Monday, August 30, 2010

The Bob Bradley Answer

Four More Years

Quick thoughts:

- This isn't a bad decision, but I would be very surprised if we don't look back on Bradley's tenure in 2014 and determine he peaked at the Confederations Cup in 2009. Like I said before, the road to the round of 16, let alone the quarterfinals, in 4 years in Brazil will almost certainly be harder, and this team barely made it this time around. Add in the statistics regarding coaches getting 2nd chances at a World Cup squad, and it's hard to get excited about this decision.

- It seems pretty likely that for the 2nd time in a row, Bob Bradley was given the reigns to the US Soccer team as the second choice behind Juergen Klinnsman. Klinnsman would have gotten more people excited, but even though I wasn't for bringing Bradley back, he deserved better than (alledgedly) playing second fiddle to him again.

- Develop the next set of players, Bob. You have the security of the 4-year contract, you don't have to prove anything to us in the next 2 years. Show us your plan for replacing the older guys from the 2010 squad. Show us who will step in on the backline, show us who will roam the midfield with the current core. And in the name of everything holy, develop some strikers.

The bar is higher now, Bob. Keep the momentum going.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Bob Bradley Question

Given the news that Bob Bradley is meeting with US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati this week (likely later today), the question of "Will Bob Bradley's contract be renewed for a 2nd run at the World Cup?" will likely be answered in the very near future. The real question, though, is "Should Sunil bring Bob back?"

On the one hand, if this were a country in Europe, things would be easier. Many countries in Europe operate on 2 year cycles (thanks to the UEFA Cup) instead of 4-year ones. If we were in Europe, Sunil could simply decide to extend Bob's contract for 2 years and see how things played out. However, we are in the USA, and our soccer team resides in the CONCACAF region. No one cares about the Gold Cup (CONCACAF's equivalent to the UEFA cup), so you can't judge a coach on the team's performance in the Gold Cup and think it has any meaning as far as the World Cup is concerned. That's like judging an NFL head coach on how his team does record-wise in the preseason. Just a bad idea.

There have been plenty of times in Team USA's recent history that the retention decision has been an easy one. 1998 for example: the US finished 32nd out of 32 teams that made the finals. Steve Sampson was dumped shortly afterwards. In 2006, the US drew a tough group, but even so looked unimaginative and their coach, Bruce Arena had already been stewarding the team for 8 years. In both of those cases, the decision was easy: dump them and find someone else. It almost didn't matter who you replaced them with. In Arena's case, his coaching acumen wasn't in question, but he seemed burnt out and unable to continue. In Sampson's case, his acumen was entirely in question. A change had to be made.

Even in 2002, the decision wasn't very difficult. Bruce Arena had just led the team to a quarterfinals appearance in which the US had outplayed Germany but fell 1-0 to the eventual runner-up. If Arena wanted to come back, he was almost owed the opportunity to do so. I say almost not because a quarterfinals appearance wasn't enough for the US in 2002, but because of the statistics on coaches and their 2nd terms.

Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl accumulated the statistics on coaches from World Cup teams who returned for another 4 years and again eld their team to a 2nd World Cup. The results show a tepid picture: Of the 48 coaches he found, 25 led their team to a worse showing the next time around (this includes Arena), 10 led the team to an equivalent showing, and just 13 (or 27.1%) achieved an improved standing. Wahl makes the good point that only coaches who overachieve tend to get asked back, so they're behind the 8-ball from the get-go on round 2, but the stats still don't paint a very promising picture.

Are the stats enough to say Bradley should be removed? No. This isn't a case of anyone could do better. We have to delve a little deeper.

On the one hand, the players love playing for Bradley. And he was able to cultivate an environment where this team never gave up. They would push and push and pressure you until the end (see USA 1, Algeria 0). Bradley led the US to the finals of the Confederations Cup in 2009, getting the USA out of a group featuring Brazil, Italy, and Egypt, and then upsetting Spain 2-0 in the semifinals, brekaing an unbeaten streak of over 30 games for the now World Cup Champions. The US emerged from CONCACAF qualifying as the top team in the region. In this World Cup, he was without perhaps his best defender (Onyewu, a shell of himself due to injury), and possibly striker (Charlie Davies, due to a car accident that almost killed him in October 2009), and still the US advanced to the 2nd round by winning their group. Bob Bradley did much for this country in his 4-year cycle.

But (unfortunaetly, most of these accomplishments lose a little luster if you look a little closer)

The players may love playing for Bradley, and their never-say-die attitude made them a great show...but this attitude was necessary because once the Confederation Cup ended, they spotted their opponents a goal in the first half of the first half some 90% of the time. The one game in the World Cup where they didn't fal behind early? Against Algeria, a team that scored a whopping 0 goals in the tournament, and even then only because their striker hit the crossbar on an open shot inside the penalty area in the early stages of the match. In their game against Ghana in the round of 16, the US gave up a goal in the first 5 minutes of the match, and then again in the first 5 minutes of overtime and fell 2-1. You can't dance with the devil consistently and expect not to get englufed in flames sooner or later. The Confederations Cup upset of Brazil was an incredible feat, but the US only got there on goal differetial because their pool was Brazil at 3-0 and 3 teams at 1-2 with terrible goal differentials. The USA topped their qualifying region...but they still cannot get results in Costa Rica or Mexico. This can't be held against Bradley as a failing, because no one else can get the US results in those two places either, but it would have been a feather in his cap. Finally, yes, he got the US to the 2nd round, but based on their draw, anything less would have been failure. And once they won their group? The US was presented with the easiest path to the semifinals that they will ever get. That's not to say Ghana and Uruguay were lightweights, they were both good teams. But each other quadrant featured at least 2 heavyweights (Brazil/Netherlands, Germany/Argentina/England, Spain/Portugal) and the US quadrant has 0. When Gulati was asked after the OT loss to Ghana whether the US had met expectations at the World Cup, his answer was an unequivocal "No."

So this is not an easy decision, should Bradley come back? There are plenty of arguments for, and plenty of arguments against. The poll on the ESPN page linked at the top of this post is split 48/52 yes/no. I side with the 52%. Why? Bob's lineups, the slow start disease, and the US style of play against its region.

The US has employed a counterattacking style for quite some time now. This isn't a bad decision, it's reality. If the US wants to beat Spain, or Brazil, or even England, it's not going to happen by outpossessing the better teams. The US will have to hunker down, weather the storms, and make things happen on their counters. Essentially, the US wants to be a poor man's Germany (a team that has finished in no worse than third in the last 3 World Cups). But when you're playing Trinidad & Tobago, or El Salvador, a team like the US should not be conceding possession so readily. And even against good CONCACAF teams like Costa Rica or Mexcio, the US shouldn't be setting themselves up as the decided underdog with their style of play. The US is now the big dog in CONCACAF, they should be imposing their will on the other teams. Yes when they reach the world stage they will need the counterattacking style, but Germany doesn't concede possession to Luxembourg or Denmark.

The slow starts are what they are. It's true that Bob Bradley did not suit up once for the US in the last 4 years, and thus cannot take the lion's share of the blame for the performance. However, this wasn't some new phenomenon at the World Cup, this happened throughout qualifying as well. Bob didn't give up those early goals, but he never found the consistently right tonic for them over 2+ years either.

And finally, the lineups. As I said above, injuries really handicapped Bradley, especially at striker, where he had a 20-year-old and 3 players not good enough to be on the World Cup stage. But it wasn't just at striker that Bradley baffled. I will never understand why Benny Feilhaber never got a start. The book is apparently he can't pace himself to last for a full 90 minutes. But when he's on the field, good things happen. It was telling that when Bradley needed offense, Feilhaber was usually subbed in for the 2nd half. I also don't get his Ricardo Clark fixation. Clark is a defensive-minded midfielder, and it's a tactic that had worked in the past (playing Michael Bradley and Clark together), but Clark was responsible for the England goal in the 4th minute of the USA's opening game. And that wasn't his lone defensive lapse in that game, either. He wasn't in the game for his offense or possessive abilities, and he wasn't getting the job done defensively, so why did he get the nod against Ghana?

But the most damning indictment of Bradley's World Cup was his tubborn continued use of Robbie Findley. Findley rode a hot MLS streak this spring to a World Cup roster spot, bascially because he's very fast. However, very fast is worthless on the World Cup stage unless you also have the skills to threaten the opposition's keeper as well. Findley showed in game 1 that he didn't have these skills. He showed in game 2 that he didn't have them. Thankfully in game 3, the decision was taken out of Bradley's hands due to a suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards in games 1 and 2. So in game 4, Bradley surely wouldn't go back to Findley, right? Right? Bob? Seriously???

It's not that Bradley had great forwards sitting on his bench, Buddle and Gomez had some skills, but aren't world class strikers either. However, Bradley did have an excellent forward on his team he could have paired with Altidore: Clint Dempsey. Clint prefers his outside midfield spot, but he played some forward in the Confederations Cup and scored frequently from that position. I can't imagien Clint would have openly defied Bradley at the World Cup over a position change (this isn't France, right? Is this France? No, this isn't France), but there Findley was, running around aimlessly and forcing Bradley to use valuable substitution slots at halftime of a game that ended up going into OT. Certain unfortunate events aren't preventable. This was entirely preventable.

In the end, Bob Bradley was a positive for US Soccer these last 4 years. As the replacement Gulati had to scramble for after Juergen Klinnsman turned him down, he fell into a good option in Bob. But Bob didn't do so well that he's owed another 4 years at the helm. With statistics indicating there's a good chance the US does not do as well in 2014, and the likelihood (near certainty, really) that the path will be much harder in 4 years, Bradley did not do enough to warrant giving him the chance to out-perform the statistics.

Thank you for your tenure Bob, enjoy your next coaching job.