By Paul Gardner
Coming up, four more years of Bob Bradley. One thing is fairly certain -- they won’t exactly be exciting years. Bradley seems to think they will be -- “I’m very, very excited to continue in the role as the head coach of the United States” is what he has to say about it.
But whatever excitement he feels is unlikely to get through to the rest of the country. One of the reasons for that is Bradley himself. Yesterday he had a press conference during which he could have said some exciting things, or described some new exciting things that he will be doing with the team, but he didn’t.
He was in fact, as boring as ever. Same old Banality Bob. This is quite remarkable, for he’s had plenty of time to do something about that side of his image -- something he admitted, four years ago, that probably needed attention -- yet nothing has changed.
Should you be in any doubt about that, you can get the full flavor of Bob’s banality by taking a look at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website (see URL below*) where you will find a whole selection of Bradley’s “answers” to various questions raised at the press conference. I say “answers” because Bradley rarely answers a question, he simply takes it and slowly nibbles it to death with a series of increasingly tangential statements.
That, actually, may well be some sort of skill, to deflect tricky questions from the press. Maybe -- because in fact none of the questions Bradley was asked was in any way difficult or tricky.
If excitement was in the air -- and it damn well should have been -- Bradley could have let us in on some of it, told us who he saw as coming stars, projected some targets, even reminded us of a hectic moment or two from the World Cup ... hell, even cracked a joke or two.
But Bob doesn’t do humor, doesn’t do any of that. What he does do is reel off brain-numbing statements so turgid that they fall straight to the floor with a dead, dull thud. Like this one -- in reply to what he might be thinking of doing to avoid the possibility of “staleness” during his second term:
“When you continue to assess where we are with the work we’ve done, with our staff, with the environment that we’ve created, we rely a great deal on getting a sense from players, where they are with things, so we’ll continue in that regard because that’s the work necessary to continue to be successful.”
The thought itself -- basically, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing -- is pretty flat, but could there be a duller way of expressing it?
There was some humor -- completely unintentional -- when Bradley professed to take seriously the idea that he was wanted by both Fulham and Aston Villa of the EPL. He can still keep a straight face about that, even though we now know that one of Aston Villa’s first stipulations was that any candidate must have had EPL experience.
Bradley, no doubt, means what he says. He’s satisfied with what was accomplished over the past four years, and will therefore keep plugging away with the same philosophy -- and quite a few of the same players. When he was asked about bringing in new players, or better players, we got, “We will continue to bring good, young players into the team”.
The questioner, the estimable Grahame Jones of the Los Angeles Times, tried again, asking how different the 2014 team might be from this year’s team, but Bradley stonewalled with what is really his mantra for all press questions, “I think it’s hard to give a very specific answer …”
Bradley is satisfied, then -- and so, apparently, is federation president Sunil Gulati. They have a point. Things have moved forward, the USA has had some good results (notably in the 2009 Confederations Cup), and the 2010 World Cup performance was not so bad. Maybe that sort of minimal progress was good enough for the past four years.
But should we be satisfied with that approach for the next four years? I think not. And I don’t think it will take four years because I think Bradley will have to win next year’s Concacaf Gold Cup to retain Gulati’s backing.
The USA needs to move into a higher gear, and Bradley shows no sign of wanting to do that. Asked by Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla to define his vision of the future, Bradley -- of course -- utterly failed to do so, losing himself in a miasma of tedious details, and coming to the grand conclusion that “It’s in all of these ways that we look very hard at what we’re all about, and continue to try to build our team with the qualities that we think American players have.”
Hardly inspiring talk, and just not good enough. Bradley’s idea of what “American players” have is not universally shared -- mostly because his idea of the “American player” is so narrowly based. Can we expect to see Landon Donovan continue as the key player? I would hope so. Can we expect to see Michael Bradley as a perpetual member of the team, immune to substitution? Probably -- but that is something that needs to be questioned. If the USA -- I mean Bob Bradley and Gulati -- want to “move forward,” then building a team around a player of Bradley’s limited talents is not the way to go.
Michael Bradley is a typical, traditional, American player. The type of player that has served us comparatively well over the past two decades. But there are better players on the verge of breaking through. Better because more skilled on the ball and with a much fuller soccer vocabulary at their command. Most of them are, or will be, Latino players, because that is the way they play -- they are stylistically different. Their talents are needed if the USA is to avoid stagnation.
At one point in his press conference, Bradley did flirt with reality. He brought up the USA’s recent exhibition game with Brazil -- a 2-0 loss that could easily have been a 5-0 rout. A fiasco, with Bradley’s team looking slow, inept and heavy-footed against a new, frisky young Brazilian squad. A warning for Bradley, one that he acknowledged with, “That game served as a good reminder to all of us that to get to that level will take improvement in all areas.”
It will. But it will also take a basic rethink of who the “American player” is. No longer the workhorse midfielder. We can do better than that. And if we are not as advanced as we could be with those sort of players, it is partly because Bradley, for four years, has not been receptive to them.
* U.S. Soccer's transcripts of the Bob Bradley contract-extension press conference HERE.