The Devil You Know: Bob Bradley

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, 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.

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  

Time Wonderfully Wasted: Detroit Lions & USMNT


[Ed. – Here’s the story of my budding soccer fandom, reprinted from the original at The Lions in Winter. It was written at the close of the 2010 World Cup.]

It was 1994, and I was twelve years old. My uncle, a sales something-or-other at M&M Mars, invited me to come out to his house in New Hampshire for a week—by myself. I couldn’t believe it; I’d never gone anywhere by myself! The furthest beyond Michigan’s borders I’d ever been was northern Ohio. I’d never set foot in an airport, let alone flown in a plane. But it didn’t stop there; he let me draw up the itinerary. I did so with zeal: the ocean, Boston, Fenway Park—and, since he’d pulled some strings with his bosses, tickets to a World Cup match.

I was only dimly aware of the World Cup—but I was then as I am now, and I immediately absorbed everything I could about international soccer. Without the Internet, this was slow and painful, but I figured out what I needed to know: the US was a perennial weak sister, and FIFA had given America the tournament to get us to realize the sport existed. I didn’t need long to find a real side to get behind: the ancestral homeland of my mother’s family, the perennial powerhouse, the Azzurri: Italy.

As the only grandchild of a proudly Italian-American family, I’d been well-trained. America first, yes—my grandfather served in WWII—but Italy a fierce second. I read about Roberto Baggio, the reigning greatest player in the world, and how totally amazingly awesome he was. Incredible, superhuman, without flaw—I lapped it up, owned it, revelled in it with the all-consuming shallow understanding of a geeky twelve-year-old.

I thought nothing could top the exotic wonders of air travel—if only jaded business travelers could experience O’Hare layovers with my twelve-year-old-eyes!—but the World Cup match did. Whether by arrogant design on the part of my uncle, or supremely fortunate accident, my uncle and I saw Italy take on Nigeria in a quarterfinal match. I didn’t understand the significance of this; the round-robin/knockout format more-or-less escaped me—but I did understand that both teams’ fans wanted to win like they wanted to keep breathing.

Just the parking lot was an experience unto itself; Nigerians, Italians, and Americans were laughing, singing, playing soccer, and talking smack. I remember a group of a dozen-or-so Italians walking to the stadium, singing and bearing a long Italian-flag banner above their heads. A nearby Nigerian laughed, and said in accented English: “Looks like a funeral procession!”

Once in the stadium, and my eyes pried themselves away from the enormous swath of wide-open grass, I found the crowd much more interesting than the game. The Italians chanting and pounding drums, the Nigerians pogo-ing like first-wave punk crowds, my uncle and I blending in with the hirsuite and swarthy gentlemen with whom we shared ancestry.

It was hot, though, and an early Nigerian goal had deflated the overwhelmingly pro-Italy crowd. I’d expected to see Roberto Baggio own the pitch, dominating everything in Jordanesque fashion—but he didn’t even look like the best Baggio on the field. Understanding nothing of soccer, baking in the summer sun, and realizing my notional homeland’s upset was drawing nigh, my interest waned.

Suddenly, with just minutes left in the match, Roberto Baggio scored the equalizer—and the figurative match was struck. The resultant tie, and extra time, poured gasoline around the powder keg of a stadium. When Baggio was tackled (in the American football way) while going to the goal, he was awarded a penalty kick—and, like Landon Donovan’s goal against Ghana on Saturday, Baggio banked it in off one post while the goalie dove for the other. Match, gasoline, powder keg. BOOM.

The party that ensued went on for hours, and my uncle and I were thrilled to join the Italians in celebration. I don’t know how many people get the chance to walk into a World Cup match, and see their favorite player score their side’s only two goals in a dramatic victory, but I did—and it was like going to the North Pole to see if Santa Claus was real, and have him drive you back to your house in the sleigh.

So how come I didn’t care about soccer for sixteen years?

Part of it was a total lack of continuity; I had no idea what Baggio did in between World Cups—and even if someone told me about European club leagues, I wouldn’t have been able to follow them with basic cable in 1994. Part of it was my chosen side; U.S. coverage of soccer orbits the USMNT, and the whys and wherefores surrounding the crushing lack of mainstream interest in them. The rest of it was an early childhood spent immersed in the “four major sports,” as they then were, and the Detroit teams that competed in them. There simply wasn’t room in my heart to pry it open and pour AC Milan, or whoever, in.

But for this World Cup, something was different. Something about the mix of old and new players, the rise of sports blogs and the high correlation between great sports bloggers and soccer fans, and the anywhere-anytime-awesome nature of following sports in the Internet era, made me decide to care. I quickly gave up on the Italy thing; their current penchant for uninspired play and egregious ref-baiting dives makes them unsupportable. No, I invested myself in the Nats a.k.a. Yanks a.k.a. Wild Turkeys [my own attempt at a nickname for them], and was richly rewarded with an experience not unlike my entire life spent rooting for the Lions.

Don’t get me wrong; Landon’s golden goal against Algeria was an incredible experience, one I’ll never forget. For my Lions fans who didn’t watch in real time, it was as if the entire nation had been hanging on the outcome of Matthew Stafford’s now-legendary comeback against the Browns. Like every bar in America simultaneously re-enacted the explosion of euphoria my son and I had participated in that day.

But Saturday’s performance against Ghana was like every Lions’ missed game-winning kick, fourth-quarter collapse, and never-showed-up game you saw coming from a million miles away: after a lot of proud talk about heart and effort and we-finally-made-it after the game before, a tentative, lethargic performance handed the game that matters to the other team. And, for the fans’ part, we came away feeling something had been given to us, and taken away, for the countlessth time.

Like the Lions’ 2009 season, USMNT fans have a few wonderful moments to take away from the group stage of the 2010 World Cup—but, as it’s ever been for both Lions fans and Nats fans since the Fifties, you’re left wondering when all the promise will ever become reality, and how much longer you can sustain yourself on what might be, or what almost was. As the wind picks up, the temperature drops, and winter descends upon South Africa, I’m left to wonder if U.S. soccer is in for another four-year hiberation; another long, long, cold, bitter winter . . . and who’ll keep that flame of fandom burning until the summer sun of Rio thaws the snow.

. . . some videos for you. First, highlights of the ‘94 Italy-Nigeria match. Second, the compilation of reaction shots to Donovan’s goal. I still get chills.

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment