With the announcement that Bob Bradley will be given a four-year extension to continue coaching the national team, USA Soccer made an emphatic statement.
Good is good enough. Satisfactory is satisfying. Twelfth place isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
The U.S. Soccer team scored five goals and allowed five goals in its four World Cup games. The Yanks tied England thanks to the goalkeeping howler of the young century, tied Slovenia (pop. 2,054,199), needed extra time to beat Algeria and lost to Ghana.
That’s a 1-1-2 record against four teams with an average national ranking of 21.
U.S strikers’ World Cup goal tally: nil.
Despite being presented a golden opportunity, with only Ghana and Uruguay standing between them and a run to the semifinals, the Yanks couldn’t even match their quarterfinal finish of 2002.
Does the coach of a World Cup team that never led after 90 minutes, displayed wretched defensive discipline and decision-making in chronically surrendering early goals, and was eliminated for the second straight World Cup by Ghana, a country with roughly 300 million fewer people, deserve to keep his job?
This, of course, is the "World Cup half empty" view.
There’s also the "our World Cup runneth over" perspective.
A.) The Yanks won their group in South Africa. B.) They displayed a never-say-die resiliency that saw them repeatedly claw their way to results after digging an early hole. C.) This U.S. soccer team, led by this coach, propelled soccer into the national sports conversation so convincingly that long-time footie haters were converting left and right.
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, chose to take the latter, more charitable view in rewarding Bradley with a four-year contract extension.
In so doing, he virtually guaranteed that the 2014 World Cup will be a colossal disappointment for the U.S.
Like his predecessor Bruce Arena, Bradley has produced results that likely exceed the talent level of the men’s national team, most notably beating Spain to reach the ’09 Confederations Cup final.
And like Arena, two World Cups is probably one too many. After leading the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002, Arena drove them all the way to the No. 4 ranking in the world in April 2006. But it all came crashing down when the Yanks failed to advance out of the Group Stage in Germany.
Will anybody be surprised if the same thing happens under Bradley in Rio De Janeiro?
Not the man on the street. In an informal poll of my hardcore U.S. soccer pals their reaction has ranged from disappointed to bewildered to livid. Not one “Huzzah!” in the bunch.
When the AP story announcing the extension went up on this site reaction in the comments section was uniformly negative, sometimes insightfully so, sometimes profanely, but altogether negative nonetheless.
It seems obvious to those U.S. soccer fans who have grown up following the beautiful game that if America wants to join the handful of countries for whom anything less than winning the World Cup is a disappointment, the U.S. needs to hire a coach from one of those countries.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann. The German soccer legend, former coach of Der Mannschaft, and longtime So Cal resident turned down the job four years ago, reportedly because he was denied the total control he was seeking.
Apparently those issues still could not be resolved as Klinsmann and Gulati met last week. Exit Jurgen Klinsmann. Again.
At least Klinsmann understands that unless you’re satisfied with 12th place (the U.S.’s final ranking in South Africa) major changes are needed. The task at hand is nothing less than creating a socioeconomic sea change in soccer in the States.
During the World Cup, Klinsmann pointed out that while soccer is a working class and poor kid sport everywhere else it’s played, it’s a mid-to-upper class sport in America.
On a 50-50 ball between a guy who is using soccer to claw his way out of poverty and a guy whose dad is a partner in the firm, who are you picking? (This is actually one of Bradley’s great achievements: his U.S. soccer team never played like pampered rich kids.)
Still, one look at the U.S. roster and there is this gnawing feeling that there must be poor kids falling through the cracks and not being properly developed.
Klinsmann seemed to at least understand there was a problem. His remedies obviously did not move Gulati, who, in retaining Bradley, is endorsing the status quo.
Perhaps Gulati is thinking, Hey, if the Brits can extend Fabio Capello after England’s World Cup flameout, surely Bradley deserved another shot too.
But there is a difference. The coach of the English national team does not have to figure out a way to get the best athletes in the country to play soccer. They already do.
The U.S. coach needs to address — or one would hope he’d be interested in addressing — a systemic dilemma.
Perhaps Klinsmann, a legendary striker who scored 238 career goals for clubs like Inter, Tottenham and Bayern Munich, could have at least addressed the U.S. striker crisis.
Seriously, where are the strikers? Since Brian McBride scored for the U.S. in the round of 16 in 2002 the Yanks have played eight World Cup games without a goal from a forward.
Going back to Italy’s own goal against the U.S. in 2006, the other team has put the ball in the back of its own net more often than America’s strikers have in the last two World Cups.
Jozy Altidore gave a gutsy effort in South Africa (paired with the interchangeably invisible Robbie Findley, Hercules Gomez and Edson Buddle), but Altidore’s goal-scoring limitations had already been revealed by his one-goal season for Hull in the English Premier League.
So to sum up: under Bradley the U.S. defense has been consistently leaky and the U.S. strikers have been consistently impotent.
This leaves only the midfield, where Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Bradley’s son Michael have carried the team on their backs. Not only did those three players score all five of the U.S. goals in South Africa, they were the only American players that never looked overwhelmed by the stage.
Why? Could it be they all played in Europe for European coaches?
What might happen if the rest of the U.S. roster was exposed to coaches like David Moyes, Roy Hodgson and Michael Frontzeck? Or Jurgen Klinsmann?
Thanks to Gulati’s insistence on rewarding very-goodness instead of seeking greatness, it will be a long while before we find out.
After Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic took the overmatched ’94 U.S. team to the Knockout Stage — one of four countries he’s led that far — he was dubbed the “Miracle Worker” by Alan Rothenberg, then president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Bob Bradley is clearly a worker. Miracles? Not so much.