At a crossroads, the United States Men’s National Team’s decision about its next coach seems to break down to simple mathematics. Don’t worry or stop reading now, I’m not about to break into a lecture on derivatives or differential geometry. I might however, use a rudimentary game theory model. In fact, I will. You have three Figures involved in the search, or technically, a figure Y, a figure X, and an unknown variable that at least has a relatively stable, speculative identity based on the Federation’s past. In other words, we don’t know who Figure Z is, but we can make a predictive assessment about the pool where Figure Z will be drawn from, if chosen. Let’s try this out, shall we?
This is the people’s champion, the obsession of those worried that things are already stale, or worried they will become stale within a year or two. New leadership is needed, they clamor. He’s a track-record, they argue. He’s a “big-name”, a take-us-to-the-next-level choice, we hear. It has been nearly a generation since we tried someone who didn’t hail from our backyard, they say. The time is now.
No question, there is merit to being the people’s champion. The intangibles of it can be quite compelling, even to those trying to view the situation objectively. Intangibles play a role in many things, and often this is because it is part of the human condition to act in the face of a temporary moment of sadness, or regret, or anger, or even bliss. History is full of lessons about such perfunctory action in the face of a view of the objective state of things. At the highest levels of US Soccer, there seems to be a streamlined feeling with the people’s desire for action, and one wouldn’t be completely out of line to suggest it has everything to do with a temporary moment of sadness and regret after a difficult defeat. The loss to Ghana changed the way we view the state of things, even if that’s unfair. First place in group play seems less an achievement when it is soured by an exit viewed as premature. It’s classic revisionist history, of course. The plan was never to win the group. The plan was to finish second and acquit yourself well against superior opposition in the Round of 16. Go home with your heads held high. Sadness caused by the ecstasy of defying this expectation soured the ecstasy. Such is life and the human condition. History was defied so the way history views it changed. The President of the Federation has said as much, and the people have their answer. But is it the right answer?
We know Figure Y has the intangibles on his side, but what objective correlative holds them down? Change for the sake of change is one decent argument, if only in the finicky world of international soccer competitions. Only two managers at World Cup 2006 were retained. Both had made the final at that tournament, and both went home before the knockout stages—one in absolute disgrace and the other in abject disappointment. Hard to argue with that. Here’s the critical point: none of that has anything to do with the People’s Choice: FIGURE Y.
Let’s focus on him. He may have been the choice before, but it didn’t work out. He wanted to do things a certain way and the Federation wasn’t willing to do what he asked. He walked away. In the meantime, he took a job at a storied club, attempting the near-impossible, and replacing a storied manager. That manager will factor into the tale later on in our story. Figure Y, however, lasted less than a year. He made several of his own appointments, in the face of recommendations from his new employee. Sound familiar? It should. They didn’t work. Booted from the Champions League, and flailing in league play, the club acted to replace him and salvage a season. That move paid off—a European final followed for Bayern Munich, only 13 months after telling Figure Y to hit the bricks.
That can’t be a completely fair portrayal, right? After all, Figure Y is a hero, a World Cup champion player, a consummate winner, and a fine television analyst, never slow to criticize the man the people want him to replace. Well, let’s see.
Before Bayern Munich, Figure Y managed his home nation as they competed for World Cup glory on home soil. That side, with players at his disposal superior to the ones the people’s team have, managed to win a group and reach the semifinals of the World Cup. They lost a very close game in extra time to the eventual champions of the World. The manager who followed Jurgen Klinsmann, it should be noted, in all fairness, did just about the same thing, except not quite as well. Joachim Low lost a group play match; Klinsmann, even with a home-soil advantage, was undefeated in the group stages.
So there is a pedigree at the international level. There’s success in the background in addition to failure. And there’s the “change for the sake of change” argument. No one knows what a Klinsmann-led US Men’s National Team will look like, but hey—at least isn’t the current guy. Hardly compelling stuff, but with the Federation President’s “we can do better” sentiment and his history of desiring Klinsmann, we very well may end up with him. That’s a risk, and maybe a worthwhile one. But let’s look at the other options.
FIGURE Z, or “The Field”, narrowed down with the Statistical Help of History
Sure—we don’t know with any certainty who this figure would be. History suggests, however, that Figure Z will come from a definitive pool—the pool of available American soccer managers. From that pool, we can eliminate one: former USMNT manager Bruce Arena, currently at LA Galaxy. Unless you’re England, you can’t ever go home again. If Gulati can’t secure Figure Y, who seems to be the favorite, the confidence level that he’ll choose a manager from the US pool that isn’t Arena seems to be very high. Frontrunners include former US assistant Peter Nowak (who is actually Polish, but manages in the States where he has lived for about twenty years) and Dominic Kinnear, the Scottish-born, former American international who currently leads the Houston Dynamo, and has had, despite this season, a good deal of success as a manager. Other names could emerge, and of course, Gulati could go outside this core group, but history and any predictive assessment suggest he will not, with a good deal of confidence. The only compelling justification for such a choice would be “change for the sake of change”, which we have seen is actually a compelling argument in the world of international football. But it might not signal progress, especially given our final candidate.
A blend of critical intangible factors and results, this choice is currently involved in coaching. First, the intangibles side of the argument. He’s beloved by his players, a trusted figure who brings a level of professionalism to an organization still more or less in its infancy, and that for better or worse, lacked it to some extent in the brief past. He’s admired by big names with a history of success in elite leagues. These men have won championships at the highest levels and they believe Figure X to be capable of handling a team plying its trade at the pinnacle of competition the sport offers. These intangible factors go beyond the whimsical and quote-heavy world of “gut feelings.” Indeed, there is a stable foundation, empiricism to their confident remarks about Figure X. One such figure credits Figure X’s tactical choices as being a blueprint for the largest upset on a global stage the sport has seen in a generation. He admitted that he witnessed Figure X’s side maintain discipline in its center, concede defeat in the battle for pace and width, and take its counterattacking chances when frustration by the superior opponent allowed them to come. He witnessed it, and then he copied it. It worked. The man who copied Figure X’s strategy: well, he’s the one Figure Y failed to replace. His name—former FIFA Manager of the Year Ottmar Hitzfeld. Perhaps that’s the foundation for the “gut feelings” the best managers have about Figure X’s capabilities.
Past “gut feelings” and sentiment, there are more results like the blueprint for a mammoth upset seen above. There’s the progression of a side, a rapid progression for those with a sense of soccer history. Twenty years after relying on amateurs to qualify for competition at the world’s greatest sporting event, Figure X found a way to coach a side to first place in its group. That would be a crowning enough achievement for any figure—taking his team to a place it hasn’t inhabited before, at least in the modern, ultra-competitive era of football. Looking past that, however, yields further results.
Figure X navigated calmly the waters of qualification. What once was a miracle is now expected of course, and his team wasn’t overwhelming in the qualifying tournament. They were, however, good enough to win it. Figure X weathered injuries to central figures with poise—a characteristic that often separates good managers from mediocre ones. What separates good managers from great, however, is their ability to rally a unit in the face of adversity.
Again, Figure X has results that suggest he can, and in fact, has, done just that. A brutal and ugly defeat fourteen months prior to this column, after which folks openly called for his head, threatened to tear his team apart. What happened next is of course, the important, fact-based part of the story. Forget the aforementioned “miracle” victory—folks reading by now know that part of the story. Let’s focus on the year after the upset. For forty-five glorious minutes, fans of Figure X’s side saw the possibilities of the future. A dominating performance. The forty-five minutes that followed dampened that effort, and defeat left players in tears. A tragedy involving a player two months later brought more adversity, but the bell was answered hours later, on a memorable goal by a forlorned player, a goal that had great meaning in a meaningless match. Figure X and his determined team weren’t done.
The rest of the tale is well-chronicled. A steely draw, a famous comeback and an unforgettable goal, all leading to a first place finish. A disappointing end, but one that left folks with optimistic feelings about the future. More than anything, Figure X had, through the team he coached, managed to raise the profile of the game and the size of its fan-base to never before achieved levels. There were award shows and late night television appearances. There were, according to players, people on the streets recognizing and approaching players to say “Thank you” for the first time. There was expectation now, instead of guarded optimism. There was more opportunity, the product of a tireless work-ethic and an understanding by Figure X that the great resources at the disposal of a Federation and its country needed to be better explored, taken into account. More players received an opportunity under Figure X than under any predecessor, and that lasted until what may indeed be the bittersweet end, as a twenty-one year old kid from Dallas with a big heart and bigger talent put his side’s shirt on for the first time.
Figure X probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Push forward with resolve. Harness passion and use it to develop the most dangerous of things—potential. Be professional, and be steady. Yes, Figure X, Bob Bradley, did all of these things and he did them with results. He began his term winning the Gold Cup that mattered, the 2007 one that secured qualification to the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the midst of qualifying, he finished second at that tournament—the first such finish for the USMNT at an international tournament. He finished qualifying in first place too, and just like he did in his World Cup group, where his team topped the inventors of the game on the table.
Yet here we sit, mired in a pool of overreaction to a meaningless friendly Tuesday that met a poor result, harsh feeling magnified by the disappointing way the magic ended against Ghana in late June. If it is the end, it’s pure tragedy: a bad ninety an undeserving final chapter to an unprecedented run of success. And yes, we’re not certain he’ll stay if we ask him too. There are teeth to the AstonVilla rumors. He can be had for relatively cheap and he has the backing of coaching giants. He wants the opportunity, at some point, to manage in Europe, which would be another first, something Bradley I suppose is getting used to. All considered, the move makes sense. But so does asking him to stay. No doubt, Bruce Arena proves a second cycle can end in failure. Yet Bradley seems to be the one person most acutely aware of that, and that engenders confidence that he could avoid similar mistakes. His proclivity to constantly bring new players into the fold and utilize new talent quickly also serve as a check on Arena’s “old-guard” mentality that was at least partially to blame for his second-cycle failure. Perhaps not coincidentally, Marcello Lippi failed thanks to the same dogged reliance on his “old-guard.” Italy never got younger. Results and analysis of his first cycle mean I don’t anticipate similar issues under Bob Bradley. In the end, he’s the safe, responsible choice for US Soccer.
Neil W. Blackmon is a co-founder and the Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on twitter, at @nwb_usmnt.