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The Bradley Effect

Fans of US Soccer have been following the drama of whether or not the Federation would renew the contract of Men’s National Team Manager Bob Bradley. With his contract set to expire at the end of this year, Bradley had been linked to the vacancy at Aston Villa in the English Premier League, or other possibilities in Europe. Meanwhile, US Soccer was said to covet former German national team player and manager Jurgen Klinsmann, the first choice who rebuffed the Federation in 2006, when Bradley was eventually hired.

All the drama came to an end yesterday afternoon, when Bradley inked a contract extension that will keep him at the helm of the Men’s team through the 2014 cycle. The drama is done, yet the debate is unlikely to subside soon. The issue of whether or not to keep Bradley has drawn strong arguments on both sides. I only started following the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) in the run-up to the World Cup, but here are my impressions on Bradley, and what his rehiring means going forward.

USA v Algeria World Cup Match
Photo by Jason Wojciechowski, under a Creative Commons 2.0 attribution license.


Meeting Expectations, Yet Missing Opportunity

The US exited in the Round of 16, where many observers figured they would. Yet, because of how the tournament shaped up, they missed a golden opportunity to return to the Quarterfinals, as they did in 2002, or go even further.

The match against Ghana was eminently winnable, and the US should have put it away in the second half. They were victim to one of Tim Howard’s few mistakes, leading to Goah’s strike in the first half, but had more than enough opportunities of their own. Had the US advanced, a Quarterfinal match against Uruguay would have given them a good opportunity through to the semi-finals. They would have been in very tough against eventual finalist Netherlands, but they were well-poised to equal or surpass their previous best finish – a trip to the Quarterfinals in 2002.

Bradley’s Lineup Decisions Deserve Scrutiny
Bradley made some controversial choices that may have cost his side a chance to advance further.

Returning to Ricardo Clark in the Ghana match was a costly error. Clark was removed after 30 minutes, and the early switch hurt the Americans in extra time. The team looked gassed, while Ghana had a few fresher players owing to the later substitutions. Bradley’s side, conversely, had made 2 substitutions by the start of the second half.

The decision to play Jonathan Bornstein for the Algeria and Ghana matches is questionable. Both are defensive-minded teams, and substituting a speedy, but not as defensively-sound player for the more steady Onyewu failed to produce any offense on one end, and created a liability on the other. As I’ll note in the next section, his reliance on weak strikers, instead of switching to a formation that played to his side’s strengths, was a major mistake as well.

Other Sides Suffered From Injuries As Well
The loss of Charlie Davies was particularly devastating, given how weak the side was at striker (as we found out). On the back line, Onyewu and DeMerit were recovering from injuries. But almost every side had injuries to contend with as well. Group stage opponent England was missing Rio Ferdinand, its key central defender. Ghana was without its best player, Michael Essien, one of the most complete midfielder in the world.

The injuries to the American side may expose a lack of depth, but the side also fell short in making adjustments. For the most part, Bradley kept Clint Dempsey on the wing and not at striker, despite having more depth in midfield, and Dempsey having had success there in the Confederations Cup. Playing a 4-5-1 or moving Dempsey up front in a 4-4-2 would have played to the team’s strengths. Instead, second-rate strikers like Robbie Finley and Herculez Gomez started games. They came out in favour of extra midfielder Benny Feilhaber in every match but the England one, but still too much time was given to them and Edson Buddle in the first place. Talented mid Jose Torres only saw one half of action, and DeMarcus Beasley, while coming off an injury, saw only a handful of minutes.

Coincidentally or not, the side played much better in the second half of its games when Finley and Gomez had been removed.

Like Tito, But With Less Talent to Work From
Of the Managers/Coaches in sports that I follow, the one he reminds me of the most is Terry Francona, the current Manager of baseball’s Boston Red Sox. Francona gets along with his players (his hiring was key to acquiring Curt Schilling in 2003), manages the team well, but is not a master strategist or motivator, as best as anyone can tell. Most likely, his teams will play to their level of ability, not much above, or much below. A two-time World Series champion (2004 and 2007), Francona’s Red Sox have been one of the most talented squads in the majors year-in and year-out. Leaving aside his excellent job managing an injury-laden team in 2010, Francona’s clubs have generally played to their level of talent. Could he have guided a less talented team to a World Series? Probably not.

A Perfectly Good Manager for a Perfectly Good Side
If I were to sum up this situation in one sentence, that would be it. Bradley is a fine manager, with obvious strong points (his players like and respect him), and obvious drawbacks (he made many questionable personnel decisions in the World Cup).

The same can be said for the USMNT. For all the progress it’s made in the past two decades, and the success it’s earned, it remain, on the world level, a perfectly good team. Not a great team, mind you. It may pull off an upset over a top side, like beating Spain in the ’09 Confederations Cup, but they can’t realistically expect to compete with, never mind defeat, the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, or Spain on a regular basis. A top 20 team in the FIFA World Rankings, Team USA is very good, but not elite. In other words, the kind of team that should qualify for the World Cup regularly, and occasionally make noise in the knockout round.

In Need of a ‘Miracle’
One of the most famous moments in sports is the ‘Miracle on Ice‘, where the United States’ men’s hockey team defeating the Soviet Union on their way to winning gold at the 1980 Olympics. It’s story is told in the eminently enjoyable 2004 film ‘Miracle‘, starring Kurt Russell as the team’s head coach Herb Brooks.

I don’t know how much of Russell’s portrayal is fact and how much is fiction, but the parallel of the 1980 team is apt for anyone with high aspirations for the USMNT. It would be a ‘miracle’ of sorts if the United States were to win the World Cup in the next couple of cycles.

Soccer may be the world’s game, but it’s dominated by a handful of sides, a couple of South Americans (Brazil, Argentina), and a number of Europeans (Italy, Germany, Netherlands, France, and now Spain). It’s rare for a side outside the dominant group to make it all the way to the finals. A handful of countries in recent tournaments have made it all the way to the semi-finals (Bulgaria and Sweden in ’94, Croatia in ’98, Turkey and South Africa in ’02, once-dominant Uruguay in ’10, after a 40 year absence from the final four). These countries have tended to ride home-field advantage, a dominant player in the tournament, or be aided by a weak draw. Eventually, they run into a dominant side. The only tournament where a Cinderella has gone all the way was the 2004 European Championship, where Greece came away with the trophy after disappointing years from several traditional powers. None of these sides has replicated it’s success since.

Until the team boasts world class players on the same level as those on the Brazil, Dutch, Spanish, and German sides, the USMNT would need the following to go deep, or to win the tournament:

1. A favourable draw.
2. Some of the dominant sides to have an off-year.
3. An upset over at least one heavily favoured side.
4. A manager who, as a master tactician and/or motivator, can help the side outperform its talent level.

A 5th, home field advantage, would be a huge asset as well.

In the absence of these conditions, the USMNT can likely expect to remain right in the range of where they’ve performed the past few World Cup cycles. Bradley has shown tactical skills, making solid half-time adjustments this World Cup, and guiding his team to much success in the lead-up. However, he still makes questionable decisions that force these adjustments in the first place. He may not be a master, but who of the alternatives is?

The USMNT continues to make strides, and to become a much more successful side on the international level. But it’s also at least a couple of cycles away from being a truly world class side. Changes in how the country develops players and streamlines them towards elite programs will likely precipitate any sustained success on the world stage.

As for Mr. Bradley, his side will be in transition as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup cycle. His side is flush with talent in goal and at midfield, but could face the same challenges at Striker, especially if Charlie Davies doesn’t return to full strength. The back line will be almost all, if not entirely new, and 2010 stars such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey may no longer be at their peak (though some, like Michael Bradley, should be).

As it stands, the US will put forward a perfectly good side, with a perfectly good manager, and is likely staring at another perfectly respectable result in 2014. With or without Bradley, that’s the side’s fate for the foreseeable future, barring a ‘miracle’, or a serious jump in the quality of the country’s player development.

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Pyramid Power: August 14 Ranking of Edmonton City Council Races

This blog has been silent for the past couple of months. In large part, it’s due to the challenge of finding time to write, but also having been away for work and then vacation, fallen out of the habit of updating it. I intended to write more about the Edmonton Civic Election, but other sites have provided good coverage, and the Edmonton Journal has a good roundup of the announced candidates.

Lots has happened since May. Another incumbent, Ron Hayter, announced his intentions to retire, several more candidates declared publicly and began campaigning, and a(nother) potential referendum on the City Centre Airport has started to overshadow everything else.

With the Journal’s roundup, I don’t see a need to keep updating a list of candidates, but I do think it’s time to once again rank the races from most to least competitive (here are my May rankings). I intend to update these rankings a few more times as we get closer to the election, but that will probably be the extent of my coverage here. Keep in mind this is just my impression, and it will no doubt change as we get closer to both nomination day and election day.

City Hall at Night

The races are ranked from most to least competitive, in four categories:

Toss-Ups: No clear favourite, and could go any of two or more ways at this point.
Competitive: A leading candidate/favourite at this point, but a race that should be a close vote and could go another way.
Leaning Safe: A safe seat for now, but could become competitive or a toss-up in the right circumstances.
Safe: A safe seat for the incumbent, which doesn’t figure to change without something dramatic happening.

Toss-Ups

1. Ward 11
Declared: Shane Bergdahl, Kerry Diotte, Vishal Luthra, Chinwe Okelu

This is a total crapshoot. I could see these four finishing in any order at this point. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and are all out there. Bergdahl has a long history of community involvement, but is untested as a candidate. Luthra has ties to the community, but is also untested. Okelu has name recognition from running before, but has never been elected, and was surpassed by Amarjeet Sohi in the ’07 Ward 6 race. Diotte is well known, and has 2007 candidate Chuck McKenna (who did well in these polls) managing his campaign, but you have to think he’s going to be polarizing to some extent, given his out-spoken views.

If I were to guess right now, I’d say the most likely order of finish is 1) Bergdahl 2) Okelu 3) Diotte 4) Luthra. But like I said, I can see those four in any order come election day.

Competitive

2. Ward 3
Declared: Terry Demers, Dave Loken

This is the other race without an incumbent, and it could get competitive in a hurry.

Loken, a leader with the Coalition of Civic Unions and the runner-up in ’04 and ’07 (in Ward 2), declared a few months back, and has been campaigning.

His challenger at the moment is Terry Demers. Demers ran in Ward 5 in 2004, and for the past several years worked as Ron Hayter’s Executive Assistant at City Hall. She won’t be well-known to the public, but she will know many of the key players and community leaders in Ward 3 well.

Loken should have a strong advantage, having a several month head start on Demers. Yet, he hasn’t come particularly close to Krushell or Hayter the past two elections, and didn’t really grow his vote from ’04 to ’07. I think he’s the favourite at this point, hence why this is listed as ‘competitive’ not ‘toss-up’, but I would not overlook Terry’s chances here.

3. Ward 7
Declared: Tony Caterina, Brendan Van Alstine

Tony Caterina, the incumbent, is not necessarily in friendly territory here. He is working hard to get out there, but he also finished third here in ’07 (behind Gibbons and Voogd), and I’m not sure the Alberta Ave/Highlands area is the most receptive to a fiscal conservative message, or a pro-ECCA argument, the two issues most people likely associate him with.

That’s not to say Van Alstine will knock him off. He’s worked hard and campaigned for months, but Caterina likely has the money advantage, and he has been out in the community. I still see Tony as the man to beat here, but as we start to get a clearer picture closer to election day, that may change.

Lean Safe

4. Ward 8
Declared: Lori Heaney, Ben Henderson, Hana Razga

Henderson should be safe. He’s a well-respected, hard-working councillor just finishing his first term. Yet his challengers (at least Heaney, I haven’t seen enough of Razga to comment) are running hard. He certainly won’t be able to coast to victory, nor do I think he intends to, but the margin could end up closer than we think.

5. Ward 6
Declared:
Cris Basualdo, Jane Batty, Bryan Kapitza

All things aside, I think Jane Batty is the most (or second most) vulnerable incumbent in this election. This is not a comment on her performance, rather an observation that – whatever the reason – she’s been unable to grow her vote in her two re-election bids. She edged out Ben Henderson and Lewis Cardinal to finish first in Ward 4 last election, but in a head-to-head race against either may not have been so lucky. I think in 2010, either would win fairly comfortably against her.

But, she’s ranked here because I haven’t seen much from her two opponents yet that convinces me they’ll be able to challenge her. She may get lucky and avoid a serious challenger in 2010, but if she seeks any subsequent terms, I doubt she’ll be so lucky.

6. Ward 1
Declared: Andrew Knack, Jamie Post, Linda Sloan

Linda Sloan is another incumbent who could be in trouble in the right situation – despite her work in the community and on the seniors’ file, she’s been vocal on some controversial issues, and she’s not the media’s favourite, but for now she seems safe. Both Knack and Post have strong backgrounds in the communities, and are solid candidates, but neither seems to have caught on yet.

7. Ward 4
Declared: Dan Backs, Ed Gibbons, Scott Robb
Two former Liberal MLAs square off, with a young “Father, Husband, Security Officer, Ordained Satanic Priest” aiming to play spoiler.

Gibbons is now a three-term incumbent on Council, and has earned a reputation as a steady, if not spectacular performer. He’s been very effective working with the Capital Region Board, and is notable for introducing the motion last summer for a phased closure of the Edmonton City Centre Airport.

Backs is a one-term MLA (2004-08). Elected as a Liberal, he was kicked out of the caucus, then sat (and ran) as an independent, finishing third. He shouldn’t be a serious challenge for the popular Gibbons, but Backs did well running as an independent in ’08, and he’ll appeal to pro-ECCA voters. There’s enough here to think that it might become interesting.

Safe

8. Ward 12
Declared: Vikram Bagga, Amarjeet Sohi

Sohi is a popular, hard-working one-term incumbent. He should have no problem earning re-election, though unlike some of his council colleagues he does have a declared opponent.

9. Mayor
Declared: Daryl Bonar, Carol Ann Boudreault-Handy, Dave Dowling, Don Koziak, Andrew Lineker, Stephen Mandel

I can’t see Mayor Mandel losing, but since the Mayoral race is actually contested at the moment, it ranks ahead of four Council races that aren’t.

Mandel’s strongest competitor figures to be Don Koziak, the 2007 runner-up. Koziak, who previously ran for Council three times and lost, earned 25% of the vote, despite not declaring until nomination day, and not really campaigning. With better funding, an earlier public start, and a more aggressive campaign, he should be able to do better, but I still think his ceiling for support is too low to win.

The loser from Koziak’s entry in the race is Daryl Bonar, the young member of the Armed Forces who was the first challenger to declare, and had taken a pro-ECCA stance (which figures to be overshadowed by Koziak’s presence). I had the pleasure of having lunch with Lt. Bonar a couple of months back. He is very sincere, and is doing a lot of positive work in the community, and will continue to – politics or not. That said, he was still learning the issues, and I’m still to be convinced that he’s ready to be Mayor. I hope he considers running for Council in the future though, and I suspect many who have met him feel the same way. His upside seems to be a distant third, though he would warn me (and others) not to underestimate him. He won’t lose for a lack of trying, that’s for sure.

Andrew Lineker is in the same boat, and figures to gather a handful of votes but not much more. Same for Carol Ann Boudreault-Handy, who has yet to put a website up. Dave Dowling is Dave Dowling. He’ll probably do about as well as he does every election.

10. Ward 2
Declared: Kim Krushell
11. Ward 9
Declared: Bryan Anderson
12. Ward 10
Declared: Don Iveson
13. Ward 5
Declared: Karen Leibovici

I’ve grouped all four together since the incumbent in each one has no declared opponent yet. In terms of vulnerability, I’m still expecting a pro-airport candidate to challenge Krushell, since she represents the Kingsway/ECCA area. I’ve previously written about how Anderson could be vulnerable in the right circumstances. Iveson and Leibovici should be safe; the most serious competition they may see is people jockeying for name recognition and positioning themselves for 2013, when they figure the incumbents will be running for Mayor – opening up those seats.

The Edmonton Civic Election, where the Mayor, City Council, and School Trustees will be elected to three year terms, will be held on Monday, October 18th.