September 2010

Bringing Bradley Back Carries Great Risks, Little Reward

The hearsay and conjecture is finally over, and well, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Bob Bradley, Bobbo, Skeletor, or Junior’s Dad if you like, will hold tight to the reigns of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. Here at Yanks we’re not above delving into fits of über-reactionary blogitude from time to time, but if there ever was a character whose case deserved a measured, reasoned, and tempered response, it’s none other than Bobbo. Hell, we’d have given him a nickname like “Bob Cool” already if his constantly unfazed sideline expression (or lack thereof) didn’t make him look like he just ate a dog turd.

Nevertheless, Bob is our man, and whether he’s more boon or burden is rightfully the subject at hand. You didn’t expect us to write about Jon Spector ceding PK’s to Man U for two weeks did you?

Bradley’s tenure with the Yanks has been a mixed bag, but you can’t argue with the fact that it’s been more good than bad. So why would someone like me, a reasonable, intelligent, and good looking writer for the greatest blog of all time, prefer a new manager? I’ll tell you, but before I do, I want to make it clear that I’m not a Bradley hater, and I’ve got great respect for the job he’s done for the program. This site’s Neil Blackmon comprehensively outlined the reasons he’s happy that Bobbo is back and his points are valid, especially the fact that this man’s gotten the results. Wins don’t lie. But just as many like Neil were slightly conflicted in their hope that Bradley would return, I was conflicted in my hope that Sunil would opt out of our tracksuited and Nike booted manager. This did not happen, so I’m obligated to provide Neil’s smile-inducing bright side piece with a complimentary bit of sobering realism. Yeah I know, I hate being sober too. If you want to be brought down and back up again like you’re watching an old Tom Cruise flick, I’d urge you to read or reread Neil’s pro-Bob blog after reading this. I’m not here to make you sad.


Tactical Identity

What is Bobbo’s strength as a coach, and how has this strength helped craft the national team in his image? Along with most of you, I would argue that Bradley does and has done a great job of getting the guys to play with each other and for each other. There’s the now trademark never-say-die attitude that was so sorely missed under Arena in the 2006 World Cup. It’s this attitude and the accompanying grit that Bob has been at least partially responsible for instilling in the players that makes amazing moments like the wins in the Confed Cup, and the World Cup’s crucial goals and comebacks possible. This is great, and I’m not even going to play the guessing game on whether the team would retain the same fire without Bradley at the helm. But it’s not exactly a tactical on-field identity is it?

Spain has dominant midfield play and will win the possession battle against any opponent because of it. Germany is playing the closest thing to Johan Cruyff’s “Total Football” that we’ve seen in years. Greece is happy to play defense for 90 minutes and maybe volley one on goal if their opponents fall asleep as expected. These are tactical identities. This doesn’t mean these national teams don’t gameplan for opponents and adjust accordingly (as Bobbo likes to do), they just have a good handle on what they’re generally trying to do on the pitch.

When Bradley first took over he ran with what the USMNT had done well in the past. We played solid defense, counterattacked appropriately, and took advantage of set piece opportunities. Boom. Identity. It wasn’t the sexiest one, but an identity it was. Since then, most feel we’ve outgrown this mold, especially with our current talent base. I think Bob is of this opinion too, but whatever we’ve grown into under his guidance isn’t defined yet, and hasn’t been defined for the past couple of years. We run a possession clinic here, get embarrassingly out-possessed there. We look absolutely lethal on counterattack one match, and don’t seem to have one idea on how to get an open shot on net the next. Our defenders play like world beaters at times, and can’t seem to close down a Slovenian forward at others.

It’s not just the inconsistency that’s disappointing, it’s not having one aspect of the game to hang the USMNT hat on. It seemed elementary to me that if a new manager walked into the American setup he’d look at the midfield talent and start drooling over the possibilities. I wanted to see that drool-inducing moment lead to an idea which might beget a system in which we could find a tactical identity. That dream was possible under a new boss; with Bradley it’s still possible, but not quite probable.

Inexcusable Defensive Breakdowns

Here’s a part of the U.S. game we hid behind the curtain away from the international soccer community, right up until the World Cup that is. Talk to a European between summer of ’09 and summer ’10 and they’d rave about how, “You’re Yanks defend like banshees don’t they! In my mind they’ve proven they can beat anybody after that performance against Spain!” Yeah it’s true, they do defend like banshees at times, and when they do they’ve shown they can beat anybody. But in your conversation with said European you probably failed to mention the string of early goals on bonehead defensive mistakes that plagued the national team all the way through CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and for the better part of two years. It’s cool, I might have purposefully left that out too; they’ll correct that stupid mix-up crap before the World Cup right?! Oh how wrong we were. Serial atrocious defensive play might as well be the identity I was looking for in the section above.

And please spare me from the pitfall that even I succumb to from time to time, defending the great defensive work the boys put in for 85% of each match/tournament/whatever. Fans of my favorite Premier League side, West Ham United (we’re a sad group) have the same arguments about young center back James Tomkins. James is essentially a big, skilled, defender who is up for almost any challenge and has good aerial skills. The only problem is in every game young James starts an opposing striker is guaran-damn-teed  to get a one-on-one run out opportunity against keeper Robert Green (and isn’t this too poor a fate for a goaltender who’s been so charitable to our beloved national team). Sad as it is, James Tomkins is an English microcosm of the prevailing American defensive problem. It’s not a superb turn by a world class striker that does Tomkins in, it’s losing his man while day dreaming about bangers and mash or Peter Crouch’s girlfriend. Same goes for the Yanks D early in games, although I’d at least hope it’s thoughts of Philly cheese steaks and Andy Roddick’s wife putting our boys to sleep.

Player Comfort Level

There’s a danger of this particular variety in any sport where a coach occupies the same post for a long period of time. The guys know the coach, and he knows he can count on those players. Bobbo’s already shown he’s not immune to playing favorites to an extent with “his guys.” Notice how Jonathan Bornstein, whose “happy Bob is back” by the way, kept getting chance after chance, seemingly with full confidence from the coach, after putting in crap performance after crap performance? The dude did a job for Bradley at Chivas USA, and that goes a long way with a coach.

Now let’s think about the plucky bunch of Americans who laid it all on the line in South Africa, forcing soccer indifferent American sports fans to fall in love with them for a week or two this summer. Given their performances in the past couple years, do you think some of those players might occupy a special place in Bradley’s heart and in his future starting lineups? Does Bruce Arena love Pablo Mastroeni? Did Nate Dogg and Warren G have to regulate?

Past performances matter, but there’s a lot to be said for how a player performs when he’s forced to raise his game to make it into the team. When Jimmy Johnson took over the Miami Dolphins in 1996 he concluded a bad practice by telling his new charges that only Dan Marino, the greatest passer of all time, and rookie linebacker/special teams standout Larry Izzo had locked up their spots on his final roster. A new coach can light a fire under his players asses with a statement like that; incumbent elect Bob Bradley would have trouble doing so to say the least.

Stoic Bob: Master of Coach Speak

My final con isn’t a con for the team, but it sure does bug fans and media types like myself. Bradley is far from entertaining on the sideline, he’s like the anti-Maradona. He doesn’t even do cocaine! I know, it’s a shame. Statue of a gaunt, bald guy periodically coming to life to cross and uncross his arms on the sidelines for the greatest country in the world.

But most fans can take the silent treatment out of their coach/manager while the game is going on, it’s the press conference setting where Bradley really kills it. Talk about speaking without saying anything at all. Bob is a master of coach speak, and we’ve had to accept that he tenaciously guards every single piece of information, from his feelings on personnel to his favorite Taco Bell menu item. In all fairness though, Bobbo did start to show a little emotion and let some of his personality slip through the cracks in the lead up to and during the World Cup. So is he turning over a new leaf? Fat chance. You take what you can get.

For Yanks fans, what you get is Bob Bradley.

Jon Levy is a senior writer and the Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at or you can find him on Twitter at TYAC_Jon.

Jon Levy

  • Amy

    Have to side with Jon on this one you guys.

    I think tactical superiority is necessary. I am tired of hearing about our lower-grade talent– obviously it’s good enough to win sometimes. What we need is a tactician who can get more out of it than Bradley does. Mid-level talent is not the argument against a tactical upgrade, it’s the reason for it. Anyone who watches college football gets this point– it’s why Cal can win even though our players aren’t as good– Jeff Tedford is smart and tactically a better coach most Saturdays. Same rules should apply to the USMNT.

    Good columns by both of you.

  • Jon

    Thanks Amy. Jeff Tedford’s a pretty underrated coach by the way. He’d probably have made the jump to a bigger program if he didn’t like living in close proximity to you so much.

  • Pingback: Bringing Bradley Back Carries Great Risks, Little Reward « Scissors Kick()

  • daniel

    what i don’t get about our “identity” as defense-counter-boot & runners is that that tactic takes more individual skill than a possession game. if you can make quick two-touches in the midfield all you need is guys who know how to get in position. playing counter and long ball requires killer first touch, hold up ability, enormous speed and strength, and ball handling which are all areas that i think we agree the US traditionally lacks. whenever i see our guys just making nice triangulated passes in the middle i instantly forget that maybe donovan can’t pull moves like ronaldo or that jozy isn’t going to run a maze through traffic like tevez.

  • Jon

    outstanding point daniel, and one that I should have articulated more thoroughly in the post itself. i always think about the glory days of dynamo kiev when they ripped up europe with far from world class talent due to their downright mathematical tactical system of strictly programmed ball and player movement. i’m not saying our boys should mimic that exactly, but something akin to it would be a whole lot better than the boot and chase crap that we resort to all too often