By Paul Gardner
World Cup time is, obviously, battle-time for national team coaches. A battle that only one out of 32 can win. When the battle is over, the field is strewn with casualties.
Among the 31 losers, will be three or four who are considered to have done well enough, given the circumstances, given their country’s resources, considering what a rotten draw they got, considering how biased the referees were. And so on. But for the vast majority of the coaches, the immediate post-World Cup period involves either resigning or getting fired.
So where does that leave Bob Bradley? His team pulled off some mighty heroics and got -- by my estimation -- at least one round further into the tournament than its soccer qualities merit.
It got a huge stroke of luck early (courtesy of England goalkeeper Robert Green) but from then on it called on a never-say-die spirit and the brilliance of Landon Donovan.
As for that spirit: unquestionably Bradley deserves credit for fostering it, for creating the group that bred that spirit, and that seems to me Bradley’s biggest strength as a coach.
I’ve never thought much of his tactics, which have always seemed banal to me -- hence my nicknaming him Banality Bob. No Bradley team that I have ever seen has excited me, nor has it ever played cohesive, stylish soccer.
In this World Cup, in its crucial opening game against England, the USA played poorly. Undoubtedly the team was tactically prepared by Bradley for this vital game, and the result was an insipid performance and a game that only sheer luck preserved as a tie rather than a loss.
Things were no better against Slovenia ... until the USA found itself two goals down. What price clever tactics now? Bradley made two changes to the lineup at halftime (for which some critics would praise him, though criticism for getting the lineup wrong in the first place seems at least equally fitting), and the USA moved into its swashbuckling mode -- and tied, and damn nearly won, the game.
Even in the game against Algeria -- probably as wide-open a game as you’ll see in this World Cup --it was the sheer gutsiness of late-game heroics that won through.
Against Ghana, Bradley got it wrong again, was forced into a substitution after only 30 minutes, and another at halftime. So we again saw the USA -- playing a much more open, less inhibited, second half -- come back to tie the game. And then we saw Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan score a magnificent winner -- too strong for Carlos Bocanegra, too fast for Jay DeMerit, altogether too much for Tim Howard.
Gyan had simply brushed aside all three of the USA’s prime defenders. None of those three is as good as the hype has it, and the idea that the USA had a strong defense was always a dangerous illusion. Howard, in particular, did absolutely nothing to justify his inflated reputation.
So things move on. Or do they? Because eight years ago, Bruce Arena’s team got to the quarterfinal stage. Not much progress by that yardstick. If anything, American soccer is stuck in a rut. It’s not a totally unsatisfactory rut, because those World Cup results are really not too bad.
But everyone wants them to be better. A way out of the rut has to be found -- which will be difficult, because this rut was created by Arena and Bradley and their cohorts. This rut is their comfort zone, and it is deeply ingrained with the properties and the mentality of suburban youth soccer and college soccer.
Bradley works well within that limited area. Which is why I can see, for the moment, no alternative to him continuing in his job -- even though, in almost any other country that takes its soccer seriously, he would have “stepped down” by now for what would be seen as a clear failure in South Africa.
Sunil Gulati should confirm Bradley -- but with a sharp message to him that he has to introduce more diversity into his team. That it has to become a team that represents the whole nation, certainly the whole soccer nation.
Bradley will need to swallow his pride. As recently as last February he publicly flaunted his aversion to diversity when he added Jesse Marsch to his coaching stuff. A thoroughly unnecessary and irritating -- almost insulting -- appointment.
Gulati has introduced change in the USSF national team system, at the under-17 level, with the appointment of Wilmer Cabrera. Time now to move on, up to the under-20 level, where Thomas Rongen has sat too long, without any indication that he can produce what’s needed in providing diversity for the national team.
The U.S. team returns from South Africa having achieved a probably transitory fame for, basically, failing. Not a healthy situation. Things cannot go on like this. Triumphant failures are not what is wanted. American soccer cannot keep waiting for change to creep up, when it is in a position to accelerate matters.
There is an intriguing parallel here, one that involves South Africa. Fifty years ago, in Cape Town -- in what was then strict-apartheid South Africa -- English Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered his famous “wind of change” speech. The day of the colonies is over, he told the white-supremacist government (who didn’t want to hear the news), black Africa is arising.
A wind of change can be unmistakably felt blowing through the stagnant workings of American soccer. With the current system and personnel in place, we are doomed to perennial promise crowned by early World Cup elimination.
Right now is the time for action to be taken to harness that wind. It is time for Gulati to make a dramatic move, to enforce the process that will see the U.S. national team become truly representative of this country’s soccer talents, and will see it playing skillful, attacking soccer. A fundamental change that will propel the USA to a position that it can occupy -- that of a world soccer power.
Of course it will take time -- at least two more World Cups. If Bradley can accept the change in outlook, then he should stay on for another couple of years. If he cannot, he will be blocking progress, and he should quit.