The US soccer team just dropped a 2-1 decision to Panama in the second group stage match of the 2011 Gold Cup. To say the game was frustrating to watch is to understate the case, and with some panache.
Despite an appalling first half, the Americans certainly had their chances to draw even and win the game late, capped by sub Steve Wondolowski swallowing his tongue and club-footing what amounted to a layup attempt into the third deck at the 80:00 mark.
The lingering bitterness, though, has less to do with this particular choke job than it does the overall failure to achieve under current head coach Bob Bradley. Last week, in a tournament tune-up, World Cup champions Spain made the US look like a second-tier rec league outfit. You can sort of accept that, I guess. Spain is the best team in the world (aside, perhaps, from the Barcelona club squad that a majority of them play for) and the US, well, the US isn’t the best team in the world. But tonight? The Panamanians aren’t chopped liver, but I don’t exaggerate when I say that if the two teams played ten times, the worst case scenario should be nine American wins and a tie.
So why the continued malaise of the US national team? I’m not unrealistic. Bob Bradley isn’t the only thing standing between us and five straight World Cup titles. On the contrary. For starters, in most of the nations in the world soccer is the first choice sport, whereas in the US a majority of our top athletes pursue football, basketball and baseball. This isn’t to demean the talents of our national team players, some of whom are truly exceptional athletes by any standard. But it’s a numbers game, and if you triple the size of the player pool you’re going to wind up with more world class players. Period.
Second, there’s the related question of talent development. Brazilian and Italian and Spanish and English and German (and apparently Panamanian) kids play like they were born with the ball on their feet. They can control and dominate the ball in the attacking third in ways that the US simply can’t. Watch Spain. They can trot an army of players out there who can pitch a tent and camp at the top of the 18 while knocking the ball around and you can’t get it off them seemingly no matter what you do. Three of them and five of you and it still feels like you’re outnumbered.
When you make this sort of skills development at an early age your alpha priority you’re more likely to wind up with Xavis and Iniestas instead of…well, I don’t want to name names. Watch the games and draw your own conclusions.
So it isn’t all Bradley’s fault. Not by a long shot.
However, the American talent base is improving noticeably. More and more of our top players are playing meaningful roles on solid teams in Europe and our domestic league, MLS, is providing younger players a viable forum to develop. It isn’t the top feeder league in the world yet, but it’s better than it was even five years ago and it continues to improve. Bradley has more talent to work with than any coach in US national team history.
But he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea about how to use it. I’m not even going to get into his misplaced faith in Robbie Findley, which turned into the saddest, most maddening mini-narrative in the whole of last summer’s World Cup campaign. I am going to mention his steadfast refusal to even attempt a formation with an attacking midfield, though, despite the presence of Clint Dempsey, who has proven (in the best league in the world, I should note) that he can make things happen from both midfield and forward positions. Is he Kaka? Maybe not, but he could pressure the defense in ways that would create opportunities for the team’s other attackers. And he also seems to have some chemistry with defensive midfielder Michael Bradley, who can dangerous when he roams forward.
We can argue the details all night – meet me down at the British Bulldog and we’ll do just that, in fact – but the bottom line is that Bob Bradley’s teams manage to consistently under-perform their talent level. I don’t think Bradley is a bad coach and I’m not drooling for the blood of a good man. I’m simply suggesting that the team has gone as far as it can with him at the helm. Disagree? Fine. What specific evidence can you point to that suggests things are getting better or that we’re about to turn a corner? I’ll take anything you got.
Based on what I see right now, I’d predict that we’ll qualify for the 2014 Cup as the second place team in our region (behind Mexico) and, unless we get a favorable draw, will fail to advance to the knockout rounds. Which, if you’re keeping tabs, is a step back.
Meanwhile, there’s an international coach out there who has proven he can outperform his talent. Last I heard he lived in California. I don’t know that he wants the job, but if I’m Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation, I’m going to pick up the phone and find out. Tonight.
Bob Bradley, you have my thanks for all you’ve done. But please, Sunil, can we give Jurgen Klinsmann a call and at least inquire about his availability?