The US v. Panama Gold Cup match just finished, and I can barely contain my rage. The US lost, but that alone is not the end of the world. Losses can be a good thing, but this is not like losing to Spain, Brazil, or even Mexico. Those losses I can at least understand (and except for Mexico, I can at least justify.) A 2-1 loss to Panama though is an unforgivable result. It is not merely a sign of a mediocre team; it is the sign of a flailing one. This should not be news. The win over Canada was quite poor, even if the sports media did not recognize it as such.
Last summer I was completely bemused by those fans who, distraught by the US elimination to Ghana at the World Cup, moaned that it would take years before the US team would be this successful again because this was the US team’s Golden Generation. This is baffling to me. The squad has good players but no spectacular ones. Unfortunately, these pessimistic US fans are probably correct about the long-term success of the United States but not for the reason they think.
The problem with US football is not the players. Although a world-beating US squad is decades away, overall quality has improved every cycle. The real stumbling block is the USSF. The USSF is run by control-freaks who have no idea how to build a successful program. If wanted to run a successful program, they would never have retained Bob Bradley. I gave my reasons for my anti-Bradleyism in a previous post, so there is no reason to rehash.
The reason USSF keeps Bradley is not because Sunil Gulati believes he is a great coach; it is because Bradley is compliant. He does not make waves. He does not fight with MLS about players. He is not a strong personality or a media star. Most importantly, he does not try to be anything more than a team coach (unlike Jürgen Klinsmann who wanted complete top-to-bottom control over how the United States builds its football program.) Bob Bradley probably feels so fortunate to have that job that he allows USSF to call the off-field shots. After all, what other nation with aspirations of success would hire such a manager of such limited ability? And in return for that compliance, USSF will keep him on until the US National Team inevitably bombs out of the 2014 World Cup. Only then he will be fired because a large swath of the nation will be watching the competition and putting pressure on USSF. Bradley is a ready-made scapegoat. The vast majority of angry Americans will be satisfied; those of us who follow the game beyond the World Cup will tear our hair out.
To save future frustration, here is the trajectory of the US team: they will lose make the next round of the Gold Cup, but not win and the US will not qualify for the Confederation Cup, although that was a stated goal. The USSF will not do anything. Come 2014, the team will crash out in qualification. A new and equally compliant coach will be hired by USSF. He will have some success, but the 2018 World Cup is in Russia, which means the US will fall apart as they do every time the World Cup is in Europe. So the next time the US even has a shot of a good showing is 11 years away. In Qatar (as it stands now.)
None of this is meant to absolve the players. Until the last 25 minutes or so, one could have been mistaken for thinking that the US had mistakenly sent a team of USL scrubs. This is the first time ever that the US lost in Gold Cup group play, and it was a woeful performance all around. Only Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard had anything approaching a decent night, and I am not absolving them. Landon Donovan barely registered. (Yes, I know he had a part in the lone US goal. I’m still right.) Once again Jozy Altidore proved me right about his complete inability to perform. It’s not just about scoring goals; he disappears up front. And he’s the better of the two forwards.
But Bob Bradley is the root problem. Team selection is a managerial choice. Team formation and tactics are managerial choices. The squad looks to the manager to set the tone. And if the US squad consistently goes down by a goal or two to weaker teams match after match, then the manager has done something wrong or has not done something right. Bradley is too stubborn, or too loyal to certain players, or just to limited to change things. The US National Team is not Barcelona, and its starting XI does not need to be the same match after match, especially since that formation is a proven failure. The World Cup was exactly the same.
What angers me is not Bob Bradley per se. He is simply the living embodiment of the Peter Principle, and he has reached his incompetence level. What angers me is that the USSF refuses to recognize this. If Brazil underperforms in the Copa America next month, then Mano Menezes will be sacked. If Spain is humiliated at the European Championships next summer, Vincente del Bosque will face the wrath of the Spanish. English coaches become pariahs when the team doesn’t win convincingly enough. Conversely, when France bombed out at the Euro 2008, Raymond Domenech kept his job even though he cannot manage a team of nine-year-olds. France paid the price in South Africa.
The signs are clear that Bradley hinders the team’s development. The Gold Cup should be a wake up call that something needs to change. Unfortunately, US Soccer does not want to listen.