‘Fire Bob’ easier said than done

US national team head coach Bob Bradley is in the first year of a second four-year contract, but there is already a clamoring among some US fans saying six months into a World Cup cycle is enough to judge Bradley and decide that he simply isn’t the man for the job.

Six months, one tournament, one lost final to archrival Mexico.

It isn’t likely to be enough time to make US Soccer president Sunil Gulati change his mind about the coach he just re-hired last winter. If Gulati re-hired Bradley because he felt Bradley’s first four years were a success, then could he realistically remove him for losing some friendlies and falling to a strong Mexico team in the Gold Cup final?

That’s the real question anybody needs to ask. Do you think Bob Bradley did a good job in his first World Cup cycle? If so, how can six months and one Gold Cup final loss be enough to give him the boot?

Some fans hope so, but ask many of those same fans if Bradley should have been rehired after the 2010 World Cup and you’ll hear many of them say no.

Their real problem with Bob

So is the “Fire Bob Bradley” movement really about losing a Gold Cup final, or is it about a group of fans who never wanted Bradley to be re-hired? There is certainly a section of the US fan base that never wanted Bradley to be hired in the first place, and those same long-time critics are leading a growing number of US fans who want to see a change.

The call does seem louder now, though, and Bradley did give his critics some ammunition. His decision to call up Jonathan Bornstein, insert him in the Gold Cup final, and then not replace even after Bornstein was ripped apart by Mexico’s attack stands out as the most glaring bit of evidence against Bradley.

You could see that as just one game though, but the reality is the US team underwhelmed at this summer’s Gold Cup. Yes, the Americans reached the final as expected, but they didn’t exactly do so in convincing fashion. That, coupled with the dominating fashion with which Mexico destroyed opponents at the Gold Cup, has US fans feeling like something needs to be done.

In reality, is United States hasn’t steamrolled through a Gold Cup in a while. Yes, the loss to Panama in the group stage was the US team’s first group stage loss in Gold Cup history, but did we really forget that it took a penalty shootout to beat Panama in the 2005 Gold Cup final? Or that the Americans were an offside call away from potentially losing to Canada in the 2007 Gold Cup semifinals?

Was the US team’s mediocre showing in the Gold Cup Bob Bradley’s fault, or was it down to an aging team struggling to transition in its new generation at the same time Mexico is shepherding in what could be its most talented generation ever? Was it Bradley’s tactics that led to disappointing results, or does it boil down to a player pool that is lacking in some very key areas? Was the United States’ Gold Cup performance as bad as many came away believing it was, or did Bradley actually get this US team as far as we should have realistically expected it to go?

Let’s just name some random coaches

If you really believe Bradley has to go, the real question becomes who would replace him. You change a manager to make an improvement, not just to make a change, and there is no evidence that top names are lining up to have a crack at the US coaching job. The one name forever linked to the position is Juergen Klinsmann, who had discussions with US Soccer on two separate occasions only to fail to reach an agreement each time.

Klinsmann was definitely a sexy pick. A European coach with a stellar playing resume and the cache that comes with being a big name. He came away from the 2006 World Cup looking like the world’s next coaching superstar, and many Americans were left drooling at the prospect of having him lead the US team. Almost five years later Klinsmann’s coaching resume has added only one failed stint with Bayern Munich and a consultancy position with Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC that only recently has begun to bear fruit.

No, Klinsmann won’t be the man to replace Bradley, especially considering the way he spoke out publicly following the last round of talks with US Soccer. So with the German out of the picture, who is left? Two attractive options come to mind in Guus Hiddink and Marcelo Bielsa, two men with impressive resumes and big reputations. If Gulati could lure a big name like Hiddink or Bielsa, you could understand a desire to make a change. But if he couldn’t attract that caliber of candidate last winter, what would make it easier to find one this summer?

Short of names like Hiddink and Bielsa (above), replacing Bradley with an MLS coach or someone like (gasp) Sven-Goran Eriksson would be pretty pointless. Bradley was the best coach in MLS when he left, and there is no MLS coach at present who could be considered a clear-cut upgrade. Not Sigi Schmid. Not Jason Kreis (though Kreis does have the look of a potential national team manager one day) and not Bruce Arena (who has a better chance of winning Dancing With the Stars than ever being U.S. national team manager again – not that he’d want the job back).

What the growing continent of unhappy fans are going to have to come to grips with is the likelihood that Bradley is going to be around for a while. What all US fans have to hope for is that Bradley keeps growing as a coach and helps transition in some new blood into a team that sorely needs it. He also needs to learn from the mistakes he’s already made in his new cycle.

"Make a list of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’"

What mistakes? His player selection for the Gold Cup left plenty to be desired, and while he deserves plenty of credit for taking a good gamble on Freddy Adu, he must also be criticized for bringing in an out-of-form Jonathan Bornstein at a thin position, while also nearly missing the boat on Alejandro Bedoya, who he inexplicably left off the original Gold Cup roster for Robbie Rogers. Bedoya went on to be one of the biggest surprises on the US team while Rogers never played a minute. You could also point to the forward position, where Bradley deserves credit for calling up and playing young striker Juan Agudelo even though he wasn’t getting minutes with the New York Red Bulls, but you can also question the decision to call in Chris Wondolowski over other forwards like Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle.

But there were some positives in the Gold Cup for Bradley as well. He gave Adu a chance and the midfielder rewarded him with two outstanding performances. He gave Bedoya major minutes, essentially acknowledging his mistake of not calling him in the first place, and Bradley also showed a willingness to shake up his lineup, as evidenced by his decision to bench a tired an ineffective Landon Donovan for two matches. Bradley also implented the 4-2-3-1, which worked well, after initially using a 4-4-2 – all this after once being considered a coach incapable of adapting tactically.

These are signs that Bradley is evolving as a coach, but now he has to get his team to start producing on the field. That means identifying and integrating the defenders and strikers who can help strengthen thin positions, and it means getting his team out of the habit of getting off to slow starts and playing down to weaker competition. Once he takes care of those things, he and the US team can start thinking about one of the most important tasks left to accomplish: which is beating Mexico and re-establishing the United States as the team to beat in CONCACAF.

That might seem like a lot to do, but Bradley’s list of tasks is longer due to the cycle’s slow start. There is always going to be some transition in the first year after a World Cup, but the first six months of Bradley’s second tenure needed to be better. If Gulati stands by Bradley and leaves him in charge, Bradley will need to accomplish these things if he’s going to give US fans a reason to believe in him and the national team again.