By Paul Gardner
Over 77,000 fans to watch a soccer game. In the USA! And this was not a competitive game, merely a USA vs. Brazil exhibition game.
That was the situation Tuesday night in the splendid New Meadowlands Stadium. From the strictly soccer point of view, a glimpse of the announced rosters made it clear that we were, by and large, getting a U.S. team made up mostly of the players who were in South Africa, whereas the Brazilians were taking the opposite route, and bringing in a majority of new young players.
So, from the U.S. point of view this looked like a chance for U.S. fans to pay homage to a team that had done pretty well, certainly not disgraced itself, in South Africa.
Things started off brightly enough for the Americans. For the first 15 minutes it looked as though the USA was going to show the young Brazilians just who was who in this very American venue.
Then, almost suddenly, the character of the game changed . The Brazilians took over -- and remained in charge until the end. As the game went on their dominance became clearer and clearer. The final 2-0 scoreline in their favor was hardly a reflection of their superiority. They could have scored three or four more goals, having, in the second half, hit the post twice, and forced goalkeeper Brad Guzan into a couple of excellent saves.
The extent of their superiority can hardly be questioned. But what was definitely puzzling was the ease with which they obtained that mastery. This was a totally unexpected turn of events, with the USA simply fading away and producing less and less of any soccer consequence as the game went on.
Rarely have I seen a U.S. national team play with such an evident lack of commitment. When I look for reasons that might have led to a team-wide depression, I can find none. But I can find a bunch of reasons why the players should have been on a high. One of them was stressed by Bob Bradley himself, referring to the excitement of playing against Brazil. This was an experience for his players to look forward to. Yes, that makes sense -- especially as there was, in this game, the scent of victory because of the inexperienced team that Brazil was fielding.
And that was on top of the knowledge that this was a homecoming, a welcome back attended by thankful fans. Did we see the American players going off to the edges of the field to greet the fans, to wave, to throw kisses? No, there seemed to be no celebratory spirit at all here.
Things were flat from almost from the outset. This takes some explaining. I suppose an obvious suspect in this curious case of apathy, would be the equivocal position of Bob Bradley.
Are his players upset by not knowing whether he will still be in position by the time the next game comes around? Is he himself so distracted with working out his future -- which includes suggestions that he might get an offer to coach in the English Premier League, at Aston Villa -- that he is losing contact with, and authority over, the team?
I’m not concerned here with the team’s playing tactics. I’ve never found Bradley’s tactics anything other than straightforward. And for this game, how complicated did they need to be? No, what seemed to be missing from this team was motivation.
That is the indisputably coach’s responsibility. I have always thought that Bradley does a good job in that area. In which case, what went wrong here?
Let me repeat my position on Bradley’s tenure. I feel he should be retained, for probably a year at least -- but with the clear understanding that he starts to renovate and diversify his team. I can’t see him being part of any long-term plans, because he has never shown any evidence that he understands that the long-term, even medium-term plans of American soccer must include a greater acceptance of the Latin elements that are now so important in the game in this country. Bradley has, after all, not done a bad job. He has had some excellent results -- but with the limited player pool that suits his knowledge and experience of the game.
But none of that counts for much if -- simply because of the way that circumstances have played out -- he now finds himself in a hopelessly lame-duck situation. If we’ve reached a stage where the players need, even subconsciously, to know that the coach is the coach and likely to remain so, if his authority or ability to command respect, has been fatally compromised, then Sunil Gulati has to quickly inject certainty into the situation, either by confirming Bradley or axing him.
Similarly, my preference for retaining him for a limited period contains the obvious weakness that it also tells everyone -- not least Bradley himself -- that his future lies elsewhere.
I’m hoping that Tuesday night’s performance was an aberration. It would have to be that, an inexplicable hiccup, because the excuses offered by Bradley and his players -- the field, the heat, the travel -- are depressingly feeble. They all apply equally to Brazil, so it needs reemphasizing that this was a gala homecoming party for the USA.
Yes, Bradley did try out a couple of youngsters, Omar Gonzalez and Alejandro Bedoya -- and they were certainly not the worst players on the field. But for the Brazilians, we saw the 20-year-old Paulo Henrique Ganso and teenager Neymar looking so confident, so skilled, so in charge - - that the contrast with the Americans was quite devastating.
As for the argument that the Americans were not really fit or ready because they are with European clubs whose season has not yet started -- well, seven of the Brazilian starters also play in Europe.
This was not an evening that the American players, or Bob Bradley, will remember with any feeling of pride. The night the USA failed to turn up to its own party.