Bradley suffering from mistaken identity

Oh no, not Bob Bradley again!

That’s what scores of U.S. men’s national team fans were saying upon hearing the news that Bradley had his contract as United States head coach extended for another four years on Monday.

Not Bradley! Not the coach who “failed” at the World Cup. Not the coach who “cost” the United States a chance at World Cup semifinal glory. Not the coach “holding back” the progress U.S. Soccer should be making.

Yes, Bradley. Yes, the coach who helped his team win a World Cup group nobody gave the United States a chance of winning. Yes, that same coach who led the United States to the final of its first international tournament (the 2009 Confederations Cup). The same coach who helped snap Spain’s 35-match winning streak and gave Switzerland the game plan it used to knock off the eventual World Cup champions in the World Cup opener (Spain’s only two losses in the past four years).

So which one is it? Is Bradley’s re-hiring a smart move or utter failure? Why do some respect him so much, while so many fans hate him and dread another four years with him in charge?

It’s pretty simple. You see, the biggest problem Bradley detractors have is not with his lineup decisions in the World Cup (yes, there were some questionable ones), or even with his inability to find a reliable international striker (not that there are any in the U.S. pool at the moment). No, the biggest problem some have with Bradley now is the same problem many of the same critics had four years ago.

Bradley isn’t Juergen Klinsmann.

He isn’t a big-named European with either a long coaching resume or storied playing career. Many U.S. fans fell in love with the idea of Klinsmann as coach four years ago when he engaged in serious discussions about the position. When those talks fell through, and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati hired Bradley, it led to Bradley carrying the label of second choice and it led to unrealistic expectations being placed on him by skeptics waiting for him to fail.

The thing is Bradley never did fail. The team has had its hurdles and hiccups, but Bradley’s U.S. team has flourished during the last four years, always showing heart and delivering some of the most memorable results in national team history. He took a team going through a serious transition after the 2006 World Cup (following the retirements of Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope) and helped mold a new squad that enjoyed two unforgettable summers in South Africa over the past two years.

None of that seems to matter though because, just as was the case four years ago, Bradley isn’t Klinsmann.

There is this notion that Klinsmann could magically transform the U.S. program if given the chance. It is a notion born four years ago, after Klinsmann’s successful turn as Germany’s head coach. He took a country that reached the World Cup final four years earlier and led it to a third-place finish in a World Cup it was hosting. And four years later, without Klinsmann? Germany finished in third place again, with a new generation of talent steered by Joachim Loew, Klinsmann’s former assistant and the man many believe was the real tactician of the two.

The reality is that Klinsmann is no Guus Hiddink, a truly established coach who has a history of taking teams to a new level, but in the eyes of some U.S. fans (and many of Bradley’s biggest critics), Klinsmann would be Hiddink-like if he took over the United States. Never mind the fact that Klinsmann failed at the only coaching job he’s had since the Germany job, a forgettable stint with Bayern Munich.

Could Klinsmann succeed as U.S. head coach? It’s entirely possible, but the belief that he is some can’t-miss candidate that U.S. Soccer is crazy to pass on simply isn’t based in anything real. There is just as much of a chance that Klinsmann would struggle without Loew by his side, and just as much of a chance that he would move on to greener pastures before 2014 if the right European team came calling, or if he simply grew bored with the job.

That’s not something you will ever have to worry about with Bradley, one of the most dedicated and hardest-working coaches you will ever meet. He had his growing pains as U.S. coach, and he made his share of mistakes, but Bradley is an American coach truly proud to have the job and motivated strongly by the desire to see his national team excel.

All that said, can Bradley do the job? Can he improve? Can he take the U.S. national team to the “next level”? You know, that level Klinsmann was guaranteed to reach? A better next four years isn’t guaranteed, but Bradley’s track record as U.S. coach suggests he’s more likely to succeed than fail, and there was evidence at the World Cup that Bradley was actually growing as a coach.

Bradley’s willingness to have his team attack more and his ability to make tough decisions, whether it was benching Oguchi Onyewu, starting Jonathan Bornstein, pulling Ricardo Clark from the Ghana match or making key halftime substitutions in every game, Bradley’s performances on the sideline at the World Cup were far better than he has been given credit for.

That isn’t to suggest he was perfect over the past four years. He faced legitimate criticism for his lineup decisions in the Ghana loss, and rightfully carries some blame as head coach of a team that repeatedly started matches slowly. What matters more now is that he learns from his mistakes and the experiences of the last four year cycle and use that experience to make the next team that much more prepared.

The harsh reality is Bradley must do better over these next four years if he is going to prove Gulati’s decision to be the right one. He must construct a team better equipped to avoid the early-game blunders that have plagued the United States. He must rebuild his defense and he must continue his search for reliable goal-scoring talent. And when 2014 comes, if Bradley is still the head coach, he must learn from the lessons learned in 2010 and use that experience to build a team capable of reaching the levels many believe the U.S. men’s national team can reach.

Why will the United States do better in the next four years under Bradley than it did during the last four years? It can do better because more talent is in the pipeline now and Bradley will have more players to choose from during the next four years. With more Americans heading to Europe to play, and MLS improving its player development set-up, Bradley should have a much stronger pool to build from.

The United States can do better under Bradley. Whether it does get better will be up to Bradley, who will spend yet another four years trying to prove to skeptics that U.S. Soccer made the right decision hiring him instead of Klinsmann. He succeeded in proving it before, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.