It’s now been just over a year since I became a soccer fan, and specifically USMNT fan. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by the online soccer community, especially my fellow Yank fanatics, double-especially by my fellow football-bloggers-who-hijack-their-own-site-with-off-topic-soccer-posts. I’ve devoured all I can about soccer: analysis, breakdowns, tactics, technique, history, fandom, all of it. Now, at the conclusion of the first competitive play since South Africa, I finally feel comfortable putting in my two cents on a topic besides “Golly I sure do like soccer now” and “Clint Dempsey keeps it crunk.” That topic is “Fire Bob.”
From what I understand, the perennial complaints about Bob Bradley as a coach were:
- Bradley’s rigidly attached to an archaic 4-4-2 alignment, and an unbecoming defend-and-counter strategy. Unlike most top managers, he does not adjust his tactics to fit the opponent; instead he relies on a counterattack that doesn’t score if the opponent isn’t attacking. While we occasionally play David to Spain’s Goliath, it’s at the cost of turning tune-ups against regional patsies into uncomfortably close David vs. David affairs. It’s ugly to watch, and doesn’t maximize world-class talents like Dempsey and Landon Donovan. It also imparts a psychological tendency to start games back on our heels, waiting for the first shoe to drop.
- Bradley’s loyal to “his guys,” to a fault. Once a player has proven himself useful to Bob, he seems to have a golden ticket to at least the top 18, if not the starting 11, long after he’s lost that usefulness. Promising young players are being left to wither on the vine, while guys who’ve proven themselves mediocre continue to get call-ins, caps, minutes, and starts for the senior team.
- Bradley can’t make us great. As an American who never played elite soccer himself, Bob doesn’t understand how to impart the spark of on-ball creativity that makes foreign players—and teams—great. Further, his seat at the top of the American soccer pyramid perpetuates the cycle of US youth development: he can only use players who’ve come up through the US youth system, which emphasizes size and speed over skill—so the youth system is primed to scout for those players, so those are the only players he has, and so on ad nauseam.
These criticisms stem from a fundamental belief of the fanbase and blogosphere: that the USMNT can, and should, be great. We have great players, we have great facilities, we have great fans. It may never be the national pastime, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect to compete with the best. There may be no clearer example of this sentiment than Bill Barnwell’s savaging of Bob Bradley at Grantland.com, where he the bar for the USMNT at winning a World Cup.
He’s not wrong. That’s where the bar should be set. If the US can regularly see podium finishes in international hockey, swimming, and alpine skiing, there’s no reason we can’t stand with the giants of the world’s game. However, the devil is in the details—and when it comes to the details of how we get from Point Here to Point Awesome, it’s the devil we fans don’t know.
In the wake of Bradley’s re-appointment as head coach, many fans and media types grumbled that they’d have to see a few things to be satisfied with his retention: serious experimentation with other alignments, a willingness to cast nets far and wide to bring in new talent, and an emphasis on creative, possession-based attack. A year later, the USMNT is a 4-2-3-1 team with a wealth of new top-18 options aged 25 or younger: Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, and miraculously Freddie Adu.
That’s not even counting Stu Holden, Charlie Davies, or Timmy Chandler, all of whom Bradley certainly would have brought along if circumstances permitted. That also leaves out Bradley-capped up-and-comers like Teal Bunbury and Brek Shea, both of whom will certainly play a big role in friendlies and WC qualifying going forward. Retrospectively, we can gripe about these young players’ exclusion from the Gold Cup roster—but let’s face it, Mixx Diskerud was not going to be the difference against Mexico.
That’s what this comes down to: for this Gold Cup, Bob Bradley had three dichotomous goals. First, win the tournament, thereby securing a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil (a crucial tune-up for WC2014). Second, get senior-team international experience for the next generation of players. Third, transition from a rigid, long-ball 4-4-2 to an adaptive, attacking 4-5-1.
Even if Bob’s challenge was limited to the first—win the tournament at all costs—the expectations could be fairly described by the statement, “Win the group, get to the finals, and be ready for a tough challenge from a high-flying Mexican side.” Despite adding in youngsters and changing alignments (sometimes on the fly), the US met those expectations, and had a good look at winning the thing anyway.
We can nitpick Bradley’s call-up of journeyman players for their first international competition, like Chris Wondolowski—but if you’re switching to a 4-5-1, your three options for the “1” can’t be 21, 18, and 17 years old. You simply can’t have it both ways—either the USMNT’s first-choice squad should be steamrolling the Panamas of the world 4-0, OR we should be forgetting about results and fielding a U23 B/C-squad for the Gold Cup, as we did in 2009.
In fact, from my admittedly naïve perspective, Bob Bradley has done nothing but exactly what everyone insisted he must do since being retained. He’s toyed with several alignment changes, deployed a dizzying array of personnel combinations based on form and results—he even used Landon Donovan as a super sub for consecutive games! In my mind, insisting Bradley completely overhaul the roster and tactics while not slipping an inch from ideal results just isn’t realistic.
The open question, then, is greatness. Is there any amount of roster or alignment tinkering that can infuse the US with the joy and abandon with which we saw Mexico attack the net? Is there any amount of steady defensive play that can make up for the lack of miracle goals like Dos Santos’ chip? Can the US ever put a boot on the throat of a Guadaloupe and choke them out 5-0? Can Bradley guide the senior team to another World Cup round-of-16 appearance, while US Soccer overhauls his youth system underneath him?
Unfortunately, the only answer is more questions: can a foreigner magically impart dirt field on-ball creativity to suburban soccer academy types? Can a European coach press the motivational buttons required to get club pros harvested from all over the world to play as a cohesive unit? Will changing the jet engine midflight take us to new heights, or send us spiraling down to Earth?
I guess the difference between newbies like me and the lifers is, I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know.