Many in Uncle Sam’s Army are livid about the current state of the US Men’s National Soccer Team and understandably so. In my last article I harped on the fact that the Nats seemed to have a habit of starting games flatfooted and then having to scramble for 70 minutes to claw back into the game. The outcome of this Gold Cup Final against Mexico was the exact opposite though. Come to think of it, that’s not the first time that has happened either (Brazil at the Confederations Cup 2009). So allow me to rephrase my complaint: we either come out flatfooted and give up cheap goals within the first 20 minutes and have to scramble like hell for the next 70 minutes OR we come out blazing hot for 20 minutes and then collapse handing the game away over the next 70 minutes. Can we just get 90 minutes of consistent Futbol?
In all honesty, and I indicated this in my last blog, I think Mexico was the better team this year and I didn’t think we would be able to knock them off IF we were able to make it to the Gold Cup Final. I think Mexico has completed their transition from an older team to the younger generation and they are sitting strong and very pretty right now with an exciting brand of Futbol. The USMNT on the other hand is in the midst of transition much like Mexico underwent not long ago and like Italy, France and others are also undertaking now. Our roster is made up of guys knocking on 30 and guys almost old enough to order a beer with not a whole lot in between. I’m not all that bent out of shape when looking at the bigger picture that the Yanks lost to El Tri this go around.
I am irritated at how it played out though. Mexico came into the game needing extra time to get into the Gold Cup Final. While Mexico completely dominated their group they had faltered or at least cooled their heels a little during the knockout stages. Certainly they were the better complete team heading into Saturday night, but they were also ripe for an upset at the hands of a scrappy US side. And sure enough 20 minutes into the game the Yanks had El Tri right where they wanted them. So what in the wide, wide world of sports happened out there?
Most have blamed the injury to Cherundolo for the collapse of the backline and some have gone further (rightfully so, in my opinion) to Bradley’s decision to bring in Bornstein at left back and making a double switch by moving Lichaj from left back to right back where Dolo had been.
We were dealt a difficult challenge when Dolo had to come out, no doubt. Great teams overcome the inevitable setbacks that always rise up in Championships. Championship teams almost always have to dig very deep at some point in the contest to overcome a major obstacle or bad bounce seemingly threatening their dream. In this situation, Bob Bradley took a bad situation and made it worse with two swaps instead of one. But I still think there was more to the collapse of the team than Dolo having to leave the game in the 11th minute and the boneheaded coaching move that followed.
The Nats appear to be missing a confidence and swagger to them. They are coming up short in their own belief in themselves for some reason. That doubt starts with the Coach and works all the way down to each player on the team. Why did the coach name Spector to the 23-man roster as what would appear to be the #2 Right Back and not have the confidence to put him in the game when the #1 right back went down? Bradley got so much out of his bench and his substitutes the entire tournament why lose confidence in the final? Either there is something we don’t know that transpired on the training pitch, something between Spector and Bradley behind closed doors or Bradley had a major brain lock in a moment of high tension on the grand stage. Lichaj had been playing so well on the left, why disrupt that? If Spector is the only change for Dolo and then struggles, instruct Jones, Bradley and/or Bedoya to support the right side flank in a more defensive role, but don’t screw up both flanks and thus the entire backline when faced with the wing play that El Tri brings into the attack. We may never know why Bradley made his decision, but that whole episode was bizarre.
From the moment Dolo left the game, the entire team fell out of sorts and it was only a matter of time for Mexico. Many pundits have stated that Howard had his worst game ever for the Stars and Stripes. I agree. But to me that was a direct result of Howard feeling a desperate need that someone had to step up and pick up the slack on defense. When the backline fell out of synch, Howard began to try too hard and ended up in bad positions at bad times. It reminded me of John Elway in the first three Super Bowls he went to where he was seemingly the only player on offense. He tried to do too much and forced those games into blowouts the other way, but he had little choice, if he didn’t do it, who could? Likewise, Howard had to have felt he was the only player left playing defense once the backline was thrown into turmoil by the head coach.
So where do we go from here?
Should Bradley be sacked? I don’t think you fire Bradley on the sole basis of not beating Mexico and winning the Gold Cup. But Bradley has given the US Soccer Federation enough of a big picture over many years that if USSF wants to go in another direction for the next World Cup there is sufficient justification, but more importantly there is still time for a new coach to develop the squad that will head to Brazil. At the same time, Bradley has to be given credit for a pretty solid tenure all things considered (including sitting Landon a couple of first halves). At this point, I would be supportive if USSF decides to go in another direction, but I am also well aware that a replacement for Bradley could fare much worse in the current transitional cycle than Bradley might. At the end of the day, I just think it is time to shake his hand, thank him for a job well done and wish him every success in the future. My support for his departure has more to do with freshening things up, bringing in a new management style and philosophy with the excitement that usually accompanies a new approach. Oftentimes a new coach brings in an air of confidence and energy that the players could use in this case. And if Gulati won’t give the best coach available the freedom to build a winner, then Gulati needs to be kicked to the curb without the same niceties suggested just above for Bradley.
Whoever the coach is going to be going forward including Bradley if they stick with him, much effort must be made towards building a backline of 8 players that are fully interchangeable and young enough to get us through the entire cycle with some much needed consistency. We already have a base in Ream, Chandler and Lichaj, but we can’t go into Brazil with the soon-to-be 30-somethings from this past cycle and the cycle before that. We are in need of a major reload in the back and this new generation needs to play together in every game between now and Brazil. Continuity is the key to holding a good line.