Earlier this afternoon, the news of U.S. Soccer’s firing of men’s national team manager Bob Bradley hit the airwaves and blogosphere. Bradley, a maligned coach as of late, began serving the Yanks in 2007 and oversaw successful outcomes in the 2007 Gold Cup, the 2009 Confederations Cup, and the 2010 World Cup (more on those later).
My personal feeling about the firing is ambivalence. I like Bob Bradley. I think he’s done a number of good things for the U.S. national team. I also think he’s a bit too stubborn in relying on under-performing veterans. My thoughts about his career, the firing, and the future of U.S. Soccer follow.
1. 2007 Gold Cup
When Bradley was hired in January ’07, the Gold Cup loomed just months ahead. Six months before, the U.S. embarrassingly bowed out of the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in which they did not win a single game. That tournament also marked the end of Bruce Arenas’ tenure as national team coach.
Bradley managed to rally the troops though and win the 2007 Gold Cup. It earned the U.S. a berth in the ’09 Confederations Cup and returned confidence to the national team.
2. 2009 Confederations Cup
With World Cup qualifying fully underway, the U.S. traveled to South Africa for a World Cup primer, the Confederations Cup. The first two games left a lot to be desired, but with a 3-0 thrashing of African champs Egypt (and Brazil’s beat-down of Italy at the same time), the U.S. advanced to the knockout rounds. And there awaited number one ranked Spain on some ridiculously long unbeaten streak.
The Americans pulled it off, 2-0; a shock result that gathered momentum for the following year. Bradley’s style of defend, defend, defend, counter worked in that game. The U.S. remained disciplined against a powerful Spanish midfield and forward tandem.
In the championship game, the U.S. blew a 2-0 halftime lead to powerhouse Brazil. Regardless of that outcome, optimism surrounded the Yanks.
3. 2010 World Cup
The U.S. entered South Africa with a favorable group draw and a veteran team. They won the group with two draws and a last gasp victory against Algeria. However, the run ended in the Round of 16 with an extra time loss to Ghana.
While U.S. fans could reasonably have been disappointed in the effort, most considered the 2010 campaign a success.
4. 2011 Gold Cup
Bradley’s contract ran out in late 2010, but the U.S. re-signed him for another four year cycle. U.S. Soccer saw this year’s Gold Cup as an important tournament for a few reasons. One, they wanted a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup to gain valuable experience for the upcoming young crop of players (especially at defense). Two, the Americans wanted to maintain their role as the top dog in CONCACAF over Mexico. Three, it wished to correct some bad play that cost the U.S. in the World Cup and in friendlies since then.
The Red, White, and Blue made the finals as expected, but not without drama, ineptitude, and close calls along the way. And Mexico awaited in the finals, a team that steamrolled the competition. When the U.S. gained a 2-0 lead in the first half, things looked great. However, the U.S. defense unraveled against the tough Mexican attack before losing 4-2.
The finals left a bitter taste in the mouths of disappointed fans, players, and coaches in what turned out to be a disappointing tournament. It also turned out to be the last game of Bob Bradley’s tenure of U.S. coach.
5. What led to the firing
I have no sources, no insider knowledge, nothing. These are only my thoughts.
A. Slow starts – Under Bradley’s steely gaze, the Americans often struggled at the start of games. The cause of that struggle remains unknown with speculation blaming poor coaching, lackadaisical effort, etc. Whatever the cause, the end result was the same: the U.S. often failed to match the opponent’s energy and play early in games.
In the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. fell behind England 1-0 within the first ten minutes, trailed Slovenia 2-0 at halftime, and gave up goals to Ghana in the first half of regular time and extra time.
While the U.S. often showed a lot of resiliency in mustering come backs, such expended energy takes a toll on a team, an often unnecessary toll.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this trend was how often it occurred. In high profile friendlies and major tournaments, it’s tough to continually rely on your team to mount a comeback. Its a dangerous way to win a soccer game.
B. Playing Michael Bradley – Some pundits have suggested Michael Bradley receives the benefit of his dad as coach, i.e. undeserved playing time. I highly doubt this had anything to do with the decision to fire Bradley for one simple reason: Michael earned his spot.
When Michael first started playing Center Midfield for the national team, he was a little rough around the edges. But with age and experience, he has earned his role. He’s a defensive player with an eye for possession and ball control who’s also not afraid to press forward when the attack calls for an extra man.
Along with Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley is our best CM. Other options such as Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu are nice players in spurts, but neither has shown the consistency that Michael has from game to game. And they’ve both had plenty of opportunity with Holden being injured for last year’s World Cup and this year’s Gold Cup.
Michael Bradley was arguably America’s best player in South Africa last year (alongside Landon Donovan). He was one of the tournament leaders in running distance per game, and often spurred the team with his leadership capabilities.
C. Reliance on Veterans – Bradley, a thoughtful tactician, has been criticized for his continued reliance on veteran players who do not perform well. I tend to follow this thinking, but one thing must be cleared: BRADLEY HAD TO RELY ON VETERANS FOR THIS GOLD CUP.
After America’s defeat in the 2011 Gold Cup finals, several sports writers countrywide wrote about Mexico’s young guns and how the U.S. failed to match them. Well, there’s a reason the U.S. didn’t match them: it simply could not.
The U.S. defensive line is the most aged aspect of the current team, but without those veterans, the U.S. didn’t stand a chance (it had a small chance with them). While future national teamers like Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, Gale Agbossoumonde are very talented players, they are simply not ready. Mexico’s attackers, a group of guys with Euro league experiences, would have shredded them.
The U.S. wanted a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup so it’s young defenders could gained valuable experience in a competitive international competition, but it could not get there without the play of the veterans in 2011.
With that said, Bradley did over-rely on veterans players he should have cut long before. One such was Johnny Bornstein who led to at least two of Mexico’s goals in the Gold Cup finals. Others include the ineffective Ricardo Clark, and the over-the-hill DaMarcus Beasley (a good contributor at one time).
D. Giving up on younger players – Alongside his over-reliance on bad veterans, Bradley often vanished younger players to the doghouse. The biggest example of this was CM Jose Torres. Torres made the U.S. squad for South Africa, but his Latin flair for the game conflicted with Bradley’s strategy and style.
Incidentally, a player like Torres would have been invaluable against a team like Mexico. However, if the managers not happy with the player, that’s not much else can be done.
6. The Future
Lots of rumors, suggestions, etc. have been thrown around as the search for Bradley’s successor begins. Again, no sources or insider knowledge for me on this aspect, only my thoughts.
A. Jurgen Klinsmann – The former German international player and coach, Klinsmann has flirted with U.S. Soccer in the past two coaching searches. Klinnsmann would be good for the U.S. as he knows what it takes to have success. However, each of his last two exchanges with U.S. Soccer have ended over the power he wants. Klinsmann wants the ability to control youth development from the bottom up while U.S. Soccer has been unwilling to give up that power. I doubt the U.S. gives up that power this time.
B. Guus Hiddink – The former manager of Chelsea as well as several national teams (including Turkey currently), Hiddink would be a great hire. He too knows what it takes to succeed. If he’s currently satisfied with his job in Turkey, it may take some time and persuading to land him, but enough money should do the job one would think.
C. Marcello Lippi – Lippi lead his native Italy to the 2006 World Cup championship. A proven coaching commodity, Lippi would be a great hire. The only problem is his style of play. Many critics have slammed Bradley for playing a boring style of soccer. Well, Italians perfected the boring style. But it gets results so if the U.S. is more concerned with substance over style, Lippi will deliver.
D. Jason Kreis – Kreis, an American, is the current coach of MLS’ most successful team, Real Salt Lake. Kreis guided RSL to a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League finals. He’s an up and coming name in the coaching world and will probably be the U.S. coach at some point in the future. Is the time now, or is he still too unseasoned?
E. International v. Domestic – There will be a lot of debate in the coming days whether the next U.S. coach should come from the MLS ranks or be of international blood. The pro-American side will point to the fact that no team has ever won the World Cup with a foreigner as its coach. However, I think it’s time the U.S. hired a non-American.
I do not think American coaches are the problem. Bradley was a good coach, Arenas before him did well, etc. However, the U.S. game is taught differently than the rest of the world, i.e. the style of soccer developed in western Europe (the winning style, I might add).
The time is right for the U.S. to learn that style at the national team level. The trickle-down effect could be instrumental for the future of U.S. Soccer. Our way of developing talent, playing the game, etc. is not working. It’s time to join the rest of the world and leech off of their ideas and strategies. It’s time to play winning soccer.