As muddled as the USMNT’s precarious leftback situation is as steadfast Bob Bradley is to his soccer values.
For the Manhattan Beach, CA resident, the path to South Africa is one that has been undeniably a success, if only by the digits in the won-loss category. The results though have also come with a fair amount of vigorous debate, scrutiny and trepidation on “the how.”
Jumping into the cockpit on an interim basis in December of 2006, most thought Bradley a stopgap measure until the USSF, with the sour residue of a domestic coach’s blundering plight in Germany fresh in it’s memory, hired a European coach with brand equity to erase that 2006 tournament and polish up some luster on the USMNT shield.
It wasn’t to be.
Popular names, like Jürgen Klinsmann, ran the headlines, but just five months later Bradley’s interim tag was removed. With the permanent title came a stamp of approval by the United States’ 2007 Gold Cup victory where a central field pairing of Benny Feilhaber and the coach’s son Michael Bradley teased a vision of future senior game dominance.
The next nearly two years were filled with up and downs and very uneven play, but always challenging games against the world’s best, England, Spain, and Argentina to name a few.
This column isn’t a debate about the merits of Bob Bradley as a coach.
We’ve said two things before that mute the far-reaching chants of “Fire Bob Bradley:” 1) Bob Bradley has gotten “there”–his team finished first in its group in World Cup qualification. It’s not Bob Bradley’s “fault” that the competition might be suboptimal to the highest levels and 2) We’re 50 days from the dance. Asking if Bob Bradley should be “extended” or “fired” would be a stupid exercise.
A better exercise is to discuss Bradleys strengths and weaknesses and what results they more portend at the World Cup.
TSG is going to give Bob a rating on the TSG Bill Jeffrey scale; the coach who brought down England all those years back. As a note, you may see the same characteristic or attribute on both the positive and negative side of the equation, this is by design.
We’ll go with positives, negatives and then our take (and then of course yours):
Let’s dig in.
Focus on in-form players for play and evaluation
Perhaps Bruce Arena’s biggest downfall during preparation for 2006, has been Bob Bradley’s strongest focus.
Coach USA, f0r the most part, has been nearly maniacal about testing players when they are in-form to see their abilities. Most recent example? Trotting out Jose Francisco Torres in the central midfield against the Netherlands.
While Bradley diverged from Arena, he’s in step with Fabio Capello who practices the same discipline. The discipline has allowed Capello to avoid the reliance on a player like Michael Owen while also preparing in case Rio Ferdinand is out of action.
For Coach Bob, he’s deviated a bit–Oguchi Onyewu against Honduras–but he also spared Clint Dempsey against Costa Rica after he was ruled out against Honduras which leads us to….
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 8
It’s not cliche to suggest that Bob Bradley has brought the USMNT together. In the few observations that TSG has behind-the-scenes, it is clear that the players get along with one another and pull for one another. That may not be true at all time, but it clearly isn’t a case where the parts are stronger than the whole.
Some meager examples from our insight:
• At the January camp practices that TSG attended, there was very frequently both jovial ribbing and constant audible encouragement. There was veterans talking to rookies. The team all arrived together….in minivans. (There is a commercial for Dodge in there somewhere…no?)
• Twitter tells us the players overseas visit and hang-out with one another with Charlie Davies recently visiting Stu in Manchester. Stu cites that he visits with Timmy and Landon–during Landon’s time there–at Everton. Donovan choose Everton because of Tim Howard’s counsel.
Contrast this to that Harkes v. Wynalda thing or even the number one goalie undercurrent going into 2006 qualifying.
Oh, and the team all loves playing for him.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 9
Again, another practice and play observation here…and frankly sometimes the USMNT (Rico Clark and Mike Jr in particular) get to over zealous in being intense on the field.
From our practice observations, Bradley is consistently barking out instructions and demanding the effort and execution in return at practice.
This is an important facet of the team to point out as there is really no vocal outfield leader (Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan, even Clint Dempsey) who visibly and consistently emotes that enlivened instruction on the field. Timmy does, but he can be far from the action on occasion.
Bob is measured, but forceful and it appears the right mix for this group. This is in stark contrast to Bruce Arena’s lead-up to 2006 where Brian Ching told TSG that the players were too comfortable with their roles and didn’t prepare the best.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 7
Finding a way to win with injuries and without bullpen:
It’s no secret that the United States is not plentiful on world class superstars. The States possess three at this juncture: Howard, Donovan and Dempsey. That’s it.
In critical qualifying and preparation games, Bradley has had to fight with a slightly dull knife yet Bradley’s team has been in all of the key ones. Let’s look at the four most recent ones: August in Mexico, October in Honduras, October at RFK against Costa Rica, March in Holland.
Mexico? Nearly a full squad, except for that pesky H1N1 that Landon had and the lack of fitness at the time by Jozy Altidore.
Honduras? Clint Dempsey and a out-of-form Oguchi Onyewu.
RFK? Charlie Davies and Clint Dempsey
Holland? Davies, Dempsey, Ricardo Clark, Gooch to name a few.
The USMNT is not Spain, a single injury is not trivial
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 7
“To be the best, you have to play the best:”
As we mentioned above, the USMNT, much to the approval of most its fans, has got out the measuring stick against the world’s elite: England, Argentina, Brazil, Spain (twice), Italy. The USMNT has also had a host of games against some more World Cup-bound teams in Denmark, Honduras, Mexico and, even South Africa.
What you can say is that Bob Bradley has qualified AND has measured players: (Pearce against Defoe, Bornstein against Messi, Fabiano against DeMerit, Torres against Boca, etc.). That’s a huge positive.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 9
Cultivating a defensive style of play and sticking to it.
An interesting comment emerged this past weekend, when Manchester United defeated Manchester City in their derby. Commentators applauded Manchester United’s attention to defense in a game where it was clear to see that the Red Devils didn’t have the offensive horses.
Now why doesn’t Bob Bradley and his team get afforded this same praise? As the commentary du jour is about the lack of striking power and the debate around two players–Buddle and Gomez–who should be considered a mere 50 days before the World Cup.
Juxtapose those past two paragraphs. Is it any wonder that Bradley with a world class keeper and a rather stout central backline employs a bend-don’t-break defense and a ping-pong-the-ball mentality to drive the attack?
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 7.5 (I still pine for a fit Jermaine Jones as the lone destroyer and more possession in the midfield)
Sticking with players
TSG called for a reality check on a listless Clint Dempsey this year. Our readers have called for Jonathan Bornstein to be Fed Ex’ed to the middle of nowhere come June.
Jose Francisco Torres on most publications has been a victim of dedication to Ricardo Clark and Sacha Kljestan among others.
That said, it’s extremely difficult to play your best if you’re always on trial–or as I like to call Heath Pearce syndrome. Further, the team nature of soccer and the forced chemistry that is necessary to come together and win can create bad games for players who can’t assimilate quickly (see: Demspey, Jozy in Bratislava).
Sticking with players has allowed Bob Bradley to develop chemistry over time and understand what displays when in-form and when not. This is good if qualification is not at risk…as it is not now.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 7.5
Now some of the Negatives…
Failure to make appropriate in-game tactical changes.
Probably Bob Bradley’s biggest and most glaring shortcoming is his tendency to “prolong the plan” too long and a refusal to introduce new tactics or players to alter the game.
Now, fans might have seen a change from this by Coach USA in the Netherlands where Bradley abandoned Robbie Findley up top, moved Landon Donovan to the center and inserted Alejandro Bedoya into the spot abandoned by Lando. The immediate result? Width to the field, space for Jozy Altidore resulting in smelling salts for the US offense.
However, as we’re prone to say on TSG, “You can’t look at one observation in isolation, you need to look at the entire body of work.”
And for Coach Sweatpants in this regards, it’s not the prettiest sight.
Some examples, in a friendly and in a final, of Bob’s stubbornness or lack of creativity:
• January’s friendly against Honduras: Coming out with four midfielders three of which demand possession and none of which take the ball to the corner all that well; and coming out with two strikers that inhabit the same space and move in the same way.
At one point, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan actually bumped into one another going for the ball. With the intro of Conor Casey in the 2nd half and more wing threats in Bedoya and Davis the US finally found some offense and possession.
• Brazil, Confederation Cup: The USMNT faced an unfortunate moment right after the halftime whistle with Luis Fabiano making a world class strike against Jay DeMerit and Tim Howard. From there the dam busted and the States were under attack. However, it wasn’t until after the second Brazil goal that Bradley introduced Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Bornstein for Benny Feilhaber and Jozy Altidore.
If the US were going to go defensive, it should have happened long before the 74th minute, not afterward to stymie the momentum and change the complexion of the defense that Brazil was having its way with. Introducing Conor Casey against a speedy Brazilian defense was just more lemon juice to the wounds.
For Bradley to succeed in South Africa, he cannot rely on his team’s talent merely overcoming a weaker one as the game progresses. According to FIFA, the USMNT were the highest ranked team out of CONCACAF during qualifcation. The World Cup is not CONCACAF.
Oh, and lest we not mention it, you can file the Michael Bradley’s continued misuse in a tandem CDM role here as well.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 3
An overly cautious approach to discovering and introducing new faces.
I was very cautious with the wording of this bulletpoint. I could have written “an obstinate reliance on the wrong players” or “a failure to introduce new players.”
On the discovery front, I haven’t found too much fault with Bob Bradley’s player selections. (Of course, I am a Bornstein fan.) In the pen of players who I may have extended more frequent invitations to: Eric Lichaj and Mike Grella. Lichaj is certainly a blemish on Bradley’s record while Grella has barely played a lick for Leeds. But it’s still LEEDS!
It’s on the introduction side that I have a bigger qualm. Some of these:
• Attempting to fit DaMarcus Beasley into the leftback role; a colossal failure.
• Failure to get Charlie Davies until an injury to Brian Ching in the summer of 2008.
• Delaying Stu Holden’s introduction to the senior side starting eleven until he had enough camp reps.
If not for injuries, some of these playes–like Jose Francisco Torres–might still be languishing on the bench.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: N/A (a mute point now)
Playing down to the level of competition; failing to close out the game.
This attribute of Bob Bradley’s USMNT team is probably the scariest of all. The USMNT has a good draw to get a result in South Africa. It’s not England that the Yanks need to be concerned with–the oddsmakers have them losing the opener–it’s a Slovakia and especially an Algerian team which the US will be expected to beat.
My biggest fear for Team USA? That they’ll need a result against Algeria, but be dragged into a brawl game and lose some composure. Sure, it’s the players on the field that need to hold order, but it’s Bob Bradley’s management of the team that dictates that this is not an absolute.
In qualifying, this was never more exhibited than in September when positive results against El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago easily could have went the other way.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 2
We’ve said it before. Act as if. Dress as if.
Bill Jeffrey Rating: 1
So what to expect from Bob Bradley and the States over the next three months?
It’s a non-negotiable point that Bob Bradley has thus far achieved the maximum of what he could in World Cup qualifying. The USMNT qualified first in their group.
In hindsight, it’s easy to understand Bradley’s strategy roadmap to getting to this point. 2006 and 2007 were filled with putting him imprint on the team. Bradley did this primarily by playing MLS players that bought into his strategy. Was Chad Barrett really USMNT quality at any point?
As qualifying got tougher and the World Cup closer, Bradley began to shape the team by sticking to an axiom as we mentioned that has been employed by Fabio Capello, relying on players that are fit and consistent starters on their club teams. This is a tougher thing to do with the Yanks than the Three Lions. For example, when Heath Pearce got dropped in Europe, he also vanished from Bradley’s non-Gold Cup squads.
Arriving in South Africa for the 2nd time in three years, Bradley is going to need to be tactically stronger than last time he was there. You could argue that the USMNT’s ability to get to the final game in the Confederation Cup was the result of two near-perfect performances, less the strategy and tactics that may have spawned the results.
What to expect in South Africa in reference to Bob Bradley will depend largely on the form of the players and the team chemistry; two areas where Bradley has excelled. What to fear will be if the excelling in form and teamwork is not enough in itself to put the US in position to advance and the US is forced to make a tactical change against Algeria or in the knockout round. Then we’ll be able to see how the coach, not the team has improved since 2006.