By Paul Gardner
Losing a vital home game is never going to look good. When your opponent comes back from 2-0 down, when it scores four goals and could easily have had more ... well, the coach and the players have to be ready for a blizzard of abuse.
So Bob Bradley and his team are duly being taken to task. I’ve been reading a great deal of the criticism, and I’ve taken a look at the “official” quotes from Bradley and various players that are posted on the USSF’s web site.
It is the tactical explanations, or more accurately, the tactical excuses, that irritate me most. Bradley should have done this or that, why didn’t he do the other, what was he thinking, he should have made this or that move.
As though one or two simple and (to the critic) glaringly obvious moves would have turned that 4-2 defeat into a glorious victory. The immediate problem, of course, is that a lot of the solutions are contradictory. They can’t all be right, then. But it is the alternative -- that they are, all of them, wrong -- that appeals to me.
I believe they are all wrong -- not because the tactical reasoning they contain may be faulty (some of it is quite clever) -- but because they are irrelevant. I do not believe that shifting a few players around, or altering the “formation,” or making “better” use of substitutions, or having to find a way to cope with an unexpected injury contain the key to explaining this woeful result.
Take that last point. I said “unexpected” injury -- but surely a team has to be prepared for that sort of emergency? It should not collapse because of the absence of one player. Unless, perhaps, the team has no depth at all, and the replacement borders on the disastrous. That was hardly the case here, but we are being asked to believe that with the sudden disappearance of Steve Cherundolo, the rot set in.
That notion is surely disprovable anyway -- the Mexicans were already beginning to cut a formidable swath through the American lines even before Cherundolo (ironically, victim of a collision with one of his own players, the clumsy Jermaine Jones) departed.
Nevertheless, the Cherundolo incident is the strongest of pointers to the real nature of the USA’s problems, because it deals with the quality of the American players.
Not good enough. Bradley’s team was second-best in every department -- including the one area where one can usually guarantee American superiority, goalkeeping. Tim Howard had a stinker -- which of course passed completely unnoticed by our TV analysts who find it impossible ever to criticize anything done or not done by St. Tim.
Elsewhere on the field, among the real soccer positions, the American players, all of them, were out-thought, out-run and, yes, out-muscled by the Mexicans.
Out-muscled? Now that, of all things, should never happen. I mean if we can’t be assured that Americans will always out-hustle their opponents, will always work harder, then the sky must be falling.
In the soccer sense, the sky is falling. It has been threatening to for quite a while. During this past year -- the year during which the re-appointed Bradley was supposed to be giving us something new and revivified (and to be avoiding staleness) we’ve seen the USA utterly humiliated by a young Brazil, embarrassed by Argentina, and swept aside by Spain. There are, if you’re looking for excuses, reasons for all those disturbing results.
But the reasons get more and more threadbare as they pile up. Now we are confronted with a poor Gold Cup, a loss to lowly Panama and a wipeout by Mexico. The alarming reality, then, is that things are not getting better. They are getting worse.
Bradley, quite possibly, is getting the best out of his players -- though, after the Gold Cup final, that is a difficult position to defend -- but is he selecting the best players in the first place? Again, quite possibly he is. We may well be that short of good players.
So the problem starts with a player pool, then, that is simply not good enough? Not quite. It starts with the coaches and the system that allowed an inferior player pool to take shape. It starts with coaches who, even today, see nothing wrong with that player pool, who continue to welcome players into it who are not, and never will be, top players. Players who are being judged by the wrong criteria, even by non-soccer criteria such as size.
Bob Bradley, and his generation -- most of them college coaches -- must take a huge responsibility for the current talent pool. They are the people whose narrow-mindedness has landed us, after around four decades of increasingly sophisticated “youth development” programs, with a talent pool that has not produced a properly functioning national team.
In fact, a talent pool that cannot produce the elite players we need.
The failure of Bradley and his generation of basically college coaches has always been a failure of vision, an inability to take the broader look at the game. Bradley, like so many of his ritually diploma bedecked peers, is obsessed with the details and minutiae of coaching, which he genuinely believes are the keys to ... to what? I should be able to say “to good soccer,” but I’ve seen no evidence to support that notion. What is being sought, I fear, is nothing more complicated than winning games. Winning by coaching, that is.
To hear Bradley go on about the “little things” of coaching (and of playing, it’s not clear to me that Bradley makes any distinction) is to be confronted, head on, with the prosaic nature of his approach, his refusal -- or maybe, inability -- to embrace the bigger picture.
After each of the games mentioned above, Bradley has told us that he and his players have learned certain things (always small things, of course) that can be used “as we move forward.” Well, we’re not moving forward. We’re sliding backward.
It’s an old phrase, but it’s a good one to describe Bradley’s view of soccer: he can’t see the forest for the trees. On Saturday, the forest that is Mexico swept down upon the USA, and like Shakespeare’s advancing Birnam Wood signaling the end for Macbeth, exposed the poverty of Bradley’s “getting the little things right” approach.
Of course the little things are there. But the tendency of modern coaches to exalt them does not, I feel, spring from any genuine belief in their ultimate importance, but rather from a desire to look clever, to pose as sage observers of “little things” that the great unwashed -- you and me, for a start -- are too dim to spot.
Certainly, the little things -- some of them, anyway -- will be important. But they are not to be considered as the ultimate end point. They are the means of attaining that end ... but that end needs to be clearly defined. I have never heard Bradley make that clear definition, or describe how he wants his team to be playing, nor have I ever read anything in which he outlines it. The central document here, I would think, is a 5,000 word interview that Bradley gave to Grant Wahl a couple of years ago.
In it, Bradley has a lot to say in praise of Barcelona, but repeatedly stresses his admiration for what that team does when it loses the ball. Does Bradley want his teams to play like Barcelona? We’re never told. We do learn, though, that virtually all of Bradley’s terms of reference -- whether talking of styles or clubs or players -- are European.
Bradley sees fit to praise Barca for what it does when it does not have the ball (immediately recalling to me the priceless statement of Norway’s coach, Egil Olsen, “We’re the best team in the world -- without the ball” -- and, yes, we were meant to take that seriously). And I can level a damning indictment of Bradley’s view of soccer by looking at what he does not say in the Wahl interview.
In all those 5,000 words, Bradley does not mention Brazil at all. Not a single mention. Argentina gets mentioned once. Latin American soccer is not an area of interest for Bob Bradley, despite his claim that he follows the game “around the world.”
It is this blind spot that I find so damaging to Bradley’s credentials. He has just seen his team made to look utterly amateurish by Mexico -- a Latin team giving us a pretty good display of the Latin game.
This must pose a massive problem for Bradley. Because the fact is that the USA could be playing like Mexico. That Mexican team that shredded the USA last Saturday ... that could be the USA. Simply change their shirts -- because we have a growing abundance of Latin talent in this country that could produce that sort of team, with that sort of style. A style that, in 90 minutes, reduced the pretensions of Bradley and his little details to a nonsense.
It’s also worth noting that Mexico is a young team, with over half the team below the age of 23. I repeat, we have the raw material in this country -- provided it is given the right encouragement and preparation, and always provided that it isn’t snatched away, probably by Mexico, because we don’t seem to appreciate it -- from which to produce bright youngsters of the type that made Mexico such a joy to watch, and such a problem for the U.S. players to cope with.
But we shall never get to exploit that talent with the likes of Bob Bradley in charge. For whatever reason, Bradley does not feel comfortable with the Hispanic style. His half-hearted attempts to introduce a Hispanic or two into his team have not gone well. Of course not, because his heart is clearly not in the process.
While turning a blind eye to Hispanic talent, Bradley will continue to concentrate on the sturdy athletes from his Princeton college days, and the USA will continue to resemble a college team more than a genuine national team. Of all Bradley’s choices and decisions during his five years as head coach, none was more revealing of his inability to shed his college background than his choice of Jesse Marsch as an assistant coach. A post that could have, should have, gone to someone who could add some variety to the coaching staff. Instead, Bradley called in a player from his Princeton days -- one who is on record as declaring that all Brazilian players are divers.
Not good enough. The Bradley route is a dead end, his “little things” approach is a bankrupt policy. In Bradley we have a technician, fascinated by twiddling nobs and adjusting nuts and bolts. We need, at this moment in the development of the American game, something quite different. A coach who can lift his gaze from the nuts and bolts to the horizon where hope and promise glitter. We need something of the visionary, a coach who can grasp the promise that this country presents, and who can make the big decisions to turn that promise into a stylish and flourishing national team.
Expecting any of that from Banality Bob Bradley is asking too much of the man. He cannot do it, and he is therefore not the man to lead American soccer forward.