life hasn't been tranquil. Cruyff's niece, Estelle, is his third wife; by each marriage he's had two children. Far removed from the European pressure-cooker, as settled as he's ever been away from the field, this is a chance -- maybe his last -- to prove his worth as something other than as the TV pundit he played prior to taking the Galaxy job.

Galaxy owner AEG has shelled out hundreds of millions, potentially, on Beckham. In making Gullit by far the richest coach in MLS history, has it gambled wisely or recklessly?

Spencer votes thumbs-up. This from a man who scored 13 goals, his career high, with Gullit as a Chelsea teammate, yet left early in the following season when Gullit the player-manager benched him.

"It's a massive learning curve," says Spencer of the unique structure of MLS, "but he's a very intelligent man on and off the field and I don't think it will be too long before he gets the right pieces in all the right places."

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine. Click here for three free issues.