By Neil W. Blackmon
“It’s disappointing to hear because I think he’s done a fine job. Always a diligent, hard worker.”
— Sir Alex Ferguson
“There is no other sport like football. It is beautiful and it imitates life because it is a game of failure. Americans have baseball, and it is beautiful and there you have failure too—but football is different because it is epistemological. You can have failure and it’s to scale of course, but the degree of failure is always a question of method. And you can always answer the question why if you look hard enough.”
— Johan Cruyff
Bob Bradley was dismissed as manager of the United States Men’s National team today. He served, as Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who knows a thing or several about winning championships noted, diligently and with an immense amount of sweat and tears. In a four and a half year tenure that began with an interim label (Bradley wasn’t the first choice, and never really would be) in the early part of 2007, Bob Bradley compiled a record of 43-25-12, the best mark by a US manager in history. Bob Bradley won a Gold Cup in 2007. He won a World Cup group (the first such achievement for the US Men’s Soccer Team) in 2010. In between, he finished as runner-up at another Gold Cup, in 2009, with a “C/B-“ type side, guided the US men to a first place finish in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and took the United States to its first final in an international tournament ever, losing in heartbreaking manner to Brazil 3-2 in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Bradley capped everyone (more players than Arena by nearly 50 percent!!); he experimented with formations (though belatedly, in all fairness); his Americans failed to win only one competitive home match in qualifying (the emotional draw with Costa Rica in 2009); and above all, Bradley worked his rear end off.
Still, tempers flared and emotions were wrought after a very disappointing defeat to a Michael Essien-less Ghana side in the Round of 16 last summer in South Africa, and Bradley quickly found himself fighting for his job despite winning his group and nearly winning a FIFA international tournament in two fine years. The US returned home to notable acclaim after the heroic win over Algeria sealed the group, but amongst the growing legion of diehards, Bradley criticism swelled. People questioned his methods and his lineup choices (has anyone gotten over Ricardo Clark starting against Ghana last June?), and pressure mounted. Clearly, the folks in Chicago weren’t immune to the noise in the system. The United States waited a month to extend his contract after South Africa, and after they couldn’t come to terms with the guy they truly wanted, because he wanted too much control, they turned their weary eyes back to old-interim Bob. Bob responded by guiding a flawed American side to the finals of the Gold Cup again this summer, but the performances were lacking and the Americans didn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, at a time when the two finest field players the United States has ever produced were both in their primes, the United States seemed to be getting worse. A home soil loss to Panama was particularly shocking, and though it was avenged in the tournament semifinals, Bradley’s men were decisive underdogs against Mexico in the Gold Cup final last month.
Here’s the thing about the Gold Cup final: Bradley knew the Americans were considered serious underdogs, and, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest, perhaps sensing the stakes personally, he gambled, starting late roster addition and American soccer’s prodigal son, Freddy Adu, in the final. Adu delivered a massive performance. The Americans, inspired from the opening whistle, stormed to a 2-0 lead. But Bradley’s men lost a critical cog twelve minutes on, and despite adding a goal after that man, longtime mainstay Steve Cherundolo, exited the match, they couldn’t stop an onslaught from the finest team Mexico has fielded in over a quarter-century. A 4-2 defeat and no Confederations Cup berth later, rumors again swirled. Ever the company man, Bradley remained quiet, attending his son’s wedding, taking a vacation and then resuming his coaching duties. He scouted European exhibition games and traveled to see various young MLSplayers ply their trade in the month following the final. And with no move happening immediately, it appeared old-second-best Bob had received a reprieve. This was not to be. The chorus of criticism hadn’t necessarily gotten any louder. It had just gotten more close to correct. And in the end, as Cruyff noted, the degree of failure began to point to a problematic, or at the very least flawed method, and Bob Bradley was no longer enough.
“Fundamentals are crutch for the talentless.”
— Kenny Powers
Why, Or, A Question of Epistemology
Substitute “Hard Work” for “fundamentals” in the quote from the fictional, comiheroic Eastbound and Down protagonist Kenny Powers and you’ll begin to understand “why” Bob Bradley was relieved of his duties as manager of the US National Team today. One of the most fundamental arguments made by Bradley detractors, none more vocal than The Yanks Are Coming’s own Raf Crowley, (see here, or various other pieces in the archives) is that no matter how hard Bradley worked he was simply not a high-level international caliber manager. His tactics were too simple or at the very least too inflexible. His chief positives: capping a great number of players, rarely seeing his US teams embarrassed against globally elite sides—were terminally outweighed by his primary negatives: his failure to integrate or utilize the players he capped within a smaller subset of match-choice players, his inability to soundly defeat teams that were clearly inferior to the United States from a talent perspective. This wasn’t a question of hard work, they suggested: they, or at the very least the most qualified among them—Raf Crowley, for example– for the most part, at least, were fair enough to recognize that Bob worked extremely hard. It was a matter of candle power, or put more precisely, a fundamental inability by Bob to “think outside the box” and make proactive changes. For a long while, those arguments, while not falling on deaf ears, suffered what I would characterize as a significant credibility problem: they simply didn’t match the reality of American results. I wrote in the wake of the Ghana defeat that while Bradley was certainly a nearly manager who focused intently on results-oriented football, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and with elite players in their primes, it might have been the safest route for US soccer from a managerial perspective. I believe today I was correct about that when I wrote it, and I’m still not absolutely certain that limited statement isn’t correct today—but more on that to follow. As such, while Bradley criticism was surely nothing new—how could it be when not even the Federation trusted him enough to make him their first choice to begin with!!—it lacked a damning level of credibility, even last summer in the wake of the Yanks group victory at the World Cup.
That’s where Cruyff’s demand to examine epistemology (the study of the scope of knowledge and of methodological approaches utilized to obtain it—forgive me for the half-sentence definition, folks) becomes necessary. In the year since the Algeria match—indeed, starting with the devastating defeat to Essien-less Ghana (I point out Essien-less again because on paper the US is a better side than Ghana without Essien, though the margin is close)—the credibility gap between reality and the detractors arguments closed steadily. Why?Briefly, I offer an explanation by interrogation—an examination, if you will, of the end, which began with a fateful starting 11 sheet in South Africa last summer.
Let’s start with Ricardo Clark. We start there because that choice allows us to investigate the closure of the credibility gap and reality that surrounded one of the most pressing Bradley criticisms from his legions of detractors: the notion that Bradley simply didn’t choose the proper players at critical moments. I’ll go to my grave one day, hopefully after twelve or so more World Cups, and I’ll never understand why Bob Bradley decided to start Ricardo Clark over the in-form Maurice Edu against Ghana. One can never be sure about these sorts of things (they are just assertions, after all), but I’d argue the US wins the game 1-0 if Edu had played from the opening whistle. One day I’ll tell my grandchildren about that World Cup—a neat and horrible thing, I’d suggest—and I’ll say that was the summer a country started to embrace a global game and it was the first time there was a sense of national heartbreak over an American soccer defeat. And that starts with Ricardo Clark. For one of the first times, a Bob Bradley starting 11 sheet had been grievously in error. And while Bradley did have the courage to remove and correct his mistake after 25 minutes, those minutes proved fateful, and the damage had been done. And it was entirely preventable.
The Ricardo Clark error, despite arguments that “this type of poor choice had happened before”, was in fact different than starting 11’s subject to prior criticism. Why? Simple. With one notable exception, if you isolate the key fixtures in those criticisms—an argument could be made in each case that the “comparable option” was not a superior choice. Yes, it might have been sensible to start Brian Ching, not Conor Casey in a few qualifiers. Then again, Casey delivered a crucial brace in his lone start despite being poor and inactive as a sub. And when push came to shove—Bradley omitted him from the World Cup team. Yes, Ching’s World Cup roster omission was tragic, but it was predicated on a hamstring injury, and those are unpredictable. The US had seen the “waste a roster spot” movie before—with John O’Brien—and he was a far better player than the hard-working Ching. Yes, Herculez Gomez was an option in qualifying Bradley might have wanted to explore. But was it really terrible to keep giving Altidore run outs, particularly after his Confederations Cup? The most absurd of the criticisms circulated around MB 90—and anyone with a pulse understands how good Junior is. Nepotism cries were popular for ages, even this past summer in the wake of the Aston Villa loan some claimed Bradley was too kind to his son. But save a miserable Gold Cup final—MB 90 was our best player this past summer, and one of our best players in South Africa last year. And if he doesn’t pick up a childish red card against Spain—perhaps the US hangs on to beat Brazil. And this is what I mean by “Credibility gap.” Here’s the thing: none of that explains the decision to start Clark. And that was the beginning of the end.
But Cruyff’s nod to epistemology doesn’t stop with Ricardo Clark. It begins there. It continues with the Yanks’ performance in the friendlies late last year, and even the Camp Cupcake performances.While other sides were playing Euro qualifiers and the like, archrival and certain summer opponent Mexico was integrating Gio Dos Santos and Javier Hernandez into A Teams that were playing high-level competition. Meanwhile, Bob was capping B level players and resting his regulars. Sure—the US, unlike Mexico, had played international tournaments for two consecutive summers, and it was nice of Bob in theory to rest his predominantly European-based club players when he could. But that choice had consequences. And to be honest, it misread the reality of the United States—which at least this writer would contend was a rare thing for Bob to do. The United States simply isn’t good enough to give it’s “A Team” a break in the build-up to a critical tournament. Bob made the player pool more broad, but the top-level team didn’t get much deeper. And the talent isn’t at the level it is in countries where “A Team” regulars can get a rest and the national team’s long-term progress doesn’t stumble. Bob usually didn’t misread this type of evaluation: his results-oriented style was based largely on a deep knowledge of his side’s limitations and strengths—and that is precisely why his teams played so well against elite sides. Here, he erred, and when Egypt erupted into civil unrest this winter, Bradley lost his only chance to put together an A-Team side in a game before his men convened for Gold Cup prep late this spring. While one can’t argue more time together ensures tournament victory, one can argue it only could have helped. Couple that with the fact that his B-teams stuttered against competition at most their equal, and Bradley detractors could point at Bob and say “What is he doing?” and “There we go again, not beating who we should beat.” Again, the credibility gap between the criticism and the reality was closing.
The final blow was certainly this summer, where all manner of prior Bradley sins contributed to the US’ ultimate defeat, despite a game in the final against Mexico that in a vacuum Bradley managed quite well. First, the old-guard arguments about tactical inflexibility seemed to rear their ugly head. The United States experimented with new formations at the Gold Cup, to be sure, but there was certainly credence lent to the notion that it was too late. Without practicing them as an A-Team unit in the year that had passed, the changes seemed sloppy and forced, the execution lacking. When Bradley did try new formations in friendlies with various B Teams in the year after South Africa, the effort to implement these changes lacked conviction. Often Bradley would try it out for a half and then revert to the old-standby 4-4-2 when things weren’t going smoothly. The reversion wasn’t surprising—not for a nearly man who was tunnel-visioned about results, but the lack of conviction meant a lack of game time attempting to execute new things, and there’s no question it was detrimental to the progress of the team. In fairness, you have to throw in an assist to the US Federation for preventing implementation of new strategies as well—scheduling the Gold Cup “tune-up” match against defending World Champion Spain might have put butts in the seat, but it was hardly an effective game to prepare for a tournament against far inferior competition. Mexico’s pre Gold-Cup friendlies might have seemed like cupcakes to the naked eye—but there’s no question playing Venezuela turned out to be pretty useful, and, if you watched the Copa America—a bit less of a patsy than folks believed.
Making matters worse, Bradley, so rarely outcoached once a game kicked off in his tenure, was embarrassed against Panama in Tampa. His team’s plan was poor at worst and predictable at best, and his opponent was certainly prepared for it. A 2-1 loss on home soil to a mid-level CONCACAF side is unacceptable, and despite the fact that Bradley righted the ship to beat that side in the semifinals, the shock and sting of that defeat had to shake Gulati’s confidence.
Beyond the poor Panama result, there was, at least to this writer, a general malaise hovering over some critical American players. Landon Donovan comes to mind quickly. While he’s not having the greatest year in MLS (the goals are up but the lack of assists, Juan Pablo Angel struggles aside, is eyebrow-raising), Donovan is a heartbeat player for the USMNT coming off his greatest summer in a US shirt. His performances in the Gold Cup, save the opener against Canada, one brilliant pass against Panama, and a fine counter and then disappearing act against Mexico, were unquestionably subpar. It’s true that Bob Bradley recognized this—he actually had the courage to put his best player on the bench for two consecutive knock-out matches. But if we’re really talking epistemology here—one needs to ask WHY ON EARTH that would be necessary in the first place? Bob Bradley’s inability to motivate might be a good clue. And speaking of the “ability to motivate”—what was with all the slow starts? The United States has spent the better part of two and a half years chasing the game against quality opponents because Bradley’s men more often than not appear to not be ready to go when toe meets stitching. Yes—Bradley’s ability to make wise substitutions (a contended point by detractors but one where they’re just wrong) often closes the gap—but wouldn’t it be nice- check that- doesn’t the US deserve and need to start games strongly. Fitness is a big edge for the Americans over most sides in the world—that’s a fact—but it isn’t one they were able to utilize often under Bradley because it’s largely negated when you chase the game.
Finally, there is the little matter of Mexico. Yes, this is the finest Mexican team in a quarter century. They are better then one the Americans beat in 2002, better than the group ranked fifth in the world in the build-up to 2006. They possess CONCACAF’s best or (my view) second-best player in Javier Hernandez, who will be its best soon and for a long while. And Bradley managed to stake his team to a lead early on with smart tactics, a fine set piece from the training ground and a sound line-up. But past sins haunted him one last time. When Steve Cherundolo left the game with an injury (one that might have been avoided had the US not had to grind its way through the tournament without resting its regulars following the Panama disaster), Bradley was forced to play Jon Bornstein. Yes, having played not at all in the competition to that point—Bornstein was in an impossible spot. Here’s the problem: Bob Bradley had no one to blame but himself for that spot. Sure- the US depth at side back has been a point of contention his whole tenure. Sure, Bornstein has had his moments for the USMNT—though many simply weren’t good enough. The real issue is that Bob Bradley was so loyal to what this writer, borrowing from the NFL, refers to as Bornstein’s “combine” attributes, he simply kept going to the Bornstein well when it was clearly dry. Timothy Chandler was left at home—partly due to a suggestion by his club that he was tired after his first full professional season—but hey—that’s what great managers do—they battle for their guys. Jon Spector was mired on the bench and lacked the pace to keep up. Sean Franklin was left behind at Camp Cupcake. And that’s just to name a few. So here is where the scales really tip over on Bradley: a strength—his ability to cap players and expand the player pool—is not a strength when it’s needed most. Bob capped guys to be sure- but the failure to integrate them into the top-flight group indicates there is more to this managing gig than capping them. There’s getting them ready to contribute, sometimes even earlier than you want them to, especially in cases of emergency. Jon Bornstein is a testament to that failure. And in the end, Bradley was left with only hard work to stand on, done in by his own meticulous, rigid methods. And now, always a second choice, he’s been relieved by US Soccer, and, somewhat ironically, replaced by the man the Federation wanted all along. And maybe for Bob Bradley, the most successful manager in US Soccer history, and the only manager during the history of this blog, that will come as a great relief. Here’s hoping so, and wishing him the best.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt. He will write a story on the new boss, not the same as the old boss, in the next 24 hours.