After being part of the USA's World Cup qualifying elimination in Trinidad, now-interim manager Dave Sarachan has an awkward task in January camp–one he's taking on with a purpose.
Amid upheaval and uncertainty, there’s an American soccer constant: if it’s January, then Dave Sarachan is coaching in Carson.
The Upstate New Yorker has made his professional home in Southern California, where, for the 10th straight winter, he’s working with players at the StubHub Center campus just outside L.A. The setting is comfortable and consistent. The circumstances this time around, however, are anything but—for both Sarachan and the sport at large.
“I don’t brag, and I don’t talk about myself much. But one thing I know about myself is that I think I’m a steadying influence,” he said. “We still have a job to do.”
For eight seasons, Sarachan was Bruce Arena’s chief assistant at the LA Galaxy, where the long-time friends and colleagues built a dynasty that won three MLS Cup titles. Such was Sarachan’s status at the club that he was named “Associate Head Coach” rather than “Assistant.” It was a title that reflected his influence, experience and a career that included two stints with the U.S. national team (as an assistant) and four-plus seasons with the Chicago Fire (as head coach), where he won multiple trophies and the league’s Coach of the Year honor in 2003.
One year ago, following two Hexagonal defeats and Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal, Sarachan and Arena moved down the hall at StubHub to take control of the national team. During their first camp together—Sarachan’s ninth January in Carson—Arena told the assembled players that World Cup qualifying “is going to go down to the wire,” Sarachan said.
So it did—to a small, half-empty stadium in Trinidad, where the USA suffered its most ignominious defeat in 100 years. The Americans were out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986, and Arena resigned three days later.
But his right-hand man stayed put. There was a friendly to play the following month in Portugal, and someone had to manage the team. U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos was an option, but he reportedly wasn’t interested in interim status. So Sarachan remained in place, for the sake of either continuity or convenience, and guided a young American squad to a 1-1 draw in Leiria.
“I’m under contract with U.S. Soccer, and I felt that among the bitter disappointment and in the immediate aftermath of the [Trinidad] game, there was just so much uncertainty and all sorts of emotions,” Sarachan told SI.com this week. “We still had a game scheduled and it needed a leader, a voice and a guy with some experience. And I was that guy. It was a job I felt I needed to do and finish, and I was pleased that we could finish the year with a little bit of hope. And as we continued to move forward, I think the federation recognized the job that was done.”
There’s a U.S. Soccer presidential election in two weeks and a World Cup this summer. The federation’s technical structure and leadership may face an overhaul, and the American men have a long wait before the games get truly meaningful. Everything is in play. Nothing is assured.
And so we come to Sarachan's 10th consecutive January in Carson. It’s a January that, save for his presence, is like no other. He remains in place even as Arena and other U.S. assistants have scattered, leading a group of 29 national team prospects through three weeks of training and then Sunday night’s friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. There’s no guarantee any of them—coaches or athletes—will remain in the U.S. picture once the election and World Cup fallout settles. So they put the work in at StubHub, perhaps hoping that positive seeds can be sown or that a good performance Sunday will make the right impression down the road. Sarachan, 63, doesn’t know what’s next. But he believes he has the tools to leave an impact on his players’ nascent international careers. And despite the qualifying failure and his association with Arena, Sarachan believes he’s earned this chance.
“To coach a national team you need someone with experience, and I think given my background … I do think I’m equipped to take on the challenge,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know that things are unsettled and I don’t have a crystal ball as to what this is going to look like months from now. My objective is to do the best job I can, and as long as I’m still in this role, to tackle it professionally. Of course, it would be an honor to continue on as the head coach. I’ll never take it lightly and I feel I’m equipped to do it. Now it’s just a matter of letting it all play out.
“Nothing is going to replace missing a World Cup and I’m not under that illusion ever, but at some point you’ve got to move forward,” he continued. “You learn from the past, absolutely. But I’m not Bruce Arena. I’m Dave Sarachan. I’ve been a head coach in [MLS] and at a lot of levels and I have my own ways and methods, and I’m confident in that and as long as I’m tasked with this tremendous opportunity and I’m an employee of U.S. Soccer, I’m going to do the best I can to keep this thing moving forward.”
This month, moving the program forward means leaving behind the camp-eligible veteran spine of the squad that would’ve played in Russia. Rather, it's about looking at the fringe, depth and next wave of the U.S. player pool. Only three of 29 invitees—Gyasi Zardes, Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris—have more than 15 senior caps. Ten have never attended a full national team camp and 21 are 24 years old or younger. There are players like New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams and Real Salt Lake center back Justen Glad, who seem to have genuine 2022 World Cup potential, as well as domestic vets who never broke through, like Sporting Kansas City’s MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara and Minnesota United striker Christian Ramirez.
There’s not going to be a tactical foundation established. No long-term core will emerge. Instead, Sarachan said, this month will be used to gauge progress, whet the appetite and motivate and evaluate men on the threshold of the reaching the next level. They’re being watched during training as well as off the field, where he wants players to demonstrate “an awareness that you’re wearing the crest of the U.S. on your shirt and that there are certain responsibilities that go along with that.”
How players conduct themselves in the gym, at meals, in the locker room or when signing autographs, it’s all noticed and plays a part in the overall feel and progression of the team. It was interesting to hear Sarachan rattle off the places where being an international matters considering Arena’s comments last week at the United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia, where he mentioned that last year’s U.S. side had chemistry issues and featured “a couple of bad eggs.”
“My feeling throughout the construction of [the camp roster] was that the majority of these players have a shot to be part of the program for quite a while given their age, potential and ability,” Sarachan explained, adding that he wasn’t looking toward the 2019 Gold Cup or 2022 qualifying specifically. “You want to build a team that understands how to play over the next few weeks, how to work together and get a result in the friendly, and then whatever happens after that happens after that.
“We may not be preparing for anything meaningful in terms of a qualifier or a Gold Cup, but it’s still huge for the development of players and the opportunity they’re going to get to play [against Bosnia]. So we hope whomever comes in, they use that as a reference because players that are capped get experience, and experienced players play a huge role in building a roster. It’s meaningful for the federation to keep these guys going in the right direction.”
Sarachan had kind words for Adams, Morris, Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan and Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp, who “have come in where they kind of left off.” Opara and Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow “had great seasons and deserved an opportunity to come in, and have shown good leadership amongst a very young group.” The manager also mentioned TFC midfielder Marky Delgado when asked if anyone he hadn’t coached previously was making an impression.
“He’s pretty fit. He’s done very well,” the coach said of Delgado, a 22-year-old Chivas USA product who’s played for the U.S. at the U-17 and U-20 levels.
“I’ve been around a lot of January camps,” Sarachan said. “This one is very unique. But it’s been very refreshing with the youth, the energy and the commitment these guys have shown.”
Sarachan intends to demonstrate the same. His future employment, and perhaps part of his legacy, could be at stake. He’ll always be inextricably tied to Arena, with whom he worked at the University of Virginia, D.C. United, the Galaxy and the national team. The buck stopped with Bruce in Trinidad, but the stain of that failure has spread to many involved with U.S. Soccer. The game against Portugal, Sunday’s meeting with Bosnia and then the March FIFA window friendlies (which are expected to take place in Europe) may offer Sarachan the chance to isolate and elevate his work and reputation. He hopes to seize that chance.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a lot of experiences with different teams. Good fundamentals of bringing a group together don’t change,” he said. “It’s still about communication. It’s also obviously still about identifying players, but it’s as much about how you bring a group together by being honest and having good discussions and challenging each other and hopefully developing some leadership within that group.
“That’s the fun part of this camp. We have 18 days,” he continued. “Let’s go about our business and as you tick along the days, you begin to establish relationships and trust and responsibilities and all the stuff you should always have with teams. I’d be continuing to do that in this camp whether we won in Trinidad or not.”