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.
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.