Here I was thinking that, after the Women’s World Cup, I’d be done blogging about soccer for a while. However, that was before Bob Bradley was fired as coach of the U.S. national men’s soccer team.
Undoubtedly there’s jubilation in some quarters over this. The man’s failures loom large in the memories of U.S. soccer fans: frittering away a 2-0 lead over Brazil at the Confederations Cup 2009 final, losing to Ghana at last year’s World Cup, and being overwhelmed by Mexico at this year’s Gold Cup. Selection mistakes were a regular feature of Bradley’s game management, and his tactics were never the most imaginative. He couldn’t be bothered to cozy up to the press or the public. Most of all, Team USA’s rapid progress during this past decade appeared to have plateaued. No wonder some are saying good riddance.
It’s a shame, because Bradley also presided over thrilling moments in Team USA’s history that helped draw a bigger audience to soccer: the victory over Spain at Confederations Cup 2009, the come-from-behind draws against England and Slovenia at World Cup 2010 (during which Bradley outcoached the great Fabio Capello), and the last-gasp win over Algeria that allowed USA to win its group. These considerable positives are often too easily forgotten by Bradley’s many detractors. They should be remembered now.
Still, I find myself unable to work up much outrage at Bradley’s firing. With the next World Cup three years away, it makes sense to change coaches now. More to the point, Bradley’s son Michael Bradley has become a mainstay of USA’s midfield, and while no one is suggesting that the younger Bradley doesn’t deserve his starting place for USA, it always skews the locker-room dynamic when the coach’s son is a key player. Rightly or wrongly, the other players tends to wonder whether the coach’s son is reporting back to his dad on their doings. With a new head coach, Michael Bradley’s development can be administered impartially and his teammates can relate to him as a peer rather than as the coach’s son. It seems likely that the indomitable, never-say-die spirit shown by the U.S. men (and women) will survive any coaching change.
Who’s up next? Pie-in-the-sky types are pining away for José Mourinho or Guus Hiddink, never mind that both of them are gainfully employed by other teams. Great as those coaches are, I don’t think they’d fit the current USA team anyway. What USA could best use is a game manager who consistently gets teams of middling talent (and in international terms, that’s what USA is) to overachieve. We need Roy Hodgson, but he’s currently employed as well.
The name being most bandied about is Jürgen Klinsmann, the German who made his reputation as a goal-scoring striker in the early 1990s. He has lived in America for some years now and is familiar with the quiddities of soccer in this country. He’s technically employed as a consultant for Toronto FC, but could be gotten out of that job easily. His first coaching gig was for the German national team at World Cup 2006, and he turned the Germans from an old, demoralized, defense-first squad whose games were a chore to watch into a fun, young team that played up-tempo, attacking soccer. Just making the Germans likable to neutral fans is a huge achievement. The U.S. men have never had a dynamic, inventive coach with experience at the highest levels of European soccer, and the sport’s observers (not just Americans, either) have long wondered what USA might do under that type of guidance. Klinsmann would, at long last, answer that question.
The thing is, U.S. Soccer tried to get Klinsmann twice before (in the aftermath of the last two World Cups) and messed it up both times. The issue seemed to be how much power Klinsmann would have to reinvent the system, power that’s not easily relinquished by those in charge of our national federation. Based on his track record with Germany, Klinsmann appears to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, the national team appears to have little to lose in trying something new at this point. We’ll see if those in charge follow that logic when they hire a new coach. Interesting days are ahead for fans of the national team.