The First of a Two Parter
I want to make it clear, that I think Bob Bradley has done a fine job, but he has reached the limit of what he can contribute to the U.S. campaign to win a World Cup. Bradley has tested the team, looked a few young players and managed to show the world that the U.S. has the talent, in parts, to compete at the absolute highest levels of world football.
Tactically, Bob Bradley can offer nothing more to the team and for that reason, U.S. Soccer needs to replace Bradley as the manager of the U.S. National Team. Bradley has displayed an inordinate loyalty to some players, not that Bradley is necessarily completely alone in that stance, see, for examble, Bruce Arena and Jeff Agoos. That loyalty has, to a certain extent blinded Bradley to the abilities of other players to contribute. On teh opposite hand, Bradley has restrained some players to the point that their developement in to truly world class footballers is in jeopardy (see Freddy Adu, see also Michael Bradley for different reasons). Finally, Bradley appears wedded to a defensive minded, bucket 4-4-2 with two defensive, holding midfielders and sacrificed upon the alter of not wanting to get scored upon, the ability to score goals in bunches and find players capable of scoring those goals.
In short, Bob Bradley has built a culture on the Men's National Team based upon not wanting to lose rather than wanting to win.
Take the above mentioned Freddy Adu. Without a doubt, Adu is the most creative and technically proficient player on the U.S. side. Sure Landon Donovan can score goals, take players on and has a big enough chip on his shoulder for five or six strikers. But Freddy Adu can create goal scoring opportunities where none existed, setting up the likes of Donovan. What is Bradley's big criticism of Adu--he doesn't defend enough, that Adu needs to check back into the defensive third more. Pardon me, but that is like telling Fernando Torres to check back into defense. Freddy Adu should do his defedning in the attacking thrid (the best defense is a good offense) and in the midfield. Yes, Adu should come back on set pieces like free kicks, but Adu strength is attack and creativity and you can be creative on defense.
What about Michael Bradley, the coaches son. Bradley scored nearly 19 goals in all competitions for Henreveen last year. Michael is wasted in a holding midfielder spot and teh manager at Henreveen knew that and gave Michael the freedom to attack and make plays, a freedom Michael does not enjoy in his father's system.
As noted, tactically, Bradley seems wedded to a system that is not well suited to the character of his players. His style of play is on the way out on the international scene. Witness the Euro 2008 tournament. The teams that stuck with a traditional, bunkered defense and strike on counterattack have all been dismissed from the tournament. France, Italy, Greece, Romania, Croatia, Czech Republic, all played a defense first, score on the counter attack style of play and each have lost to teams that play open, attack oriented football. Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and Portugal, have all displayed a movement-oriented, go-forward style of play. Turkey, the surprise of the Euros played with no fear of losing and a refusal to quit trying until such time as the final whistle blew. As a result, Turkey, Germany, Russia and Spain are in the semis, all with an open style of play that makes games exciting.
A defensive minded game is not going to win games against teams that continually press forward. Sooner or later, a mistake in defense will be made and the opponents will score on a bunkered side, it is only a matter of time.
Bradley has at his disposal players who have an attack oriented mindset, who want to move forward and score. But instead of crafting a system around those players, Bradley forces the players to play in his system, a system that is dying all over the world. A good manager designs a system and makes tactical changes to that system to match his players and the conditions on the field. Bradley is too limited in that skill.
Finally, Bradley does not stand up to the MLS or force U.S. Soccer to stand up to the MLS. Bradley has relied heavily upon European based players, and not just because those players a necessarily better, but because European Leagues respect the FIFA international breaks and rarely give Bradley stick for calling players into camp. MLS, on the other hand, not only plays through the international breaks, but often allows clubs to object to players being called into National Team Camp, or asks as a condition of releasing the player, that the player return for weekend matches. Such an effort is ludicrous and actually keeps good players out of the U.S. camp, possibly costing the U.S. the best players possible in certain areas and certainly limiting the scope of Bradley's player pool. I am talking about players like Kenny Cooper, Edson Buddle, Michael Parkhurst, Jimmy Conrad, Brian Ching, Stuart Holden, etc.
What Bradley needs to do is tell the MLS and U.S. Soccer to respect the international breaks. MLS teams currently play two games a week sometimes and there is no reason not to do so in order to accomodate international breaks. But Bradley routinely laments the scheduling difficulties with the MLS, citing that as a reason why more MLS players aren't called into camp. Instead of griping, Bradley should be calling Sunil Gulati and Don Garber out on the matter. MLS players being successful on the international stage increases the cache of the league and U.S. Soccer, if it is really interested in winning a World Cup in the next decade, needs to put every player possible at the disposal of the U.S. National Team Coach.
Instead, Bradley gripes and complains, when she should be doing much, much more.
I think Bradley has done a fine job to this point. But this point is as far as he can push the team and the national team development. It is time for Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer to ask Bradley to step aside and find a replacement who can move the program forward.
Next Up: The three managers who can make that happen.