In a few weeks time Sunil Gulati the head of US Soccer will have to make a decision whether Bob Bradley should keep his job. The answer should probably be no, depending on who is available. But this conclusion is not based on a negative assessment of Bradley. No, in fact, it is largely due to the fact that Bradley has succeeded tremendously in building a really solid and deep team that in the biggest of games exemplified the never-say-die attitude so ingrained into the mythical notions of American character.
Back in 2006, when Bob Bradley was named coach after US fans were clamoring for Juergen Klinnsman or any other big named foreign coach the disappointment was palpable. Almost no one wanted Bradley. But the reality was Bradley was exactly the right man for the job – much more so than a foreign coach.
US soccer was undergoing a difficult transition after 06. A generation of players that included Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, John O’Brien, and Eddie Pope had all retired, forcing Bradley to replace the spine of his squad. While other countries go through similar transitions after tournaments, rebuilding the squad in the US is a different animal than in other more developed soccer powers. For instance, in countries like Spain, England, Germany the national team coach usually plays little role in actually developing players – that is the clubs job. Instead, the national team coach selects the players that are playing the best and builds a squad to his liking. The coach’s job is therefore one of selection and one of getting these players to play well. In the US however, there is another element. The coach plays a critical role in identify and developing young talent – often before these players have really emerged. Indeed, while Europe immediately shifts gears to qualifying for the European Championships, by contrast first couple years of the World Cup cycle for the US will be about scouting new young talent and working to integrate them into the squad.
To illustrate the point, take for instance the case of Clarence Goodson. Goodson was the fourth centerback on US World Cup squad, he plays in Norway, is experienced and is in his prime. He is presumably the fourth best American centerback right now and as Bocanegra, Demerit and Cherundolo begin to move off stage, one would assume Goodson would inevitably take over one of the spots. Indeed that is how it would likely work in most other countries – someone new would have to show that they are better than Goodson. But in the US this won’t necessarily be the case, as a young promising player such as LA Galaxy’s promising Omar Gonzalez that has potential to be better than Goodson in next few years.
This is the case for a couple reasons. First, it is highly beneficial for the US to have players playing in the top European leagues, but to get there they often need the exposure of the national team. In fact, to play in England, non-EU players are required to play for their national team by the Home Office. Therefore, a US coach can’t simply expect his young promising players to make the jump to bigger leagues without the assistance of the national team. Secondly, even if players don’t make the jump, playing on the international level is way more intense and competitive than playing in MLS. Therefore, it is imperative that MLS players that maybe part of the World Cup squad four years from now get exposed to international play early on.
Bradley integrated young players so well that by the time the US arrived in South Africa it had seemed that most of the players were old time veterans. It also seems everyone has forgotten for instance, judging by the criticism, that Jozy Altidore is just 20 years old. While the US came into this cycle needing to replace its midfield spine. It is leaving this World Cup with incredible depth. Michael Bradley just 22, Benny Feilhaber 24, Stuart Holden 24, Jose Torres 22, Feilhaber 25, Edu 24. In the end, the US team had incredible midfield depth, such that Stuart Holden, a premier league player, saw the field for only four minutes.
While Bradley deserves credit for bringing these players along and slowly integrating them in, this could and should be a detriment to his continuation, since as a result, the US is in a very stable place going into the next cycle. Now with the players listed above and with Donovan, Dempsey, and Gooch all either 31 or 32, the US will have a great mix of players in their prime and experienced veterans. Yes young players and replacements will have to be identified, especially along the backline, but while the 06-10 cycle was about finding the players, the 10-14 cycle will be about getting these players to play better. In other words, it is a challenge more a kin to the challenges facing national team coaches in Europe and as a result now may be the right time for the US to make the move to a foreign coach. Bradley found the musicians; it is now up to another to conduct the orchestra.