Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced its decision to reinstate Bob Bradley as head coach of the U.S. men’s national team.
My reaction: indifference that borders on two thumbs pointing skyward.
Not that I’m yawning about this. Contrary to popular belief, many sports fans in the U.S. care about the FIFA World Cup and the U.S. team, including myself.
But why do I feel a significant amount of indifference then? Why have I not already launched into a vehement argument about how this decision is (circle all that apply) terrible/awesome/smart/dumb/ambitious/conservative?
First, it needs to be understood that for any team there is no guaranteed consistency between any two World Cups to begin with. In 2006 Italy and France met in the World Cup Final. Last June, both were laughably eliminated after the group stages. Italy couldn’t even squeeze out a win against New Zealand, while France basically just surrendered (surprise). Besides, if it weren’t for a goal-via-handball, France would not have been in the Cup at all.
And in case you forgot (or perhaps, you just didn’t watch), the U.S. reached the quarterfinals of the WC in 2002, only to nosedive into pavement in 2006.
As you might have guessed, this consistency dilemma works both ways, too. Look at the Uruguayan team over just the last three WCs: in 2002 the team qualified after being truant for the last two tournaments and was eliminated after the group stage. In 2006, Uruguay was absent again. In 2010, the team finished in 4th place and saw their invincible striker, Diego Forl?n, win the tournament’s best player award.
That’s where the indifference stems from. Basically, success in the past means nothing when looking toward the future. For the most part I think that’s because: (A) with the once-every-four-years window that the WC provides, players only get to enjoy it in their prime once, maybe twice if lucky, and (B) the rest of the world always stays competitive. Teams are always changing, and it’s just too hard to stay on top of the world for an extended period of time.
The other part of the reason there’s no guaranteed consistency is the coach, obviously. But this part is a little more counterintuitive. Rather than find a long-term head coach, teams normally look for a new coach after one tournament. Detractors of Bradley’s rehire point out that those Italian, French and American teams that so swiftly went from the highs of one tournament to the lows of the very next were each manned by one head coach.
A two-term head coach is rare precisely because of how difficult it is to manage a WC squad for eight years. All of the above debacles occurred for different reasons. Italy’s Marcello Lippi placed too much faith in his aging players that won the world crown when they were four years younger, France’s Raymond Domenech lost the respect of his team and had a mutiny on his hands after the dismissal of Nicolas Anelka and the U.S.’s Bruce Arena was accused of letting things in the locker room and practice field go stale and run dry of energy.
However rare it may be for a coach to find success in his second term, it has happened before and remains a comfortable possibility with Bradley. This is where the two thumbs start turning upward.
There’s no debating that Bradley’s gotten results out of the U.S. team, winning the 2007 Gold Cup, finishing second at the 2009 Confederations Cup, and winning Group C at this last WC. Now that we can safely put a checkmark next to “Prior Success,” what about respect from the players so as to avoid a collapse ? la Domenech?
After listening to post-tournament interviews there’s no question the entire roster holds Bradley in high regard and realizes how he’s impacted the program. Shortly after the tournament, Landon Donovan said this to Sports Illustrated:
“My personal opinion is we have grown a lot since Bob has been here. I know it’s easy for people afterward to point blame and say you should have played this guy and done this and why did you do that? The reality is that we all believed and bought into what Bob is doing, and that’s why we were successful.
“If Bob is around I think everyone will be very happy. If Bob’s not around because he wants to leave or because U.S. Soccer wants to hire a new coach, I think everyone is fine with that too… I was certainly someone who grew a lot under Bob’s guidance.”
So he’s got a following, but is he willing to change in order to avoid a stagnant atmosphere? I think he can. A Princeton alumnus, Bradley is a smart man and knows all about keeping things fresh and anew (he’s even reportedly reached out to such coaching brains as Mike Krzyzewski and Sir Alex Ferguson on the topic).
More than that, he’ll have to be willing to use new players and cut ties with others, which he already proved he’s capable of this summer. When the time came to announce the final WC roster, Bradley picked Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez, two bubble players with scanty international experience, over the aging Brian Ching and fleet-footed Charlie Davies, who aggressively debated the state of his health. Bradley wasn’t scared to use Buddle and Gomez, as the two combined for five appearances at the WC. Not to mention Bradley was unafraid to say “no thank you” to Oguchi Onyewu after the first game of the WC when it was obvious the AC Milan defender was not in top form.
In another four years, it’s just unreasonable to assume the team will automatically be better or worse. No matter who the coach is, the team will still be radically different. This is also a country that is still building its repertoire of soccer players, and Bradley has been a pillar in that development for some years now. The U.S. needs someone that understands the peculiarities of American soccer, and you probably won’t find a foreign coach who can match that frequency. Bradley already owns the respect of his players and remains open-minded for future prospects. He’s gotten results. Why not keep him on the throne?
Elliot is a junior planning on declaring a major soon. Think Bradley didn’t deserve the job? Tell him about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.