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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