Same as the Old Boss

United States Men’s National Team Coach Bob Bradley is back. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was unable to resist Bradley’s steely blue-eyed gaze and handed him a new four-year contract that will see him helm the Nats through the next World Cup cycle. Excuse me while I vomit on my team sheet.

One can argue the pros and cons as the program goes forward: stability v. staleness, comfort v. upheaval. All mere conjecture. What we can tangibly discuss is whether Bradley’s past performance merited the extension. And while I’m willing to give him some credit, ultimately, his shortcomings should have spurred a search for new blood.

The primary criticism is that Bradley failed to integrate young talent into the side. Think about the breakout U.S. players of the last cycle. The first name that comes to mind is Charlie Davies. His injury mars memory, but recall that he was on the outside looking in for nearly the entire four years, despite having the best goal-scoring record among Americans in European leagues. It wasn’t until the Confederations Cup last summer when he got a serious look and that was only because of the Nats’ abject performance in their first two group games. Faced with almost no chance of advancement, a resigned Bradley handed Davies a start.

One sparkling performance later, Davies became an automatic selection and proved to be one of the most dynamic players on the team. It was desperation, rather than foresight, that hastened Davies’ inclusion and so it has been with a number of players. Benny Feilhaber and Jose Francisco Torres are two of the best Americans with the ball at their feet, yet they remain on the fringes of the starting lineup in favor of the likes of Ricardo Clark. Stuart Holden didn’t even get 45 minutes in South Africa and he’s expertly pulling the strings for Bolton in the center of midfield.

It’s my contention that you put your best 11 players on the field. Instead, Bradley adheres strictly to formation. There is no place for the creativity of the above-mentioned players when insisting on a 4-4-2 with twin ball-winners in the middle of the park. Faced with no Davies in South Africa, Bradley held tight to the 4-4-2 and started Robbie Findley three times (and it would have been four if he wasn’t on a yellow card suspension for Algeria). You mean to tell me that a 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a better option? That a dangerous Feilhaber or marauding Holden or clever Torres, all technically superior players, weren’t a better option on the pitch than Robbie Fucking Findley?

His lineups are baffling and including Rico Clark in the Round of 16 game against Ghana is the worst kind of example. That decision alone cost the U.S. the game. Maurice Edu had played better all tourney and was forced to enter in the 27th minute after Clark picked up a yellow (and his giveaway resulted in Ghana’s first goal). That wasted substitution might have helped in extra time, you know?

Maybe an even worse instance of Bradley not knowing his players occurred in a qualifier in Costa Rica. Saprissa Stadium is every bit as intimidating as Azteca in Mexico, the former’s unpredictable turf standing in for the latter’s smog and altitude. Such a contest cries out for experience and veteran leadership. So Bradley handed a first start to Marvell Wynne.

Marvell Wynne.

Following the 3-1 loss–and it wasn’t that close–we have not heard from Marvell again. There’s a right way to bring players along. You put them in a position to succeed. You run them out there in friendlies. You experiment with formations. Especially if you have a four-year contract. To put it succinctly, and in terms the kids can understand, this team needs more “ballers.” It doesn’t need the limited talents of Clark or Jonny Bornstein.

As I said earlier, Bradley does have some strengths. He’s a very good leader. He can claim responsibility for the team’s spirit, which is world class. He got expected results (and an unexpected one), even if it wasn’t at all times attractive or easy. The thinking among U.S. Soccer honchos is that the American soccer player is unique and therefore best understood by an American coach. Hence eight years of Bruce Arena and now eight of Bradley. This is a short-sighted view. Advancement of the program demands an emphasis on technical ability, on tactical maturity. These are the areas in which American players are lacking and a rigid insistence on “The American Way” will only serve to stunt the growth of future players.

U.S. Soccer had the chance to take the next step up. By retaining Bradley, they’ve sentenced the program to more of the same.

Postmortem

At halftime of the United States-Ghana game, I stood outside the pub with scores of others, smoking furiously and despairing at the Yanks going behind early once again. The mood remained upbeat, however, the same mood that has engulfed this team since its fight-back against Slovenia and the stunner against Algeria. At one point, I mentioned that Ghana’s goal was a soft one, a near-post finish that Tim Howard should have been better positioned for. Cue the end of “upbeat.”

Several fans savaged me for that observation. I had crossed the line. I had become critical of a team which had become darlings of the sports landscape. Never mind the truth, that the U.S was favored to get out of the group, that they found, in the knockout stages, the easiest possible route to the semifinals, that for all their heart-stopping entertainment (Will Leitch called it “terrifying fun”), they remained mistake-prone at the back and lacked a legitimate scoring threat at striker.

endYes, we all thrilled to their exploits and, at the end of the Ghana loss, it seemed cruel to point fingers. The effort did not lack. The two-week ride exhausted our bodies, our brains and our cynicism. In the pub, as the Yanks filed off the pitch in disbelief, we applauded with genuine thanks and admiration and then exited the dim bar, blinking into the stark, afternoon sun.

In the light of day, in the darkness of our frantic minds, we see the errors. The schoolboy defending on both goals, blatant cases of being a step slow in instinct, a thought slow in anticipation. It’s not as if the U.S. team’s penchant for gift-wrapping early goals was a secret. These must be addressed and game-planned on the training ground. And not fixing that issue is a primary reason they are out.

Another was the very existence of Rico Clark on the field, where he was directly responsible for two goals in just over 90 minutes played. We see a feckless Robbie Findley, all that pace useless when you run to nowhere or into the teeth of defense that is organized, physical and every bit as fast as you are. Coach Bob Bradley did not send out his best team against Ghana (Clint Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore; Stuart Holden or Benny Feilhaber in the midfield with Maurice Edu instead of Clark), a mis-judgement compounded by Clark’s yellow card and the need to expend a precious substitution in the 27th minute of a game that would ultimately go to extra time.

And yes, Howard, the unquestioned backbone of the team. You absolutely can not let that goal in at the near post. He was one, maybe two, strides from where he should have been when that ball was struck. In the correct position, he scoops it up harmlessly at his feet. I’ve not read a single word about this anywhere. Maybe because Clark’s giveaway was so much more glaring, as was Jay DeMerit not closing down the shooter quickly enough. Regardless, a world-class goalkeeper is the one who bails out his team and Howard didn’t do enough in this crucial situation.

Maybe it’s simply because Howard is a symbol of this team, an athlete who overcame personal odds (he has Tourette’s) to succeed at the highest level in the EPL and internationally. As soccer fans in America, we ardently wish our overseas players make a mark, give respect to the game on our shores and Howard, and others, have done that. They make us proud, as if they were our own children. Sometimes, however, children are naughty. They disappoint us, let us down, and we are forced to punish them, to break out the Parent Speech and guide them. Afterward, we may feel badly, seeing their remorse, the pain they feel at being criticized by the ones who love them most.

It hurts to play the heavy, necessary though it may be. And so it is, this team that brought us so much this summer. I’m sad to see them go. But they have lessons to learn and they can not be absolved of their failings. Until they correct them.

Four years should be time enough.

Ladies and Gentlemen…YOUR U.S. National Team

Live! From ESPN HQ and my mother’s basement! It’s the 2010 U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup Selection Show brought to you buy several large advertisers and this bacon and egg sandwich I just made for myself.

Coach Bob Bradley is–in mere moments!–handing out 23 cherished tickets to South Africa and while the kleig lights lend the occasion a bit of pomp, the truth is there should be no surprises at this juncture. The only intrigue is the final two slots. Contenders are Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez on the front line and midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Robbie Rogers. Bradley could elect to take both strikers, but it’s unlikely that both Bedoya and Rogers make the team.

Here we go:

It’s Bob Ley! The U.S. players are standing on a random field, looking uncomfortable and sweaty.

Goalkeepers- Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Given. All three of our keepers are bald or balding. I’m glad I stopped playing goalie at 13, otherwise I might not have this magnificent head of hair.

Who was the last goalkeeper with great hair? Schumacher? Higuita?

Defenders — Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein

Nothing crazy here, but for the continuing scourge of Bornstein. He’s like herpes.

As mentioned in last night’s post, there’s a lot of versatility in this group should Gooch be physically unable to go (I spent a good half-hour last night trying to convince myself he was just rusty; didn’t take). Bocanegra can play in the middle or at left back. Spector has played right back from the U.S., but left back for West Ham (to middling results this past season). Maurice Edu is a capable centerback. And Jonathan Bornstein can go play in traffic.

Midfielders- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, DaMarcus Beasley

Bedoya out. That means an extra striker. Congrats Edson Buddle!

I am Michael Bradley! I will not look at the camera!

Most agree (and by “most,” I mean the people I brow-beat into agreeing with me) the U.S. is best served by starting Dempsey up top with Altidore and sliding Torres or Feilhaber or Holden into Deuce’s outside midfield slot. It gets your best players on the field. Of course, Dempsey has been most effective as a striker when moving there later in games, as opposed to starting there. And one also assumes he’ll see less of the ball on the forward line, a fact which has, in the past, caused his focus to wander.

We’ll get a better line on Coach Bradley’s thinking after seeing the lineups for the next two friendlies.

Forwards- Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez

Wow! A stunner! Ching out and Robbie Findley in. I’m officially speechless. Taking four forwards likely means Dempsey in the midfield. To start.

Alright boys. Get to work.

U.S. Questions

Alright, first let’s take a deep breath, chew some nicotine gum, munch some Valium, or whatever it is you, dear reader, do to take the edge off, and note that of the 17 U.S. players who trod the slippery pitch tonight a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic, a maximum of three of them will start against England on June 12 in the team’s World Cup opener.

Done? Everybody cool? Awesome. Now…panic. Because one of those players, Oguchi Onyewu, is quite clearly not fit. The stalwart in central defense, the man I considered Man of the Match in last summer’s upset of Spain, looked like a guy who hasn’t played since October. Which he is. He was badly beaten in the air for the first Czech goal and generally appeared to not trust his knee, tip-toeing around slowly and awkwardly, a marked contrast to his usual, powerful game. I think it’s apparent Coach Bob Bradley knows this as well, since he deployed Maurice Edu–normally a midfielder, but with some experience in central defense–in Onyewu’s spot after 65 minutes.

WCup Czech Republic US Soccer

Maurice Edu (19) celebrates his first international goal with teammates.

In addition to Edu, Clarence Goodson had a solid effort alongside Onyewu, showing good instincts and contributing to the U.S.’s second goal. And the U.S. back-line has a lot of versatility, a strength I’d hoped would relegate Jonathan Bornstein–another dismal showing; his finest skill seems to be grabbing at opposing players as they skip past him–to the sidelines.

Otherwise, Herculez Gomez and Brian Ching appeared to grab pole position for the available striker positions. Gomez scored the second and Ching was far more effective holding the ball and linking with teammates than the first-half pairing of Edson Buddle and Eddie Johnson. Johnson was horrid and Buddle worked hard, but lacked service. Since Ching has long been considered a lock, the fact Bradley sent Gomez out alongside him might be a clue to his thinking.

In the midfield, Stuart Holden and Jose Torres both had disappointing nights, though not poor enough to wedge them off the roster. Edu was composed in his time in the middle and DaMarcus Beasley cemented his spot with a lively performance.

Coach Bradley will announce his 23-man roster tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. Here are the seven I expect to see left off the plane to South Africa:

Eddie Johnson — Because he can’t, you know, trap the ball
Heath Pearce — Blame for two of the Czech goals fall directly on his shoulders. Also, he’s fucking terrible.
Robbie Rogers — Played well this evening, but probably didn’t do enough to pass Alejandro Bedoya–a promising youngster who will be taken to his first World Cup for the experience factor–on the depth chart
Sacha Kljestan — Still too green on the international level
Chad Marshall — Injury didn’t help
Robbie Findley — Didn’t see the field tonight, which speaks volumes
Edson Buddle — Had the misfortune of being paired with EJ instead of the steadier Ching

Czechs, Mate (Updated)

The United States Men’s National Team begins its march to South Africa tonight in Hartford with a friendly against a Czech team that can be generously dubbed a ‘B’ side.

Coach Bob Bradley has said he will whittle the 30 players in camp down to the final World Cup roster of 23 after this game, so expect a lot of fringe faces in the Starting XI. One familiar name who should start is Oguchi Onyewu. Gooch will need substantial time in all three run-up games to achieve match fitness after not featuring in a games since his injury in October. Usual starters coming off long European seasons–Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, for example–are also likely to sit this one out (though I’ve not seen that reported elsewhere) as Bradley Sr. sorts through his options.

Players such as Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark, both recently returned from injury, should get the start, while others still nursing injury, like Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, may watch from the sidelines and let their possible back-ups fight it out. My guess:

Tim Howard
Steve Cherundolo — Oguchi Onyewu — Clarence Goodson — Heath Pearce
Stuart Holden — Maurice Edu — Ricardo Clark — DaMarcus Beasley
Brian Ching — Herculez Gomez

ESPN has the game tonight with the broadcast starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Update: Lineups are out. I was close. Sorta. The Two Eds up top!

Guzan
Cherundolo –Goodson — Onyewu — Jonathan Bornstein
Holden — Edu — Jose Francisco Torres — Beasley
Edson Buddle — Eddie Johnson

Davies Out

An apparent disappointing end to Charlie Davies quest to return from a horrific car accident in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He was not named to Coach Bob Bradley’s provisional 30-man roster that will convene for training camp next week in Princeton, N.J.

Said Bradley, “He (Davies) hadn’t been given full medical clearance and therefore was not given a full release to join the camp.”

Bummer. Feel bad for the kid.

In-form strikers Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez were preferred to Davies, who has resumed full training but has not played a competitive match since the October accident which left one person dead and Davies with severe injuries. Considering that group, as well as surprise inclusion Robbie Findley, the competition appears wide-open for the slot along-side automatic selection Jozy Altidore.

No other shocking names on the roster (Kljestan might shock some, but not anyone who is aware of his long association with Bradley) and those left out, aside from Davies, were only peripheral names like Frankie Hejduk, Edgar Castillo, Freddy Adu and Conor Casey.

Coach Bradley has until June 1 to cut the roster to the final 23 and the U.S. will play two friendlies prior to that, May 25 v. Czech Republic in East Hartford, CT and May 29 v. Turkey in Philadelphia.

The full squad:

Goalkeepers- Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Defenders- Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall

Midfielders- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers

Forwards- Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez

Premature Selection

U.S. Coach Bob Bradley is set to announce his provisional 30-man roster for South Africa tomorrow at 2 p.m. (Eastern), which gives me perfect opportunity to speculate which Americans might be on the list.

That’s what blogs are for, yes? Let’s get right to the action.

roster1

Shoe-ins

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann

And done. Doubt a 4th GK will get called into camp.

Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein

Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber

Forwards: Jozy Altidore

That’s 18. Lotta work still to do.

Hopefuls

Defenders

Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall, Clarence Goodson, Edgar Castillo, Frankie Hejduk

Goodson has shown well in recent call-ups, so he has a leg up. Pearce is playing midfield in MLS, but is a Bradley favorite and and Marshall is just returning from injury. Everybody likes having Frankie around, but he’s showing his age recently and without pace his is nothing. Castillo is a long-shot due to his (lack of) size.

Joe Speaker’s picks: Goodson, Marshall, Castillo
Bob Bradley’s picks: Goodson, Marshall, Pearce

Midfield

DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Freddy Adu, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Robbie Rogers

A few months ago, as my friend Jorginho and I tried to pick a 23-man roster, I surprised him by including Beckerman. My thinking is this: both Bradley and Clark have shown themselves to be card prone, so if one of them gets a suspension, we’re left without cover in the middle of the park, so Beckerman needs to be included as a “destroyer,” since Coach Bradley is loathe to have a more offensive-minded player in the middle (ie Feilhaber). Beasley would be a useful option off the bench and Kljestan’s ties to Bradley Sr. make him a likely candidate and make me liable to puke in my mouth a little. Adu and Rogers are longshots thanks to poor form and middling results with the national team, but the inclusion of youngster Bedoya might surprise.

Joe Speaker’s picks: Beasley, Beckerman, Bedoya
Bob Bradley’s picks: Beasley, Kljestan, Bedoya

Forwards

Brian Ching, Conor Casey, Kenny Cooper, Robbie Findley, Eddie Johnson, Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, Charlie Davies

Sigh. Not exactly awe-inspiring, is it? I expect a complete handful of these guys to get the call, considering the state of flux at the position. The final roster might include only three true forwards, but it’s a cattle call for now. Naturally, a healthy Charlie Davies is what we all hope for, but I personally believe the odds are pretty stacked against him. I’ll leave out Casey, Findley and Cooper on general principle (that principle being that they aren’t any good) and include the rest of the gang due to their recent goal-scoring form, although the only one about whom I can even generate the slightest excitement is EJ, who has been scoring recently in Greece and has previously shown to be dangerous when in form.

Joe Speaker’s picks: Ching, EJ, Gomez, Buddle, Davies
Bob Bradley’s picks: Ching, Casey, EJ, Buddle, Davies

That’s only 29. I’m sticking there, because there is no way I’m putting Robbie Findley on this roster.

Your team in comments.

(Bonus note: SI’s team of soccer writers, including the above-mentioned Jorginho, select their final 23 for South Africa–not the 30-man like I’m doing above–and it includes some interesting names Brian McBride?)

I’ve Soiled Myself

US 3-Egypt 0. Brazil 3-Italy 0. And the place goes nuts, only problem is no one here seems to care. It was without a doubt one of the most unexpected wins in the history of the national team. Sure if they only had to score a goal or try for a tie, then the possibility of the team advancing would not have been too implausible. But you had to win by three and hope, hope mind you that Brazil thumps the current world champions by three. In other words you needed everything that could go right to go right, and anything less than that and Bob Bradley is in the unemployment line. And how confident was the Brad Man? He started Brad Guzan in the net, benching Tim Howard for the game.

I’ve said this before, Bradley needs to create some serious waves for him to keep his job. And while beating Egypt may not be akin to beating Spain, the circumstances the team faced may be the spark the team and coach need to make a strong statement for next year’s World Cup.