[USA CONFIDENTIAL] The decision to jettison Bob Bradley as national team head coach comes at a critical juncture for U.S. Soccer. The dilemma of whether to fire a head coach came up in November, 1997, when I stepped into the lobby of a Providence, R.I. hotel that was housing the U.S. national team.
Two veteran players who shall not be named motioned me over and with lowered voices said, “Do you think Steve [Sampson] should be fired?”
This enquiry came with the Americans already qualified and the final Hexagonal game against El Salvador pending. A rift between Coach Sampson and captain John Harkes would occur months later, and just two weeks prior the U.S. had carved out an historic 0-0 tie against Mexico at Azteca Stadium despite playing with 10 men for most of the match.
Yet the players felt enough concern to raise the ultimate question, to which I responded, more rhetorically than pragmatically, “I’d say yes in a heartbeat if you can tell me who can make things better.”
Whereupon they looked at each other and one of them said, “We were thinking the same thing. Making a change this late might upset the camp.”
National teams have changed head coaches much closer to the World Cup than the seven-month period of this situation, to varying results. As subsequent events showed, there remained plenty of time for the U.S. team to self-destruct, and we’ll never know if a change would have rectified the problems, or magnified them.
We do know that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has chosen this as the right time for a change by dismissing Coach Bob Bradley after a meeting Thursday at Home Depot Center. The decision ends a 4 1/2-year tenure that produced some unprecedented successes for the national team along with disappointments. It also comes with the federation mired in a rut of bad outcomes.
“I think there’s a sense that a malaise has set in, not necessarily just with the national team, but with the federation in general,” said former national team defender and ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas. “If you look back over the last year or so, you see a lot of opportunities missed: not getting past Ghana last summer, the failure to get the  World Cup, the flame-outs of the U-17s and U-20s, even the Women’s World Cup.
“Obviously, most of those things are not Bob Bradley’s fault. But Sunil is a very smart guy, and I think he sees this is the right time for a change, and not because we’ve heard a lot of about change these past few years or change for change’s sake, but he does see the need to change direction. I also don’t think he’d do this if he didn’t have somebody lined up.”
In the U.S. Soccer press release that announced the decision, there was a mention that the federation would be releasing more information Friday. Not clear is whether that means a new head coach will be named, an especially pressing concern since the U.S. has scheduled a match against Mexico in Philadelphia Aug. 10.
The two names mentioned most often are former German international and national team coach Juergen Klinsmann and former Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez. Klinsmann, a resident of Southern California, discussed the job with Gulati after the 2006 World Cup and again last year; a close ally of Benitez, Paco de Miguel, helped youth technical director Claudio Reyna present the new U.S. Soccer coaching curriculum in April. Benitez has also been unemployed since being fired by Inter Milan last December.
No matter if a foreign coach is chosen, or one of several domestic possibilities, the federation is at a most critical juncture.
BRADLEY, PRO AND CON. Rather than churn over every personnel decision and tactical tweak made by Bradley since he took the job in January, 2007, a quick rundown of his highs and lows:
Bradley guided the U.S. to a Gold Cup title in 2007, second place in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and to top spot in the Hexagonal qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. Last summer, the U.S. won its World Cup group for the first time by tying England and Slovenia and beating Algeria, 1-0, on a last-second goal by Landon Donovan. In the round of 16, the U.S. lost to Ghana, 2-1, in overtime.
Bradley’s decision to start Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley against Ghana were deemed in some circles to be costly errors and emblematic of systemic problems of player selection. Jonathan Bornstein's insertion into the Gold Cup final to replace an injured Steve Cherundolo blew up.
Few coaches escape such criticism, but the team’s tendency to leak early goals, labor through stodgy periods against foes deemed to be weak, and play a pedestrian game didn’t sit well. Nor did suspicions that Bradley gave far more playing time to his son, Michael, than was warranted, which stems in part from a perceived preference for rugged, rigid, robotic players rather than those more technical and creative.
NEPOTISM. Most of Michael Bradley’s performances for the national team have ranged from steady to spectacular, yet every misstep triggered fierce criticism, which intensified when he slid straight back into the starting lineup for the Gold Cup despite riding the bench since January for Aston Villa, which had taken him on loan from Borussia Moenchengladbach. Even so, no U.S. player has played more first-division club matches outside of MLS than has Bradley for Hereenven, Moenchengladbach, and Villa. He’s not the fluent, fluid playmaker fans may pine for, yet his teammates back him.
“It’s second nature,” says Carlos Bocanegra of the young Bradley’s regular inclusion, which also applies to Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Cherundolo, Tim Howard, and Bocanegra in normal conditions. “Michael’s a part of the team not because of the father-son relationship. He’s earned his time here. He’s earned his place and he does quite well for us. That’s about all it comes down to. I can’t really say more than that.”
It must be pointed out that Bob Bradley drafted Bocanegra out of UCLA and nine months later he was MLS Rookie of the Year. At the end of his MLS contract in 2003, Bocanegra jumped to Europe, where he has played ever since. Bocanegra, the U.S. team captain as well, would be expected to back up his coach, yet the defender is also one of many players whose development and progress was, in part, masterminded by Bradley both at the club and national-team level.
TIMING. The decision to dismiss Bradley probably came shortly after the Gold Cup, in which the U.S. lost a group game for the first time – to Panama, which it later defeated in the semifinals – and in the final took a 2-0 lead against Mexico before collapsing, 4-2. Michael Bradley’s wedding, the Women’s World Cup, and MLS All-Star Game may have caused the delay, and/or Gulati may have needed that time to nail down a replacement.
The U.S. looked embarrassingly short on skill against Mexico, which in the wake of its Gold Cup triumph hosted and won the U-17 world championships. Last spring, as the U.S. U-20 team faltered, Mexico qualified for the U-20 World Cup that starts this week. Bypassing the U.S. at each level spread panic amongst the soccer community.
Though the U.S. has a rematch with Mexico looming, and friendlies against Costa Rica and Belgium in early September, there won’t be any World Cup qualifiers until next year. A replacement will have plenty of time to get familiar with the vast scope and quirky cubbyholes of U.S. Soccer and the American game in general, and begin the process of change, whatever that entails.
The disappointing performance of the U-17s and the U-20 team's failure to qualify for the world championships has renewed cries for an overhaul of player development, which the federation has already started with its Development Academy, among other programs. Reyna has stated his intent to devise a style of play that all U.S. national teams at all levels will utilize, but not everyone believes that is feasible.
In recent seasons, along with expansion, MLS has decreed that its teams must field academy programs at youth levels, and this year has also revived its Reserve Division. Only recently has MLS generated the revenues and resources -- and devised workable procedures -- to put any real muscle into player development.
In most nations, national team coaches do not develop players, per se: they pick them from the clubs, and meld them – hopefully – into a successful team. The U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla., at which U-17 players are housed year-round, is an exception, not the rule, though similar programs have been implemented in a few countries.
“I’m not one of those people who insist on a style from the U-17s to the U-20s all the way up to the senior team,” says Garth Lagerwey, general manger of Real Salt Lake, which has an ambitious and well-funded academy program. “What there has to be, however, is a commonality of what you want those players to look like and the kind of players to pick from.
“It’s a lot easier to develop a style if you have a lot of good players, and I think that’s the starting point we have to strive for.”