Well, it’s official, Bob Bradley has been sacked. After the Gold Cup, it seemed like he would be around forever, or at least until the US exited early from the 2014 World Cup. For once Sunil Gualti and the USSF did the right thing, although the larger issues–thoroughly average players, mismanagement of US soccer at all levels, Sunil Gulati and the USSF in general–still remain.
Why did the sack finally happen? Well, I cannot be certain. On ESPN, they seem to be sure that this is part of Gulati’s plan to “brand” US Soccer, hence the need for a name (foreign) coach. (Please God, not Marcello Lippi.) Others seem to believe it will be a US-based coach such as Sigi Schmid. And of course there will be the inevitable will-he-won’t-he dance with Jurgen Klinsmann. I am far from convinced that Klinsmann is the right guy, but for a number of American fans, he is the great white hope. We’ll probably find out tomorrow who the next coach will be. Watch this space.
The announcement took everybody by surprise. Everybody. I wonder if even Bradley had an inkling. It makes sense to get rid of him now so a new coach can experiment with and improve a US team gone horribly stale. The World Cup cycle is still in its infancy, so this is the best chance (only chance) for effective change. Argentina certainly felt that way by firing–oh excuse me, Argentina doesn’t fire coaches–by allowing Batista to quit. And inevitably there is moaning from the media who for inexplicable reasons loved Bradley dearly and gave him a free pass he did not merit. Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN liked him so much he wrote two different pieces today defending Bradley–and implicitly blaming us, the stupid American fans, for not appreciating him. To get Schaerlaeckens on your side, just give him the time of day. He’s easy. (It probably also helps that Bradley’s brother Jeff is the head soccer writer for ESPN The Magazine.)
I accept that a lot of US fans took poorly to Bradley from the start, and the relationship went from bad to worse. I also accept that Bradley’s results with the national team were solid, and maybe even progress. I even accept that Americans tend to have inflated expectations of the National Team. I accept also that the 2009 Confederations Cup was a good result, but I counter with the fact that the Confederations Cup is an exhibition and not a real tournament. Finally, I accept what Bradley’s defenders trumpet again and again, he did not have quality players to work with (by blaming the players though, Bradley’s defenders implicitly agree that the results were not acceptable.)
But Bradley was mediocre. Thoroughly, utterly, undeniably mediocre. It’s not his fault; Bradley is a product of the system he developed in, specifically the United States college system. One need not be a former player to be a great coach, but a coach in the international game should not be provincial, and that is the inevitable result of being a product of the American college system. Both Bradley’s career and his results, no matter how hard he worked, never really showed that he was a participant in the international dialogue. One hopes that Bradley’s departure signals the end of the American college system era. It should be required that whoever coaches the National Team from hereon in should already be a participant in the larger world football dialogue. Hopefully the USSF is going in this direction; perhaps the fact that the u-20 and u-23 sides also need new coaches is no coincidence.
In the end what undid Bradley was his loyalty. Bradley had his pet players, players. Although they underperformed time and again, he stubbornly called them up while ignoring others who may have deserved a second or even first chance. His pet players were players he knew and trusted, and his excuse for leaving out other players–that they didn’t play enough minutes for their clubs–rang hollow when some of his favorites also barely got off the bench.
No one exemplifies this favoritism more than Bradley’s son Michael. Michael Bradley is a decent player, aggressive and competitive, but lacking in technique. His pass leave much to be desire. He is also dull, lifeless, abrasive, and robotic in interviews, which really hurts his image, but I suspect he doesn’t care. (He probably should.) At the World Cup, Michael Bradley was the best US player, or at least the most consistent. After the World Cup he moved to Aston Villa on loan and barely got off the bench. Villa opted not to extend his contract and Michael Bradley had to go back to Borussia Mönchengladbach (a club he effectively trashed after leaving) with his tail between his legs. His club future is uncertain.
It’s not that Michael Bradley is a bad player, but prior to the Gold Cup he failed all the criteria that his father requires for his non-favored players. As a result Michael Bradley, fairly or no, has come to symbolize his father’s favoritism/nepotism. Michael Bradley had a poor Gold Cup, and gave the doubters all the more ammunition. I suspect that Michael Bradley is going to be the player who suffers most from the regime change, at least among the starters. He, more than any other player, symbolizes the Bob Bradley era.
Which brings us to the Gold Cup, the final nail in the coffin of Bob Bradley’s National Team career. The US underperformed, although not necessarily on paper. In ordinary circumstances making the final and losing to Mexico would be a disappointing but acceptable result.* What happened though is that the US lost in the Gold Cup group stag for the first time ever (to powerhouse Panama), looked terrible in the group stage wins (to Canada and Guadeloupe), and lost the final in horrific fashion. It’s not that the US lost a 2-0 lead that grates, nor is it that the US lost 4-2, nor even that the US was by far the lesser team. It’s that the US lost its 2-0 lead almost immediately after earning it. The US looked tactically stale, completely lost, and the using favorite players (especially Jonathan Bornstein) came back to haunt Bradley. At this pace, Mexico will dominate the US for the next decade at least.
It looked like it would never get any better so long as Bob Bradley was in charge.
I have nothing against Bob Bradley as a person. I have never referred to him derisively as “Coach Sweatpants” like some of my fellow fans. I don’t take pleasure in his sacking, and I wish him well. He gave all he could to the US Men’s National Team, and for that he deserves credit. Nevertheless, all he could give was never going to be enough. It was clear for some time.
The life of a football coach is unfair. No credit for a win, blame for a loss. But no one is forced to coach. Angry fans, pressure from the football administration, criticism from the media, and the sword of Damocles are all part and parcel of the job, especially for international team coaches. It’s Bob Bradley’s time to go. Thank you for the nearly 5 years of loyal service, enjoy the gold watch, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Bradley’s US team made four finals, but lost three of them, two of them to Mexico in the Gold Cup finals. The one final the US won was also a Gold Cup. The other was the 2009 Confederations Cup final to Brazil, in which, like with the 2011 Gold Cup, the US blew a 2-0 lead. Against lesser teams, the US falls behind and catches up. Against better teams, the US loses the lead. This too is blamed on Bradley.