If You Love Something, Destroy It

Listening to World Football Daily lately has gotten me depressed.  For one thing, I cannot think of anyone in the media who wants Bob Bradley gone.  Rather, they ardently defend him.  Nor do I hear any reporters taking the USSF and Sunil Gulati to task.  Moreover, the way the members of the media treat the fans has been beyond patronizing. There appears to be this belief that fans have never played, don’t watch games, and don’t read.  Only they know what they’re talking about.

I get that no respectable coach will take on the US job because it would be a tremendous salary cut.  I also get that the US does not have the talent to compete on the world’s biggest stage.  I get that the biggest stumbling block for the growth of US Soccer is not Bob Bradley but Sunil Gulati.  And I also understand that despite my complaining and that of my fellow fans, Bob Bradley is here through 2014.  (And I also understand that the US is doomed to an early exit in Brazil, but no one mentions that.)

But the condescension is too much.  Why are US fans so upset?  Because they are watching a program that took years to get to mediocre start to crumble.  Because they are tired of watching an inept team led by a lackadaisical manager.  Because you only don’t fix something when it’s not broken.

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Watching the Women’s World Cup, I am reminded (thanks to ESPN) of the 2007 debacle, which I realize ties into my feelings on Bob Bradley.  If you read this blog, you probably already know what I am talking about, but if you don’t, it’s a doozy.  In 2007, the US Women’s National Team went to China with an excellent record (granted from friendlies and minor tournaments), a number one ranking, and an expectation that they would reclaim the title that they lost to Germany four years before.  They had already recaptured the Olympics and gotten rid of national team coach (and former star player) April Heinrichs.  She was replaced by Greg Ryan who had previous been an assistant coach for the USWNT.  Although there was no Mia, no Julie, no Joy, and no Brandi (the first three because of retirements and the latter because of exile), the new generation seemed to be coming into its own.

The 2007 World Cup was not an easy one for the USWNT.  They drew their first match with North Korea, and then beat Sweden and Nigeria to win the group.  They beat England 3-0 in the quarterfinals.  Then Ryan made one of the great tactical blunders in USWNT history.  For the next match against Brazil, he replaced top goalkeeper Hope Solo with former US #1 goalkeeper Briana Scurry.  Scurry was the keeper throughout the famous 1999 World Cup win.  Her talent was never in doubt, but honestly, time and a younger rival had caught up.

A keeper is different from other positions.  A good keeper is the general of her half and the last line of defense.  Watch any match and you will see the keeper screaming at his or her defenders.  Good keepers tend to be somewhat crazy and very outspoken.  There is a different kind of rapport between a keeper and the team, because, unlike every other player, the keeper is a fixture.  Even replacing a bad keeper can have consequences.*

There is an argument to be made that benching Solo for Scurry is not the sole reason why the US lost.  There is even an argument to be made that scapegoating Greg Ryan masked the real problems with the USWNT and the US women’s program in general.  However, whether solely responsible or not, the switch in the keeper had dire consequences for the US.  Early in the match the US blundered with an own goal, and from there it went from bad to worse to catastrophic.  (This is, of course, the perception of a US fan.  If you are a fan of Brazil, or just the game itself, what you saw was the ascendancy of history’s finest female player.) That 4-0 defeat is to-date the worst loss the USWNT has ever suffered.

Solo, being a goalkeeper and afflicted by goalkeeper insanity, looked both miserable and furious on the bench.  After the match, she let loose to the media, saying that had she been in goal, she would have saved those goals from Brazil.  The truth is, she was probably right.  The entire team, who were all very fond of Scurry, excommunicated Solo, so much so that she had to fly back to the US alone.  Needless to say, the third-place match was played with Scurry in goal.

The USSF was unimpressed with both the team’s performance and the media fallout.  Greg Ryan’s contact was not renewed.  The happy coda to the story is that Pia Sundhage was hired, she brought Solo back from exile, and the US defended its Olympic title over Brazil (Solo being the star of the match.)

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The point of that foray down Repressed Memory Lane, believe it or not, was not actually about the USWNT.  Rather it is about the contrast in the USSF’s reaction to Ryan and to Bradley.  With the women, a 3rd place finish was not good enough, which is shocking.  Keep in mind that (a) although sometimes the best team does not win, by that time the US was not the world’s best anymore; (b) Ryan’s record was very good; (c) Ryan, like Bradley, fit the profile of a Gulati-preferred coach; (d) knockout tournaments are unpredictable; and (e) in the last three men’s World Cup, where there is far more pressure to succeed, no coach who led his team to the semifinals or beyond was sacked (although France should have fired its 2006 coach.)

When she was first hired, Sundhage was only given a one-year contract.  If the team did not perform well (i.e. win) at the Olympics, she too would have been gone.  (After the team won the gold medal, Gulati got down on one knee and begged her to stay.)

The point of this extended story is that the USSF and Gulati have shown that they are not afraid to cut loose a coach with good results if those results don’t meet expectations.  Therefore, it is a wonder that they have so mismanaged the Bradley situation.  Once again, I understand that there are other factors, not the least of which is that a top women’s coach is paid far less than a top men’s coach.  And of course there is always the issue of control, and how much the USSF is willing to give (little).  But given how openly disappointed Gulati was with the USMNT results in South Africa, it is a wonder that Jürgen Klinsmann was the only other candidate considered.

No special feature by a Goal.com hack, or Grant Wahl, or Sean Wheelock, and no browbeating by Kenny Hassan will convince me that retaining Bradley was the right choice, even if now it is too late.  But in the long run, Bradley is not the main problem.  What I have realized more and more is that as long as Sunil Gulati is in charge, football in the United States will either stagnate or regress.

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So it got me thinking if there is a way to change things.  There is, but it is not a pleasant solution.  In fact, it is anarchic and nihilistic.  But otherwise, I got nothing. Maybe you have a better idea.

The only way to get rid of Bradley and Gulati is boycott.  Boycott the US Men’s National Team.  Don’t buy their kits.  Don’t go their matches.  Don’t even watch their matches.  Cheer for another country (I hear Mexico is on the rise.)  Stop supporting MLS.  Find a European team, or an African team, or a South American team to support instead (you probably already have at least one; we all do.)  Boycott all things US until the USSF is on its knees, and begging for the fans to tell them what to do.  Without the fans, USSF cannot exist.  Be willing to sacrifice all the gains US Soccer has made since the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Now I am not recommending this course of action.  It’s like killing a mosquito with a bazooka.  Sure, you’ll get the sucker, but you’ll destroy most everything else around it.  Nevertheless, I have felt very disappointed of late, and somewhat helpless, which is not a feeling I like.  And worse, I feel like I’m being talked down to, by the grand pooh-bahs of the football media, which really pisses me off.

The one hope in all of this.   Landon Donovan**, the great and mighty majesty of American Soccer himself, is not particularly pleased with Bob Bradley.  No doubt the backtracking will begin soon if it hasn’t already, but perhaps this is the crack in the facade.

Hope spring eternal.  Especially for the hopeless.

 

Footnotes:

* Consider the England men’s national team in South Africa last year.  England has been woefully lacking in good keepers of late, and at the World Cup they paid for it.  The US equalized only because England’s goalkeeper Robert Green made a blunder to end all blunder.  National team manager Fabio Capello punished him by benching him in favor of a keeper so prone to error, his nickname is “Calamity” James.  Needless to say, England’s form for the rest of the tournament was woeful even when they won.

** I wonder what Donovan and Clint Dempsey think of one another.  They each have what the other desperately craves.  Dempsey has succeeded in Europe, at least in that he is a big fish in a small pond and helped lead his team to the final of a European competition.  Even if Dempsey only plays for Fulham, playing the in EPL has a real cachet attached to it, whereas Donovan failed in Europe several times and could not get a permanent move to Everton even when he did play well.  On the other hand Donovan has the name recognition and the respect of the average American sports fan, even those who only watch the World Cup and nothing else.  I imagine that drives Dempsey crazy, and is at least partially behind his ludicrous belief that he should be playing Champions League football.

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