Scattered Reflections On “The Bob Thing”

Wow, did you truly see the Bob Bradley train rumbling for another four years through the stadiums of America?

Together again...

A somewhat muted announcement from U.S. Soccer on Monday that Bob Bradley will retain his role as coach of the USMNT for another four years.

The timing of the decision (about two months after the U.S. got bounced from the World Cup), as well as the manner in which it was handled, hardly make it seem like a celebrated partnership.

Was Sunil Gulati unwilling to give Jurgen Klinsmann the control he desired? Did Bob Bradley whiff at a big time opportunity? Hopefully those answers will come out over time.

The fact that the USMNT coaching decision took more than two months–and that Bob Bradley, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, was expecting to be let go less than one week ago–suggests that union was not the first choice of USSF or Bradley, or worse that the selection was a whimsical one or off-the-cuff.

I’ve tried all week to synthesize my thoughts into a coherent column for the TSG audience. Haven’t been able to do it; my apologies there.

As a pseudo-counterpoint to Shaun’s piece on Tuesday, I’ve divvied up my array of thoughts on the Bradley re-christening into as best a format as possible.

Below, I give you some positives, negatives and misconceptions around Coach Bradley as U.S. Soccer lurches into Bradley Round II. At the end, my thoughts on the U.S. sailing under the Bradley flag to Brazil 2014. I admit the column is disjointed and frankly much more about Sunil Gulati’s decision making, but I thought it best to just sprinkle it out in text at this point before the topic and my thoughts went stale.

• Negative:

Second term national team coaches never do better that 2nd time.

The question here is not whether Bob Bradley will be a good 2nd term coach, but why take the risk?

How can Sunil Gulati and USSF be let off on that one?

The question I want asked is not, “What makes you think Bradley will be an anomaly as a 2nd term coach?” Every second term coach that’s chosen obviously has something about them that makes them better than the rule.

No, the question and answer Gulati deserves to give the fans is, “Mr. Gulati, did you investigate other candidates with similar or better credentials, and what prevented their hiring?”

We’ll get to more of Gulati…

• Misconception:

The U.S. needs to play “possession” ball heading towards 2014.

Argh! The arguments that the Bob Bradley has to play “possession” ball going forward infuriate me.

Let’s use the 2010 World Cup as a microcosm.

Did you know that in three of the four World Cup games the States played they out-possessed their opponent? Fact.

Hey US fans, we don't have these guys in Nike grey....

Sure Spain won the World Cup, but the next two runners-up, the Netherlands and Germany got to #2 and #3 respectively by defending voraciously, finishing their chances and managing the ball out of the back. That last one is different from “possession.”

While some–amazingly–suggest that “the Americans moved the marble better than they every did,” the fact is that offensive flow is precisely what the Americans need to improve when they have possession (*cough*Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley ahead of a bewildered Jose Torres against Slovenia). Well, that and finishing which by no means is in Bradley’s control.

In fact, if you had to pick the area where the Yanks needed to improve the most it would likely be the last line of defense in front of what is normally an Atlas-like Yankee keeper making audacious saves.

There the Yanks need to at least get to “above-average” on their last line, so they don’t collapse their offense and have to spray the ball up the pitch when there are no outlets. There’s your “possession” problem right there.

Possession ball? Hogwash, when teams like Spain (Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc) and Argentina (Tevez, Messi, Macherano) have much better parts to do that. You take that option, I’ll go with coil-and-spring.

Can the United States develop offensive flow and improve defensive continuity so as not to undercut that flow under Bradley?

• Positive:

Knowing the talent pool and possibilities

92 players got their first cap under Bradley.
61 players (61!) were used in 2007.
43 players were used during 2010.
Bob Bradley went 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-3-3 again, 4-4-2, and then 4-2-2-2…really.

At different points during qualifying you saw Benny Feilhaber up top in a diamond in a 4-4-2 and then out wide in a 4-3-3.

You saw Landon Donovan used as a striker, a left winger and a right winger.

Hey Chad Barrett, thanks for your help.

You saw Chad Barrett, Chris Rolfe, Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson, Conor Casey, Brian Ching, and Charlies Davies just to name a few who started at the head of the attack.

Bradley has investigated the talent pool. The positive of this is he knows the skill sets of the components. Now, that’s also a negative in that he’s got his own preconceptions.

However with arguably more talent in 2011 to work with than in 2007 that’s probably a good thing, preconceived notions and all.

(More stats and data from the qualifying run.)

• Misconception:

U.S. players are different from others players around the world and thus need a unique type of coaching.

Immensely more than the “possession” argument, this one infuriates me and it’s the adage often cited by Sunil Gulati.

Really, so Americans are different soccer players than others around the world? Well I guess you could say a pinch of that is true for every country.

But a funny thing: take a look at a team, like say, Fulham, who employ: a Frenchman, a Ghanian, an American, an Englishman, a Norwegian (born in America), an Australian, etc., etc.

Somehow all of these players with all of these different backgrounds coalesce to form a team that went to the Europa Cup final last year. Darn near amazing.

No, despite what Gulati wants to peddle, U.S. players are soccer players like any other soccer players in the world. They want to win and each has their own composition of ego and team-first mentality.

McLaren, cast aside by England...

Don’t like that argument? Let me throw out three names for you, Guus Hiddink, José Mourinho or Steve McLaren. The first being a serial international coach who takes one challenge after the next–Hiddink is now coaching Turkey–and always leaves the sides he manages in better shape than they started.

The Special One won with a predominately Portugese and Brazilian side at Porto, a predominantly English side at Chelsea, a predominantly South American side at Inter, and now looks to win with a predominantly Iberian side at Real Madrid.

Or finally, how about the situation of Steve McLaren, run out of England after failing to make Euro 2008 with the Three Lions. Last year, McLaren took a FC Twente side made up of 75% Dutch players to its first Eredivisie title in history. McLaren was named Dutch coach of the year. He’s now at Wolfsburg…they play in the Bundesliga, not the Premiership.

Need further evidence? Nine out of the 11 U.S. starters against England play club ball for a non-American coach and seem to be doing fine.

Good coaches are good coaches; players are players. The commitment to the cause of both is what’s important, not their upbringing.

This isn’t an indictment of Bob Bradley, it merely suggests that it does not have to be a hard-core American who coaches the States. (Yes, I’m aware that no foreign coach has ever hoisted the World Cup. Ask yourself this question: do you think the U.S. would have a better shot at World Cup 2014 with José Mourinho or Bob Bradley?)

• Positive:

Player readiness and on-the-road calibration.

Like any international team coach, understanding that you have club players for extremely short turnarounds and knowing how to manage that is critical.

Further, nothing–and I would imagine this since I haven’t been there–can prepare you for riding the bus to Azteca stadium in Mexico City and playing a match there.

All things that were speed bumps before in qualifying are now rote, giving Coach Bradley and staff more time to focus on other things.

• Negative:

An inability to fix what’s broken.

Disconcerting to this writer is that Bradley could not prevent his team from succumbing to the same mistakes over and over again.

Take the much-publicized “first goal conceded” issue. That’s a problem that happened all the way through qualifying and then reared its head massively in the World Cup.

Ultimately, giving up the first goal time-and-time again or even failing to have your squad be focused to start the game is the coach’s fault, not the player’s fault. They are, so to speak, who they are.

Were you surprised that Ricardo Clark coughed up the marble against Ghana? Nobody was.

At issue really isn’t whether Clark did that, but that he was allowed to be in position to do it in the first place. This isn’t Paco Torres starting for the first time…against Slovenia…in a World Cup. (And for the record, even at the time, I thought that was a horrible move.) That mistake can be forgiven for attempting to inject an element of surprise or pep into the U.S. after a grind-it-out England game.

Maybe Bradley will learn from his mistakes this time, but the U.S. team demands a coach that can jolt a team out of ill-found malaise.

Part of my concern here for Bradley moving forward is that he only gets so many games to be in the moment and test out his hypotheses. For example, say Bradley learns something in the October friendlies, he can’t test it out until November and perhaps with different personnel.

That’s a challenge.

• Misconception:

The U.S. job is not the pinnacle of coaching. Wrong. The role is challenged by a combination of location, player quality and command-and-control Gulati.

Depending on where you draw the line on league competition, there are less than 250 professional soccer/football coaching position that come with caché.

The United States Men’s National Team coaching job is one of them. You’re also talking about a team that was one of the 16 best in the world in 2010.

Think about it: let’s suggest that the top five European leagues with 20 teams a pop, another 4 or 5 leagues that border on high quality and fifty national team jobs of significance. So for perspective, if you aspire to be a “top professional soccer coach” you have to shoot for all of 250 jobs. For comparison, if you’re a businessman or woman and want to be a big-time CEO, there is of course the Fortune 500. That’s 500 companies.

The challenges to taking the US job are that if you aspire to be a club coach in Europe or South America, your name is appearing in the wrong papers. Combine that with what is a well-known desire by USSF to operationally control as most of the USMNT possible and the U.S. job, whilst high profile, as it should be.

• Misconception:

The hiring of Bob Bradley somehow makes a premature dismissal more palatable and affordable.

Huh?

I wrote something similar a few weeks ago. Regime change typically takes time. For countries or governments, it’s centuries or decades. For multinational corporations, 3 to 5 years and sometimes more.

Given that Bradley had a few months more on his contact, it would make zero sense for the U.S. to re-up Bradley if he weren’t the choice for the next few years.

Remember Bradley is coming into this with, like we said, in-depth knowledge or the players and how to do the job. Any other coach is going to take time to evaluate players, learn the system, etc.

Despite the success, Jogi only got a two-year...

Next, if USSF were going to make a change, now–not later–is the time when a new cycle is beginning and there is a runway to iron out the kinks.

Finally, why not give Bradley a two-year deal (and keep the terms confidential) if you’re unsure, protect your downside financial risk and theoretically increased accountability with a shorter review period? Capello got one, so did Jogi Low–both hometown coaches, one who underwhelmed and one who succeeded.

TSG Conclusion:

I think Bob Bradley is a good coach and I think in using his own unique style he did a splendid job in guiding the U.S. for the past four years and to a top-16 finish in 2010. Let me repeat “a top 16 finish.” Not a bad turnaround from scoring one goal with your offense in 2006 if you step back and look in abstract.

Given my ruminations above, was Bob Bradley the best selection? Probably.

Was that due to his being perhaps the only candidate? Not sure, but I would probably bet on it.

Would I be ecstatic if Bradley was the choice and Sunil Gulati said the only other interested were Ruud Gulit and Curt Onalfo? Absolutely.

What I think happened is that it probably occurred to Sunil Gulati that he had little chance with numerous coaches who would want to take over more management operations, would demand more concessions and control of the organization, and would demand a higher salary.

Something like, “Well if Klinsmann–who wants the job–wants this salary and his way of doing things, what would a coach like Javier Clemente or Martin Jol demand? I’m not going to bother.”

If that’s indeed what happened, than we should all be just a little bit more concerned about Sunil Gulati’s roadmap to 2014 and beyond and less Bob Bradley.

Bradley’s a good coach, but as Shaun pointed out earlier this week and with my adage of needing to learn with reptitions, how much more “dynamic” can one expect him to be? Bradley will get all of 75 games without a full squad and with little practice time to test out ways to “reinvent” himself.

The rehiring of Bradley–without qualification, goal-setting or stated expectations by USSF–is more the story this week in my opinion. It sets a dangerous precedent of accepting an uneven level of play for the U.S. and that the round of 16 is again an acceptable target.

I expect–with the talent developing–that the U.S. can do better than that. I’m not sure Bradley’s rehiring, and especially the manner in which it has occurred, suggests the same expectation.

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21 responses to this post.

  1. I would be wary of claiming that, since the US made it to the round of 16, they somehow auto-qualify to be named one of the best 16 in the World…

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/09/02 at 3:34 PM

      That’s my standard Chamo.

      The technical report that FIFA released today has the Yanks at #12 actually.

      To me, the World Cup–the pressure and results–is my ultimate barometer of the team.

      Reply

      • While I obviously will not try to change your opinion, Fifa rankings have been bunk for years, and actually currently have the US at 18… the next official report isn’t released till the 15th, and given no friendlies have occurred to change that, I don’t foresee that changing.

        By your ranking, Ghana should be top 10, and Uruguay top 5, but instead they are 23 and 6 respectively, and Egypt, who didn’t even qualify for South Africa is top 10…

        Reply

        • Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/09/02 at 3:51 PM

          FIFA rankings actually do change even if not matches are played. Matches from the past year are weighted more than matches for the year before and the ones from two years ago weighted more than those from three years go, etc. Also, only matches from the last four years are taken into account so as time passes, matches can go from the one year to two year ago category or completely fall out of consideration all together, causing a change in rankings even if no matches are played.

          Reply

        • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/09/02 at 3:53 PM

          Chamo, you have a very fair point.

          And agree on FIFA rankings, I just illustrated to show that it wasn’t just me who had that opinion.

          Just in a World Cup year, Group of Death or no group of Death the measurement to me is the tournament….not next year.

          Put it this way, say you want to determine the best soccer clubs in the world right now. Ideally, you would have some seeding and schedule a tournament and the winner (when it counts so to speak) would rank 1st.

          Reply

        • Ryan, I am well aware of that, but now think of what summer that means is taken off of the USA’s ranking, 2007, when they won the Gold Cup.

          Thus they can only feasibly move down, rather than up… I know they can change, but they won’t be moving up in rankings, which was my point.

          Reply

        • Matthew, in terms of winning a tournament I absolutely agree.

          My change is when you go down tiers in a tournament, I don’t believe rankings continue, just my personal opinion. While the final standings should be some judge, given the groupings of teams that are very good, like Ivory Coast, who had little chance of advancing, versus a team in an easier group (I would name one, but it undoubtedly would cause a bit of debate, no matter who I named), it would be hard for me to say the Ivory Coast is a team that should be significantly lower on the rankings than Ghana, simply because they didn’t make it out of the group.

          Reading that I now feel I made little to no sense, but hopefully someone understands what I was going for.

          Reply

        • Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/09/02 at 4:23 PM

          Chamo, the 2007 Gold Cup was downgraded by the FIFA rankings last time around, which is why we dropped down to 18. This time around, I think the 2007 Copa America is going to be downgraded, which could give the US a bump. I’m not 100% sure on this though (I don’t think anyone is 100% about the FIFA rankings), but it is my understanding of it. Even so, I put so little stock in the FIFA rankings anyways and while I wouldn’t adhere to World Cup performance as strictly as Matthew is, I do think that it is very reasonable to consider us a top 16 team right now.

          Reply

      • Posted by Paul on 2010/09/02 at 5:33 PM

        The technical report “ranking” does not seem to be a ranking at all. Instead, it is merely what place we gained in the competition, based upon how well the team did, number of goals scored, ect. That is why France is 29th, Ghana 7th, Italy 26th, ect.

        Reply

  2. Posted by patrick on 2010/09/02 at 3:35 PM

    great piece. cant really put it any other way.

    Reply

  3. Posted by scweeb on 2010/09/02 at 4:35 PM

    I like the pieces that have are coming out and it seems most places i read have the same theme in the background. Sunil what the crap were you thinking? With that i really wish there was a way to put more pressure on the USSF to make some changes or at least gives us answers.

    Reply

  4. Posted by zlionsfan on 2010/09/02 at 5:28 PM

    Hey, did you know no American coach has ever won the World Cup?

    Let’s face it, if the US ever wins the whole thing (and it is an if – even in professional sports, there are “graveyards” full of teams good enough to win who just never made it happen, and those championships are contested every year, not every four years), there will be a lot of “first”s. One of them will be the coach, no matter what his nationality may be.

    I’m a little puzzled by the way this happened, but what’s done is done (apparently). If it’s Bradley, then may he get the best out of the USMNT for the next four years.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Paul on 2010/09/02 at 5:43 PM

    Agree generally with the post. The US does not need to become a Spain-like possession-dominating attacking unit to be successful. (One point: you meant to say that the US behind in terms of possession in three out of its four matches; only a tie with Algeria kept the US from losing all four of its matches in terms of possession. See pages 184 and 185 of the FIFA 2010 Technical Report.) I tend to see the US as needing more possession precisely because it allows for few chances to come our defense’s way. Sure, the defense needs to get better, along with better team defense and player positioning so that there are few long range chances on goal. Providing fewer turnovers allows for fewer attacks to defend, and fewer attacks that can come from dangerous portions of the field. Giving up possession in the midfield essentially provides an opponent with an out of position midfield, space to launch players forward, and better opportunity for a scoring chance (versus having to advance the ball from the back).

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/09/02 at 6:03 PM

      Going to check that possession stat — BBC and ESPN have it otherwise.
      Thanks for the note.

      Reply

  6. Posted by chad on 2010/09/03 at 6:26 AM

    Even though it’s like me trying to explain physics to Einstein, I’m going to disagree with TSG here. It isn’t that the US needs to become Spain and completely change its style but that the US needs to have a possession game as part of its arsenal. Many opportunities are created by changing the pace of the game. There are times when you can see on the faces of the American players that they are spent and need a break or to simply slow down the game. Reyna provided this for years. This is just the equivalent of having a solid running game in (American) football.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Marc C on 2010/09/03 at 6:36 AM

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think it might be time for Gulati to go? I agree Bradley was probably the right choice, but when was the last time Sunil got evaluated? I think he may be getting a little too comfortable in his cushy US Soccer chair and it might be a good time to change? Just kicking that one around, since it is easy for us to always point at the coaches and the talent pool. Don’t get me wrong Gulati has done a lot for the US and the game, but I think he may have overstayed his welcome.

    Thoughts?

    Reply

    • I’ve thought it was time for Gulati to go for a while now, I think this is reiterated in the most recent post as well.

      Reply

  8. Posted by Tyler on 2010/09/03 at 8:08 AM

    I believe the USMNT coaching job is considered a mid-tier gig by coaches internationally. Its a great opportunity to vault (or restart) your career but only if your results in major competitions are good to great. If your results are average or poor it can be damaging to a coaches future opportunities. A bad WC2006 performance stalled Arena’s career and there are people alluding to Bradley being a WC2010 win away from coaching in the EPL (though I don’t believe them). If the USMNT has a poor run in WC2014, I firmly see Bradley interviewing for the Whitecaps open coaching position in October of that year. I’m not so sure there are a lot of quality, well-established international coaches that would be willing to take the chance. USSoccer isn’t looking tor another Bora (I hope).

    Reply

  9. Posted by dikranovich on 2010/09/03 at 5:50 PM

    it was interesting to hear the comments by bruce arena about the us mens team job and coach bradley signing on for four more years. one thing i dont here mentioned to much is the idea that coach bradley could bring in a number two, someone who maybe has european or south american background. of course in the last cycle coach bradley had peter nowak as the number two. nowak left at a pretty tough time in the qualifing, i think he left the week of the costa rica saprissa matchup.

    this whole number two is going to help define this next term. nothing against sorber, but he is not number two material, preki would be pretty good number two material, but maybe the way to appease alot of these people who were so claimoring for a european coach to come in and revamp the system, as if it really needs revamping, might just be to bring in someone like a guillit, or maybe zola.

    im excited for the poland and columbia games. it might be more of the same old stuff, but on the other hand, we might see something new and exciting. i for one would like to see jermaine jones and junior on the field together and it might even be nice to see edu and jones as defensive mids and junior a little higher up in the attack. usa did not control the middle of the pitch in the ghana game and it cost us. when usa starts controlling the middle of the pitch more, we are going to really start doing some nice things. onwards and upwards.

    Reply

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