There will be few tears shed by American soccer fans after the men’s national team released head coach Bob Bradley from his duties on Thursday. Seen by many as the second- or third-choice option when he was initially hired in 2006, Bradley was unable to turn the ever-growing expectations of the rising soccer power into concrete advancement.
After a CONCACAF Gold Cup in which the U.S. men appeared to take one step forward two steps backward, it was apparent that the team was stuck in neutral. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was left with two unpalatable options — either stick with Bradley and the Jekyll-and-Hyde performances of his squads, or shake up the staff before the more serious mission of World Cup qualification begins next year.
It ends the speculation about his job security, speculation that has circulated since the Americans lost to Ghana at last summer’s FIFA World Cup. It wasn’t so much a matter of the logic of replacing him as the coach, but a matter of timing. Most expected change to come last summer, but after Gulati failed to land the bigger fish of his dreams he fell back on continuity.
But what exactly did the U.S. get with that continuity? The past five years of the Bradley regime will be memorable both for the great strides forward taken by the team… and by the inconsistency to maintain momentum when it was gained. They were stagnant, in the purgatory of mediocrity and doomed to remain there.
The United States proved that it had the players to be competitive at the regional and even international level. And under Bradley, they proved the ability to play both up to and down to the level of their opposition.
The Americans showed a remarkable ability to reach finals of tournaments. But those men under Bradley also showed a remarkable ability to falter spectacularly when the finishing line was in reach. With the United States, as I wrote back in 2009 after the Confederations Cup final and remained just as valid throughout today’s announcement, it is always a game of two halves with the Americans.
The USMNT on Bradley’s watch would build up a nice lead — think 2-0 up on Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, or 2-0 up on Mexico in the recent Gold Cup final — and then fall into tactical disarray, neither defending their lead tenaciously nor pressing forward to expand it. Or they would fall behind — the one thing they seemed to do most consistently at the World Cup — and then find a way to claw back to show a result far better looking on paper than it actually was in real time.
Either way, it is hardly a way to establish a winning tradition and, more importantly, progress moving forward. His best result as a coach came in the beginning, from 2007 to 2009 — winning the Gold Cup in his second year at the helm, qualifying at the top of the Hexagonal and going to the Confederations Cup final. After allowing three goals after halftime to relinquish their 2-0 lead over Brazil, everything seemed to crumble. It quickly became a case of diminishing returns leading into and through last year’s World Cup. The tactics were going stale, the confidence was shot, and too often the Americans came up wanting.
So where does the United States turn from here? What path do they walk?
The likeliest reason for the timing of this move is that Gulati now has his dream candidate lined up. With a new coach expected to be announced as soon as Friday, most have speculated that the third time was the charm in landing Klinsmann.
The real question, though, is whether or not this is the right move for the Americans…
Klinsmann’s name has been at the top of the heap for some time. The other names getting kicked around — Marcello Lippi, Guus Hiddink, Frank Rijkaard — are the usual high-profile retreads that the Americans have long pined to land as their leader. What all these coaches have in common is the fact that they have had success with traditional juggernauts, with far more aggregate talent than the American side really can offer top to bottom.
Klinsmann is often praised for getting a raw, young German side to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup… but his temperament led him to split from the federation soon thereafter, and his stint at Bayern Munich ended in acrimony as well. Is his disposition — and all-out commitment to offense at the expense of any defensive tactics — the right fit for a team that has often lacked discipline and dedication to evolving with a game effectively for a full ninety minutes?
Every one of the big names on Gulati’s wish list have that sort of past-their-prime feel. Lippi, who managed Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, brought the same diminishing returns afterward to the side with his commitment to the veterans with which he’d succeeded before at the expense of developing for the future. The failure of the defending champ to even get out of the group stage in South Africa was a blight that should hardly be forgotten.
Rijkaard, the former Barcelona and Galatasaray manager, just took the Saudi Arabia vacancy and is unlikely to jump ship so quickly. Hiddink has the best pedigree of success with reclamation projects, but this would probably be a stopgap measure much like the work Bora Milutinovic did in creating a respectable American side for the 1994 World Cup on home soil.
No… the best choice is right under Gulati’s nose, and just as he was so often passed up for a spot in the men’s national team as a player he will also likely be sidestepped for a bigger (but not necessarily better) name.
Who would I hire if I was in Gulati’s shoes? Jason Kreis, the current coach of Real Salt Lake in MLS that has consistently proven ahead of the learning curve as a manager of both men and tactics. Kreis, who two years ago became the youngest-ever coach to guide a team to the MLS championship, has proven an ability to get the most out of rosters that are outmatched on paper yet remain consistent enough on the pitch to be competitive.
If Gulati was not blinded by his lust for the white whale he has so long chased after, he would see that Kreis has all the attributes he could possibly want in a coach going forward. He is young enough to identify with the trials and tribulations faced by his players. He has already been discussed as having the potential to be the first American coach of a foreign club, skilled enough in balancing the nuances of the modern manager’s various roles to warrant consideration among teams in some of the world’s biggest leagues.
And yet the U.S. Soccer Federation is likely going to take a different path, leery about repeating the mistake they made in holding on too long to the nostalgia of a coach that lost his way with his charges. They will likely feel the knee-jerk need to avoid the domestic choice, simply because it will be perceived as picking an inferior guy simply because of where his birth certificate was signed. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case… but it will be enough to justify Gulati’s decision in his own mind.
After all, you don’t fire a head coach at this point in the game, a guy who received a four-year vote of confidence just one year prior, unless the man you want is in your sights. The Yanks are going to take a different path into the future for their soccer team — a path that will almost surely land the superstar that the leadership has long lusted after. It will surely be a popular decision, but time will likely prove it another grasp at an identity that fails to fit the circumstances…