Posted by: mdegeorge | July 29, 2011

A fond farewell in the ironic departure of Bob Bradley

A quiet night on the soccer front – though clearly not in any other sport – hardly seems the appropriate time to be bidding farewell to Bob Bradley as the national team head coach. With a developmental friendly that’s sure not to feature any of the big European names, or most of the big names stateside, just over a week away, it seems odd that this balmy night be the first the U.S. National Team has had in about a half decade without the Princeton product as coach.

Bradley’s somewhat ill-timed departure is a bittersweet occasion; gratitude must be sent the way of the manager piloting the Red, White and Blue ship through arguably its most heavily scrutinized era, a time during which the team has firmly ascended into the consciences of American sports fans and conversations of soccer powers the world over. But it also comes with the unpleasant revelation that the nostalgia must be swallowed in the best interests of the program.

Bob Bradley, an unfortunate casualty as the U.S. Men's National Team Coach. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The team Bradley inherited in 2006 was no doubt a nation in trouble. His predecessor, Bruce Arena, had likewise run his course with the squad after being at the helm through two World Cup cycles. Despite rising to No. 4 in the FIFA World Rankings and the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, the team was disastrous in 2006, finishing at the foot of the group with one of the worst showings of the 32 teams involved. The tactical demands of his growing team had gotten beyond Arena’s control, and everything he dialed up seemed to go wrong in an admittedly difficult group.

Bradley took over at a unique time. He faced the prospect of having one of the most talented generations in American soccer history – the one led by Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan – continue to underachieve and have its lofty potential go unfulfilled. Bradley also had to contend with a new wrinkle: The management of a diverse body of talent playing overseas. No longer was the job merely selecting the best of the MLS and those couple stars based overseas. He had the task of keeping tabs and interest alive in players in Mexico, those in the unusual season that MLS plays and the calendar of the major European leagues, with representatives stretching from Spain to Sweden.

What he did was tie these listless, loose ends into a coherent program. The pool of applicants for selection for each match is larger than it has ever been. The developmental system, under the lead of Claudio Reyna, one of those players who provided such a selection conundrum for Arena that ultimately led to his ouster, is churning out products that will soon populate the European ranks at a consistent rate. The program is as healthy as it has ever been.

That realization only makes coming to terms with Bradley’s departure more difficult. Like any manager overseeing a transitional era, Bradley was done in by the expectations his success created. With players sprinkled through the European leagues and competition in MLS as high as it ever has been, the results needed to follow.

And they didn’t. Suddenly, losing in the final of the Gold Cup wasn’t satisfactory. Nor was the round of 16 at a World Cup. Or a drubbing in a friendly by a team like Spain. Nevermind that these were deemed accomplishments under previous regimes, that surmounting the challenge presented by Trinidad and Tobago was acceptable or that the Stars and Stripes should consider themselves lucky that the European champs deign to play them. When Bradley pilots a team that’s a halfway to a win over Brazil in the world championship before the world championship, the emphasis isn’t on the first half in which his team dominated and cultivated a lead, but in the second half in which it was unable to sustain the momentum.

Part of Bradley’s departure may be the perception of his accomplishments, yes. The numbers are surprising: Bradley’s record with the US in four and a half years is an unimpressive 43-25-12. But factor in that a number of those games were either friendlies in which the “A” team was purposely challenged or matches featuring developmental sides and young talent. Perhaps more indicative is this stat: Of the five competitive tournaments in which Bradley’s teams entered, he reached the final in four (the 2007, 2009 and 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cups and 2009 Confederations Cup).

The same stat that attests to Bradley’s accomplishments also illustrates why the change was so necessary. The only tournament in which he failed to make the final was the one for which this whole national team business was conjured up, the 2010 World Cup, which saw a disappointing round of 16 exit to Ghana. Three of those four tournament finals resulted in losses, the most recent Gold Cup defeat to Mexico, again after squandering a two-goal first half lead in an eerily similar manner as their not-quite-enough summer trip to South Africa two years prior against Brazil, appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A portion of the blame is also in how they won. It was never comfortable with this team; anyone who sweated it out against Slovenia, who can still close their eyes and see Donovan streaking down the field against Algeria, who can envision Benny Feilhaber’s wonderstrike to down Mexico in 2007 knows that.

There’s no doubt the tactics under Bradley stagnated. In many ways here, again, he was hamstrung by his own success. Options are a great thing, but they also breed a right and a wrong. When there was only option, the choices were easy and the consequences belonged to the players, the program, the system. Bradley was unique in that there were decisions to be made just about everywhere on the pitch to where that 18th player on the bench or 23rd member of a traveling squad remained a vital selection.

As Bradley closed his reign, his team selection became too predictable as I’ve lamented before. Too many players in his squad were untouchable – Donovan, Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, son Michael Bradley – all were virtual guarantees. They may have appeared so on paper, and still do in many ways, but failing to deliver results needed to have consequences that weren’t being felt.

Bradley fell into the same trap that is inherent in human nature: If ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What he struggled to realize is that the perception of “broke” evolved. “Broke” had become losing to Panama, under any circumstances. “Broke” was waiting 91 minutes to stamp superiority on Algeria. “Broke” is a 2-0 deficit to Slovenia (SLOVENIA!!).

Bradley’s hard work and impressive achievements have transformed this program from one grateful to get out of its World Cup group to one for whom it’s quarterfinals or bust. A Gold Cup finals appearance is no longer outstanding; it’s compulsory, as is a statement to the rivals from the south just who the dominant team on the continent is.

The inability to finish is one of the reasons Sunil Gulati and USA Soccer felt a change was needed now. It’s been a gargantuan accomplishment to drag the United States to this level. They are no doubt on the precipice of making great things happen, and it’s no longer a mark of insanity or blinded fandom to think they could win a World Cup in the very near future.

But Bradley wasn’t the one that was going to bring them there. And the program he created meant that anyone not able to take that next step would have to sacrificed.

Bradley has had the guiding hand in the maturation of a national team program capable of winning a World Cup. His legacy, as much as the close calls, will be the generation of talented young players like Timmy Chandler, Altdiore, Juan Agudelo and countless others that have a strong framework of veterans on which to lean.

But what’s best for the program is a pair of fresh eyes. The pieces are there, but they warrant a bit of rearranging. Whether that is accomplished by a person with American soccer experience but the attacking sensibilities of his homeland in Jurgen Klinsmann, the temperate attacking mentality someone used to high-pressure situations of Louis Van Gaal, the defensively-sound, offense-infused tactics of Carlo Ancelotti or someone else remains to be seen.

What Bradley can take solace in when he watches his former team play out what is little more than a summer formality in a dozen days against their Gold Cup conquerors is that those names would laugh five years ago at the offer of such a position. He can watch the foundations of a team he built and know that his dismissal is a product of their success.

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