No frills, no thrills, from Banality Bob

The only difference between the recent performances of Bob Bradley's USA against Poland and Switzerland, and the display against England yesterday, was that the USA won the first two games. Yesterday it lost, thereby exposing the truth that all three games featured a side that is virtually devoid of attacking ideas.

A side that, evidently, sinks from sort-of-OKish to definite mediocrity when Landon Donovan doesn't play. At Wembley, the lineup said that Josh Wolff was playing up front. Throughout the first half the poor guy was invisible, no service at all. TV commentator JP Dellacamera suggested, at the 15 minute mark, that Eddie Johnson -- supposedly Wolff's attacking partner -- had just had his first touch of the ball.

Looked at from England's point of view, goalkeeper David James had as easy a 45 minutes as he'll ever have, having to make only one even slightly difficult grab.

I kept some stats on passes going astray and so on -- they're pretty bad, but really you don't need to see stats to know that this was a dull, dreary, deeply unsatisfactory performance. Logically -- given the gaping hole where the attack should have been, given the fact that this was an away game at (hushed pause) ... Wembley -- one might put the U.S. deficiencies down to their choosing to play defensively.

But that was not the case. This was not a defensively oriented formation, nor was there any evidence of a defensive mentality. Anyway, that's not the way Bradley's team play. This was a team that was quite keen to move the ball forward, to commit players from midfield.

Simply, none of them was good enough. Certainly not Michael Bradley or Ricardo Clark, too busily involved in fouling and charging about, not Clint Dempsey suddenly looking rather average, not DaMarcus Beasley who never came to life. At the heart of the defense, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra engaged in a prolonged and powerful display of athletic clumsiness that may, possibly, have featured an accurate clearing pass -- if it did, I missed it.

Indeed, looking for players who played up to their own, never mind international, standards, one is left only with the outside backs, Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce.

I have not seen Bob Bradley's postgame remarks -- I've deliberately avoided them. I don't see what he can say by way of excuse for this performance. A chance to blood new players? That won't wash -- the starting 11 were all veterans. Bringing on Maurice Edu at the 78th minute and Nate Jaqua at the 89th is almost insulting, and makes a mockery of any suggestion that Bradley wanted to get a good look at them.

No, this was not the greatest game in the world -- a shame for the 1,000 or so U.S. fans who turned up to watch. It was thoroughly disjointed, with little flow to the play -- and it was displeasingly littered with fouls -- a total of 42, with England having 23 of them.

This is where we are with Bob Bradley. His team -- without ever playing anything that resembles flowing, or pleasing, or even accomplished, soccer -- can beat Poland and Switzerland in Europe, but can barely muster a decent attacking move against England. Such form will be perfectly adequate to carry the USA into the 2010 world cup, because the Concacaf qualifiers are a joke as far as the USA is concerned. But beyond that, there is little to praise.

Bob Bradley is skilled at producing workmanlike teams. But they play banal soccer -- if we didn't know that previously (those of us who suffered through his years at the MetroStars sure as hell did) we do now. Pedestrian soccer rules, and Banality Bob is saved, on occasions, only by the flair and brilliance of Donovan.

As long as Donovan is around, there is hope of something more rewarding than Bocanegra's crunching fouls or Michael Bradley's late tackles. The question that needs answering is why -- at this late stage in the Great American Soccer Boom -- the hopes for skilled, international-level play rest so heavily on one player. Is there an obvious replacement for Donovan waiting to take over? I don't know of one -- yet there should, by now, be three of four such candidates.

The essential, and ironic, point about Banality Bob's style of play is that it is highly unlikely to respond to his oft-repeated lament, "It's gotta be better, guys." The tactics won't get any better, and the physical commitment of the players can't be raised much. The skill level, also, is pretty good -- if you limit the horizon to basics.

But if you include, among the skills, all the artistry and creativity, soccer savvy and smooth trickery that characterize the better teams, then the USA -- without Donovan -- is nowhere.

An unhappy state of affairs that is certainly not Bradley's fault -- well not entirely. Because he and his generation of coaches are responsible for the players we have now -- they set the patterns, recruited the kids, gave out the instructions. Now, the underperforming chickens are coming home to roost, and Banality Bob has no option but to make the best of things and thank his lucky stars for Landon Donovan.

9 comments about "No frills, no thrills, from Banality Bob".
  1. Richard Stevenson, May 29, 2008 at 7:40 a.m.

    I am afraid you are spot-on, Mr. Gardner. The US performance (if you can even call it that) was simply embarrassing. To a man, the US was simply not good enough. Perhaps that is the state of US soccer...just not good enough (yet?).

  2. , May 29, 2008 at 8:35 a.m.

    Agreed on all points, Mr. Gardner. Embarrassing may be too weak a word. Thinking that Josh Wolff could put any pressure on the Chelsea/ManU allstars is at best delusional. Freddy did seem to provide a modicum of creativity, although it was far too little, too late - could someone, please, tell Bob that he gets more than 3 subs in a friendly - Capello certainly knew it.. All in all, Bob's coaching job could have been performed by any E licensed youth coach in America. Unimaginative, Predictable, yes Banal, really just ridiculous.

    We are better than this! When will it show on the pitch?

    Finally, was Beasley actually aiming for the wall? Is there some unwritten rule out there that says only Bradenton grads get to serve balls? Just maddening!

  3. Thomas Denigris, May 29, 2008 at 9:32 a.m.

    Once again, Paul Gardner hits the back of the net. Unbelievable. Josh Wolff starting up top. What, Eric Wynalda and Joe-Max Moore weren' available.

  4. Philippe Fontanelli, May 29, 2008 at 10:23 a.m.

    I have been reading articles from Paul Gardner way back in the late sixties when he was writing for "World Soccer" and I always found him an analytical virtuoso of the "beautiful game"
    So it is not a surprise that his comments on US performance, sadly but accurate.
    The problem with the US team is the coach. Bradley is a third rate coach. He didn't fare well with MLS teams (Metro Stars, Chivas) so why on earth was he designated the MT coach?
    Just look at Mexico sacking a non performing coach, that fact most of the tops clubs in Europe doing likewise. We need a top foreign coach w/o nepotism and there are plenty available.
    But back to the game vs England, Bob Bradley was watching an other game, because why did he waited such a long time to replace the Wolff. He should have been replaced at half time.
    Clark, Beasley should have been replaced the same time.
    Why did Beasley took all the free kicks? They were all wasted. Didn't B.Bradley seen the ineffectiveness of the free kicks? I don't even want to talk about the young Bradley's performance.
    Adu while results but he has stirred up some waves. Old war horse Lewis, although I think he is way past his prime and usefulness he was better????
    Yes Adu and Edu should have been used earlier if not at the lineup. Where were Orozco, Kljestan, Mastroeni, Altidore, R. Rogers, K. Cooper and scores of thers.
    We must get rid of Bradley.........

  5. Kent James, May 29, 2008 at 11:42 a.m.

    Gardner's analysis is "spot on." Wolf worked hard but was very ineffective. I was shocked at how easily Johnson was physically man-handled (though he did better in the 2nd half). I thought Lewis, Hejduk and Adu added some spark. We also gave the ball away much to often. Clearly we were dominated. Earlier subs would have helped. Though I've come to believe his is a good player, I thought Michael Bradley had a very poor game (and he needs to stop making late tackles! He was very lucky not to be booked early...). I do think the team is better than it played. We'll find out in the next two games.

  6. Stuart d. Warner, May 29, 2008 at noon

    We witnessed vanilla soccer by a group of veteran, solid soccer players, without the flair, skill, or speed to make a dent on international soccer at its best. Mr. Fontanelli has it just right--where were Altidore, Roberts, Cooper, Orozco, Kljestan, Adu and Edu (I hereby christen them the "Du" brothers) earlier. The United States team posed no threat to score, and so it was just a matter of time before Beckham took advantage of a silly foul. And I would add one more thing: MLS seems to be doing Beckham a world of good, because he looked great.

  7. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, May 29, 2008 at 1:37 p.m.

    100% right on.

    The 'we want to look at players' line of crap is a lie. It was all re-treads.

    Adu and Edu should have started. Altidore should have been called in. Orozco should have been given a real look because he is faster and more athletic than Boca or Gooch could ever hope to be.

    They also need to stop being so scare to call in younger players. The U-20 team could whip the senior team. My only hope is that Stefan Jerome, Charles Renken and Mykell Bates will continue their impressive development and be ready for 2010 (they will all be over 18 and that is plenty old enough to get tossed in to the fire over most of the 'players' we have now)
    I mean, other than Altidore, who is really good enough to keep Stefan Jerome out of the line up with anything approaching real justification? NO ONE. (unless Robbie Rogers keeps up his form and brings it to the Nats)

  8. Jim Stoeppler, May 29, 2008 at 2:31 p.m.

    Come on folks...settle down.

    Let me say that I haven't seen yesterday's game yet, but after following the play-by-play online, I have no doubt that Mr. Gardner and everyone else on this post have accurately reported on what happened...we were simply outclassed.

    That said, let's not be so quick to point fingers at Coach Bradley. He is paid to win games, and while he lost yesterday, he's compiled a pretty admirable record in his short tenure thus far. I agree with all of you that it would be great to see the US play a more beautiful, free-flowing game, but you have to play the hand you're dealt. And right now, the problem isn't at the MNT level, it's at the youth level.

    As a lifelong player and fan, and more recently a competitive club coach, I can tell you unequivocally that our youth player development system is seriously broken. When parents shell out hundreds, even thousands of dollars to get their son or daughter on a team, they expect or, put even more accurately, demand results. They think their 9-old should be winning every game he plays so he can get that college scholarship they're dreaming of. As a result, everyone in the system from coach to trainer to player is under pressure to deliver results. And unfortunately, this is exactly what stifles and even suffocates the creativity, vision and brilliance we all want to watch when these 9 year olds turn 18. By then it's too late.

    I first saw Charles Renken play when he was about 10 years old. He was playing for a small club in Southern Illinois, and he was playing two years up on a team with his older brother. He was absolutely, hands down the best player on the field that day, but I'm convinced a big reason why was that he was ALLOWED to be just that. There were no parents or coaches screaming at him to run here or run there, pass the ball, shoot it, etc. They were simply content to sit back and watch his brilliance, knowing that when the situation warranted it, he would be more than happy to do exactly what was called for. I haven't seen him play since he left for Bradenton, but I hope he's been able to nurture and enhance his creativity, his skills and his passion for the game.

    And I guess I'm in the minority here, but how can you seriously talk about the brilliance of Donovan and the necessity of Altidore being on the field? Don't get me wrong, they're both very good players, but they're not the creative maestros you make them out to be. Donovan has blinding speed, and Altidore has incredible strength, tenacity and courage. But even if you throw out the obvious unfair comparisons to guys like Ronaldo, Messi and Pato, they still are behind speedsters like Ribery and horses like Rooney.

    At the end of the day, we're only going to be as good as we let our kids be. Quit yelling at them to do this and do that. Let them play. Unencumbered and free of the burden of adult expectations. They'll figure it out. And, we'll all be happier with the level of play they deliver when they're on the grandest stage.

  9. Frank Cebul, May 30, 2008 at 11:53 p.m.

    Very insightful and well-written. I could not be in more close agreement with Mr. Gardner's point of view and I share his disgust for the play that is becoming the US brand of soccer. The USMNT clearly does not inhabit one of the top echelons in the soccer world.

    I agree with the basic points mentioned by Mr Stoeppler, but I think his analysis of the problem with the men's team falls a little short. After all, competitive,boorish American parents do not treat their sons any differently than their daughters yet the USWNT has not had any difficulty finding players who can create attacking play and find their forwards (with the exception of the last world cup in China). The fact that the WNT has regained its attacking, prolific goal scoring style with the recent coaching change suggests that the problem on the men's side is with the coaching at the upper levels, not at the age 9-16 level.

    Quite frankly, the USMNT is frustratingly boring to watch. I much prefer the style of play of the English and German national teams.

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