The US men's national team made a real mess of the recent Gold Cup, despite making it to the final, and at one point, being up 2-0 on the eventual winners, Mexico. That result flatters a team that lost to Panama and scraped past Guadeloupe 1-0, and merely illustrates that the US can still be awful and be one of the two best teams in the CONCACAF region. To be fair, I can remember a day when that wasn't the case, and the US qualifying for the World Cup wasn't a given. But the team's performance has hit a plateau, and shows no signs of picking up.
There are two basic schools of thought on what's wrong: the pool of available players sucks, or the manager, Bob Bradley, sucks. Despite the way this argument is playing out online, it's not an either/or situation. Both are true.
First, the players: there is no question that the current squad is underperforming. Regardless of the depth of the player pool, there's no excusing a loss to Panama and a narrow win over the minnows of Guadeloupe. The US should walk to the final of every Gold Cup, not scrape through.
I see three basic reasons for this underperformance: lack of motivation, poor squad quality and poor player development. The first two of those are certainly the responsibility of Bradley; in a properly functioning soccer federation, he'd have a large role to play in the third, but more on that later.
One of Bradley's jobs is to motivate the team. If he can no longer do that, it's time to move him on. If he can't put together a squad that he can get to perform -- note that I said perform, not win -- it's time to go. He has not demonstrated the ability to do either recently.
Bradley's tactical acumen is also suspect. His one-track thinking has proven itself fallible when it's not perfectly matched to the available personnel, and he team selection is questionable. Jonathan Bornstein has come under a lot of fire for his play against Mexico, some of it deserved and some of it not. Bornstein has never been a favorite of US fans, and he hasn't played much this season for his team in the Mexican Leqgue. The real question to me is why Bradley chooses to bring him on the field when the starting right back, Steve Cherundolo, got injured. This decision forced switching the other fullback, young Eric Lichaj, out of his usual position to the right, and led to Bornstein getting skinned by the speedy Giovanni Dos Santos on multiple occasions. The more reasonable choice would have been to bring in Jonathan Spector, coming off a solid season for West Ham, in on the right, and leave Lichaj and his pace to try and keep up with Dos Santos.
Spector appears to be a player who's never been in Bradley's good books, as he's consistently been overlooked despite his club form. Stuart Holden is another player on that list: he only came on the field as a sub against England in the 2010 World Cup, then went back to his club in England and was rated the league's best player until an injury ended his season.
Bradley also comes in for a lot of criticism for sticking with central midfielder Michael Bradley (aka his son). BC reader The Meddlesome Troublemaker did a great job in the comments of highlighting the younger Bradley's poor play on all four Mexico goals, but it's not just that one game: he's had a pretty terrible tournament and hasn't been playing at all for his club side. Yet he remains at the heart of this US team.
Bradley has been in charge of the US team for five years, taking over after the team's poor showing at the 2006 World Cup. Despite the achievement of the team in the 2009 Confederations Cup (an essentially meaningless tournament), the team hasn't made any real progress since then. That alone should see him get the boot. But will it?
That question speaks to the other issue here that's not getting nearly as much exposure in this debate as it should: the role of the US Soccer Federation and its president, Sunil Gulati. The USSF's function in all of this isn't just to pick a national team manager, it's also to look out for long-term growth of the sport in the US, and the success of its team. If you believe that the US national team talent pool is thin, blame for that lies at the feet of the federation as well as the coach.
It's obvious that the USSF has long fallen asleep on the job when it comes to player development when, with almost no exceptions, the best US players have spent formative years overseas. The athletic ability of American players is without question; their technical and tactical skills are lacking, and that stems from a collective failure of coaching and player development in this country. Even Bradley's appointment, based on his background solely in college and MLS -- hardly the game's highest levels -- reflects this.
Bradley needs to go. But so does USSF President Sunil Gulati. Despite his best efforts and intentions, the federation, its players and its fans deserve more than a part-time Columbia economics professor. There needs to be serious changes in the organization of the national team and the collective national player development pools, as it's rumored Jurgen Klinsmann pointed out in discussions with Gulati in 2006. Gulati allegedly balked at Klinsmann's demands to be in charge of the national team and development, and picked Bradley instead. It's time for him to take responsibility for that decision.
The NYT has as list of potential replacements for Bradley, none of whom excite me all that much, though some names (Marco Bielsa, Roberto Donadoni, Scolari) are more interesting than others (Kinnear, Kreis, Benitez, Eriksson). Louis Van Gaal could be a very interesting choice, given his experience at Ajax and Barcelona, and their history of developing top players. But to be honest, the choice of leader for the federation, and the player development plan they put in place, is much more important to me. Is Billy Beane busy at the moment?