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  • Dave Sarachan has remained the U.S. men's national team's coach for perhaps longer than expected, and he's set to coach his first matches since the hiring of the general manager who will likely replace him.
By Brian Straus
September 05, 2018

If after 10 months, it feels like Dave Sarachan is the interim U.S. national team coach in name only, well, he’s not even that. The words “interim” or “caretaker” don’t appear in connection to Sarachan in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 2018 media guide, and they’re not used in the press materials or online content produced ahead of this month’s friendlies.

He’s simply called the “head coach.” And since he’s been filling the role in just about all the ways a person can, since the USA played its first post-Trinidad game last year, the title fits. Sarachan has guided the program through a significant portion of its early rebuild, giving 18 players their senior U.S. debuts. He’s managed six games, and provided an initial international impression for the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Tim Weah, among others. He’s established a tactical framework and endeavored to lay the foundation for a new culture and new generation.

After Friday’s meeting with Brazil and next Tuesday’s friendly against Mexico, Sarachan will rank 11th on the all-time list of games managed by a U.S. coach. And he’ll move into the top 10 if he continues through the October matches vs. Colombia and (likely) Peru. But that’s “if.” Sarachan is now the coaching equivalent of Westley in The Princess Bride, in which the character’s boss says at the end of each day, "Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

Sarachan isn’t supposed to be the head coach. But he is, until he’s not.

What started as an appointment of convenience has dragged out almost a year, as the Federation reeled after the loss to Trinidad, elected a new president, pursued the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup and then, in June, appointed its first national team general manager. That man, Earnie Stewart, has been tasked with selecting the next “permanent” U.S. coach.

Stewart finally assumed his new role in August, but he’s been in no rush to make the hire. Rather than race to interview potential candidates, Stewart has been talking to people about the state of the program and what sort of manager might be the best fit. He’d clearly rather do it “right” than do it quickly. Whether U.S. Soccer missed out on the likes of Belgium’s Roberto Martínez, who signed an extension in May, or former Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who just agreed to coach Paraguay, depends on whether they were the sort of coach Stewart would’ve considered to begin with. And Stewart’s approach suggests he’s confident the man he eventually wants will be available.

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Meanwhile, Sarachan presses on, building a team he may be forced to leave behind at any moment. It’s an odd scenario, but one the 64-year-old New Yorker has negotiated with dexterity. He’s juggling the introduction of new blood with a tactical approach designed to keep games competitive (the USA is 2-1-3 on his watch, and has trailed only once). And Sarachan has struck a balance between confidence in his own experience and his ability to set standards (see his critique of Christian Pulisic) and evaluate players. Not to mention an understanding that this transition to a new era isn’t about him.

He’d like the job permanently. In the meantime, he’s going to go about doing the one he’s got, however it's described, the right way. And over the past five weeks, that’s meant communicating with Stewart, the man who will determine Sarachan’s short-term professional fate. The two have worked together before, when Stewart was a U.S. midfielder and Sarachan was a U.S. assistant before and through the 2002 World Cup.

“I know Earnie,” Sarachan told SI.com. “Now fast forward, and he’s an executive. I’m the coach. We’ve had a lot of conversations about a lot of different things, and I like Earnie a lot. What Earnie will bring to this is what he brought to it as a player, and that is his passion for the national team, his desire to get it right and his work ethic.

“I would say at this point, Earnie—and by his own admission—is just going got to take real bit of a step back and just observe and see what’s in place. Not only with the senior team but in general at U.S. Soccer. He’ll observe, take in a lot and begin to formulate his own philosophy going forward and his approach to moving our program forward, whether it’s the style he’d like to team to apply, or the philosophy.”

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Those conversations, Sarachan said, are general in nature. They’re the sort someone like Stewart, who’s been working in a technical capacity in the U.S. for under three years, might have with a lifer like Sarachan. For now, on a day-to-day and player-by-player basis, Sarachan is in charge of the team.

“I’m picking the team. Earnie’s not,” Sarachan said. “He’s been a sounding board in certain ways in the few weeks he’s been on board, and so as a starting point it’s been very good.

“My staff and I, were going about business as usual, like we’ve done since November,” he continued. “I’m in touch with Earnie a lot. We’re having conversations. But his approach is, ‘You need me, I’m here. You’re picking the team. You might want to consider this if you’re going to do that...’ But that’s only if I solicit it. Earnie’s in position now where he’s going to be there, be a part of it. He’ll be in New Jersey (where he’s expected to address the media this week) and in Nashville, just sort of watching and seeing how things operate, and hopefully he’ll have input. I like Earnie’s input.”

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U.S. Soccer hasn’t had a GM role before, and while Stewart’s position has been defined in principle, it’s yet to fully take shape in practice. He’ll select the next coach, but that selection will require USSF board approval. Stewart, who reports to CEO Dan Flynn, also doesn’t control the Federation purse strings. And he won’t have final say over the appointment of Olympic or junior national team coaches, or player selection for those squads. He will, however, shape the senior team’s style of play (in large part through the choice of manager and conversations with coaches down the pyramid) and do the sort of long-term scouting, communicating, logistics and evaluation of the player pool that a manager focused on the next camp or tournament simply can’t. Stewart will be charged with seeing around corners and establishing long-term practices and approaches that outlive a given coach.

It’s a role Sarachan thinks is necessary, even if it results in the end of his U.S. tenure.

“A lot of people who’ve been part of the program have said that we all felt it’s important to have a technical person at that level—someone that’s played, that understands what it means to be part of the national team from a player’s perspective,” Sarachan said. “Earnie certainly checks that box 100%. To have someone like Earnie, with his experience, in this role is a great starting point. Now how that role evolves and develops is going to be an ongoing process. He’s going to carve it out along with others at U.S. Soccer to determine his duties. But I think a technical guy at this level is important.”

Sarachan, who's now living in San Jose, California, said he hasn’t campaigned to keep his job—and it is his job, for the time being. He hasn’t discussed it directly with Stewart. The latter is being patient, so the former must be as well. There will come a time, Sarachan said, when Stewart will fulfill his obligation. Potential MLS targets like Gregg Berhalter, Peter Vermes, Tata Martino or Greg Vanney will become available in two or three months. Perhaps Iran’s Carlos Queiroz or Boca Juniors’ Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who have historic ties to American soccer, will get a call from Chicago. Meanwhile, Sarachan is thinking about Brazil and Mexico, when he might integrate a few international veterans, and what a Gold Cup-contending team he may not manage will look like.

“My focus, and it’s hopefully evident, is getting through these very important, high-profile games—building a roster, watching guys, putting together our group of [players] and getting through September,” Sarachan said. “His process is ongoing, for the head coach. I’m sure it is. That’s his job. You’ve got two different train tracks going, in my mind. At some point, the tracks will cross where that conversation [about the permanent job] will hopefully happen. Right now the focus is [Brazil and Mexico], and I’m sure Earnie has got his process going the way he needs to do it.”

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