To the doubters who thought US Soccer would go quietly into the night again after the buzz of the vuvuzela faded slowly into the realm of summer memory and the calendar flipped to autumn, Monday’s announcement by the US Soccer Federation that Bob Bradley had been signed to a four year extension as coach of the US Men’s National Team surely provided a swift retort. If Twitter and Facebook are a measure for the pulse of an event’s impact and weight on society in general, and in the world of sport and politics they surely are, the Bradley extension, which trended nationwide, was proof that even in the infancy of a new World Cup cycle the Yanks are well-followed and highly newsworthy. Given that the United States is on hiatus during this international break, the decision to keep the New Jersey native on for a second cycle was the only news in town too. With no friendly to focus on, writers, bloggers and fans alike could all fixate on Federation director Sunil Gulati’s long-awaited coaching decision, and fixate they did. As this Shin Guardian poll and subsequent article indicates, Gulati’s choice to not “break up” with Bradley was polarizing, and the general public sentiment trended negative.
A survey of the negative responses to Bradley’s extension itself proved polarizing—ranging from despair, perhaps best explained by the short text I got from TYAC co-founder and tactical guru, and generally all-around smart guy Raf Crowley “Fuck and Shit. It’s just depressing. Four years of mediocrity”, to reasoned skepticism— this tweet from @GCSSoundersBlog “Only need to look at history of managers kept for two cycles…Arena for instance.” Somewhere in the middle of these responses was a reasonable lament that the United States had opted for caution rather than ambition, that despite positive results, the United States needed fresh ideas and a culture change, that they could have done more with the 2010 group, and rehiring Bob is a signal that “satisfying expectations” is enough. While the despair is a bit overwrought and unnecessary, many of the negative responses asked fair questions, to be sure. In fact, TYAC’s co-founder Jon Levy will address many of these issues, and why he comes out on the “We should move on side” in a piece directly following this one.
A handful of writers and fans, however, viewed the extension in a positive light. They saw Bradley as not only the “safe, responsible” choice, as I have written he is/was before, but as the proper choice, as the right man to carry the United States forward. While they clearly did so at the risk of public consternation, colleague shunning, angry e-mails or ad hom attacks nearly as ridiculous as suggesting Entourage and its cardboard characters with little depth and even less original storylines is still a good television series because the cameos are excellent. Where I come out on all of this shouldn’t be a mystery, particularly to anyone who read the piece I wrote above. I have a few reservations, but all-in-all I think the Bradley extension was not only the safe, responsible decision for US Soccer—it was the correct choice, the results-as-barometer choice and, wait for it…the best coach available.
Here are three reasons why I choose to believe in Bob (image courtesy of Match Fit USA).
ONE: Al Davis, that senile old man, is right. “Just win baby.” It’s about results. Bradley has gourds of them.
If you were Rip Van Sam’s Army Winkle and you went to sleep in July 2006, after the United States humbling World Cup experience in Germany, and you woke up Monday night, imagine learning the following from your pal Yankee Doodle Outlaw:
“Rip!! Can’t believe you slept that long buddy. Told you to lay off the Nyquil. Big Q will getcha’ every time. Guess what!! The United States hired their manager for the 2014 World Cup cycle today. Do you want to know about him?”
(Yawns) “Sure. Hopefully he’ll give me a reason to stay awake this time.”
“Oh he will. He’s got experience, and he’s a winner. Won his continental championship in his first tournament to qualify for the Confederations Cup. Took a side that had never been to an international final before to the Finals of that tournament too. Beat the eventual World Champions. Yeah—by the way—you slept through Spain finally winning something. And not just winning something. They won bloody near everything…the Euro, the World Cup… except the Confederations Cup, because they lost to this manager’s team.”
“Wow. Impressive. Tell me more. And get me some coffee. Add some Bailey’s. I’m feeling lethargic.”
“Well, he won his region’s qualifying tournament too. His side had only done that one time, so that’s pretty impressive. He lost only one competitive match on home soil, and that was with a “C Team”. Then he went to the World Cup, and he guided his side to a group victory, something his nation hadn’t ever done either. And England was in the group!”
Forget for a moment this is the United States were talking about, and the unbridled joy that would accompany learning about his country’s accomplishments. View these credentials in a vacuum. Consider that only one of the group-winning coaches from the 2010 World Cup lost his job without volunteering to stop (Brazil’s Dunga). Do that, and you’re lying to yourself if you don’t think Rip, or any other person on the fritz for a few years, wouldn’t be thrilled.
If you aren’t lying to yourself, or you are trying to justify why you aren’t lying to yourself, spew the “company line.” Look at the results, Neil. How fortunate was Bob Bradley to attain those results? Maybe he was. But the United States isn’t Brazil, not when we’re talking the Beautiful Game. What matters are competitive wins and competitive losses, and Bradley’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Style points are irrelevant. I’ll expand on this for a moment, just to bolster the point.
The argument that comes the closest to being compelling in this vein of “Bob’s wrong for the US” self-justification goes like this: “But Neil, the US was very fortunate to qualify for elimination play at the Confederations Cup. It took a miracle in a tournament where they went 1-2-0, and were embarrassed twice. They were very fortunate to win their group, as you rarely do with five points in your pocket. Of those five points, the United States was very fortunate to leave group play with more than two points. It took a miracle goal and a goalkeeping error for the history books to get four of those points.”
Okay, fair enough. But if you get to play revisionist history to criticize the extension of Bradley’s contract, so do I. The U.S. was unlucky not to be at least 1-1-1 in Confederations Cup group play. The red card in the Italy game wasn’t really a professional foul worthy of red, and the U.S. led the game 1-0 for an hour. Don’t blame the U.S. for Brazil’s pummeling of Italy at that tournament either—the Italians knew they needed a point and were taken to school. The Americans did what they needed to do. Not compelling? Fine. Try this. The Green gaffe happened and was somewhat predictable, given the history of English goalkeepers at the World Cup. It took a brilliant save by Green, one of the best saves of the tournament, quite frankly, to keep Jozy Altidore out of the net and prevent three American points on June 12. A bad call a few days later against Slovenia prevented three from an epic comeback. A bad call on a Dempsey goal against Algeria is the only reason Donovan’s stoppage time goal was a miracle. So the United States was a break here or there away from nine points at the World Cup.
Point being, revisionist discussions cut both ways. In the end, all you have is results, and Bradley delivers.
TWO: Bob Bradley was the second-choice. Again. He’ll be motivated. Arena wasn’t. He’s also the best choice. This matters, and helps deal with the “Second Cycle Curse”.
The people’s champion, Jurgen Klinsmann, is perfectly capable of outlining a blueprint for US success on television, but his results are mixed as a manager. Semifinals on home soil in Germany, 2006. Right on. A much less talented Korean side pulled that trick in 2002. His only other gig—abject failure with Bayern Munich. Fired because a team in a Champions League final a year later was, under his leadership, about to miss the tournament altogether. And this is who USMNT fans are drooling over? Sounds more like “change for the sake of change” to me than a genuine upgrade.
Sometimes, change for the sake of change can be good, and rewarding. For example, if you’re girlfriend or man-friend is perfectly nice and you’re comfortable, but you aren’t overwhelmed, and you’re ready for something different—then change for the sake of change is an okay thing. But soccer isn’t such a situation, and even if it is for some teams, it isn’t for a federation only sixteen or so years removed from the Dark Ages in terms of player talent and international relevance. Bradley has a better track record, or at least an equitable one, to Klinsmann, and he’s the best coach available. That’s why you hire him.
A word on motivation, because the argument will be made that the United States won’t be motivated for 2014 without fresh ideas and new blood, and this is a decent claim that demands a response. For the second straight cycle, Bradley appears to have been choice number two. Klinsmann met with US Soccer officials a day or two before Bradley was offered his extension. He seems to be Gulati’s dream man, except Gulati, once again, doesn’t seem prepared to give Klinsmann the type of control he seems to be demanding to take the reins. Gulati likes retaining influence, and with his top choice not moving on that question, he turns his sad and lonely eyes to Bob.
Bradley appears fine with this, at least externally. Hell, maybe Bob is really ignorant and just doesn’t realize he’s the second choice guy. Or maybe he’s too prideful to believe he is. I don’t think that’s the case. I think he’s a work-hard, blue collar, tough as nails New Jersey kind of a guy and he’s deeply motivated by being choice two. I don’t think Bruce Arena was nearly as motivated when he signed on for a second term in 2002. I think Arena’s lack of fire, despite his status as a legendary motivator, was costly to the Americans. I don’t think that will be a problem this time around.
Motivation matters too, because it helps create a buffer against the favorite “Don’t rehire Bradley argument”, which of course is the dreaded Second Cycle Curse. The most common examples cited in this argument are, and should be, Bruce Arena, Marcelo Lippi, and Raymond Domenech. Here’s one thing not mentioned much with the latter two, however. They weren’t particularly good teams to begin with!! Italy was old. The Confederations Cup proved that. They had young players in the pipeline but Lippi stuck with his old guard, and it cost him and country dearly. He also failed to bring some key men who had delivered before. Domenech was in the same boat, but his talent pool was a bit more diverse. His problems were mostly his astrological-reliant squad selection, which somehow left young talents like Karim Benzema out. How he kept his job after the EURO 08 shambles is also a mystery—and decimated team chemistry before the tournament in South Africa even began. This leaves only Arena, unless you count two quarterfinals appearances by Sven-Goran Eriksson with England a failure (and if you do, well, what’s Fabio Capello?).
Point being there are rational ways to explain the second-cycle failures, and they don’t all have to apply to a detail-oriented, meticulous leader like Bob Bradley. His players love him, they play hard for him, and not that it should matter, but it’s worth noting his best young player is his son, and although MB 90 has weathered his old man being canned before (with the New York Red Bulls)—it would have been fascinating to see how long it took a maturing hothead to get over his Dad getting the axe after becoming the first US manager in the modern era to win a World Cup group.
I also think Gulati, even if he desired Klinsmann, on some level didn’t really view Bradley as a clear number two this time. He saw the positives in Bradley’s experience, in his knowledge of the American player pool, in his no-nonsense approach that bores the media death, and most of all, in his awareness of the pitfalls of CONCACAF qualifying. Bradley’s seen the black holes that are Central American fixtures. He’s seen the Saprissas and Aztecas and shoddy pitches in El Salvador and Honduras, and he’s navigated them safely to qualifying-group victory, even if the results haven’t always been positive.
That type of thing, I think, matters to Gulati, who sees a dream hire in Klinsmann with the caveat that his dream hire is a) less experienced; b) like the rest of the world, has no idea how difficult road fixtures in CONCACAF can be; c) guarantees a media circus that U.S. Soccer has never seen before and might not be prepared for, simply because of who he is as a former player and name and d) costs more money. While the money problem can probably be solved with a few less international friendlies, the other issues are genuine reasons that you don’t shy away from a qualifying-winner and a World Cup group winner.
THREE: A Four Year Extension doesn’t necessarily mean four more years ya’ll. The U.S. can make a change if one becomes necessary.
There will be a follow-up piece to this article, as I mentioned above, that takes the opposite view. It will argue there are several reasons it is time for the United States to move forward and past TrackSuit McSweatpants. My piece takes issue specifically with the notion that we somehow need to move on now. The bottom line is there is plenty of time in a four-year cycle to make a change if one becomes necessary.
This point is important because even the most avid Bradley supporter admits there are things Bradley needs to do better. The penchant for the United States sleepwalking through the beginning of games and falling behind most be corrected, and done so immediately. Raf Crowley on this site and many others have made compelling suggestions that tactics need to be overhauled or at least addressed, and it is without question true that Bradley would be well-served by being more flexible tactically.
I think, however, that Bradley is capable of making the difficult choices that lie ahead, and of adaptation. One laughable criticism of Bradley that has gained momentum lately is the notion that he relies too heavily on certain players, and that he doesn’t often use new blood. Usually, this argument is made out of frustration regarding players like Jon Bornstein or Robbie Findley, and the (true) genuine need for the Americans to find answers on the back line and at striker. Here’s the thing about those arguments: they are true to some extent, but not necessarily a reflection of reality or Bob Bradley’s fault.
Bradley has capped more players than any manager in US history. On some level that is due to the development of players in the States and a wider player pool to choose from, but at the same time Bradley brought Maurice Edu, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, Jose Torres and Sacha Kljestan into the fold this cycle among others. Even in the last friendly, he showed similar awareness, capping promising LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez. He has, in a word, given opportunities to a wide berth of players in an effort to seek out what works and what can help. There’s no reason to think he’ll stop doing so.
As to answers on the back line and striker, some of that is a reflection of the administrative and technical changes US Soccer must make more than it is a reflection of Bradley. The bottom line is Bradley’s main concern is senior team results, and it is mostly up to other figures in the federation to accelerate development and help identify new talent. MLS Academies are beginning to help develop players, and the appointment of Claudio Reyna as technical director is a good start. There are four years for these questions to be answered.
Finally, if it doesn’t work—the US can make a change mid-cycle or even later. Mexico’s World Cup was by no means a great success, but it was good enough for the second round after Javier Aguirre took the reins in the middle of the final round of qualifying, and that’s not bad considering when he took over there might not have been a World Cup for El Tri. Other nations made similar late changes with varying degrees of success.
If the U.S. flounders, Gulati will certainly be able to make the change. Perhaps he will even be able to bring in Klinsmann, who in a way is the US Men’s National Team’s version of the “Dark Knight”. Klinsmann may be the hero the USMNT deserves, but he’s not the one the USMNT needs right now. That would be the less-Two-Face more Commissioner Gordon success that is, and I think will continue to be, Bob Bradley.
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 you can find him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.