After the failure of Germany 2006, nobody wanted to hire Bob Bradley for this job. It was hard to find a fan that thought he was the right man. US Soccer was desperate to hire Jurgen Klinsman. Columnist fantasized about importing some maestro from Europe or South America.
When the other options failed to pan out and Bradley was hired, there was clearly an air of Miss Congeniality about his appointment. His initial contract was not even guaranteed through the 2010 World Cup. Bradley was the date we all settled on while we looked longingly across the dance floor at the girls we really wanted.
And yet, Bradley did great. From the beginning, he wanted this team to play against the best competition he could find. That meant friendlies against top teams, and winning the Gold Cup so that the US could play in the Confederations Cup. Bradley banished the notion that games against Upper Tonga, Lower Bratslana, or the People’s Republic of Weak Sisters could offer anything useful.
Moreover, Bradley would seek out, find and play the young generation against these teams. The first time I saw Charlie Davies or Bennie Fielhaber play was when they put on the USMNT uniform. His son Michael earned a position on the team in such a way that nobody could ever accuse his coach of nepotism.
The team that took the field this month in South Africa was the most prepared US team in history. They had played more competitive games against meaningful opponents than any that had preceded it. Their fitness level was spectacular, and everyone knew their roles and responsibilities.
While many can take issue with some of his team selections, that will be the case with any national team coach. Every national team loss all over the world is always attributed to team selection, and the fact that the US team now has choices worthy to generate a debate is, in itself, an odd sign of progress.
That all being said, it is never a good idea to give a national team coach a second term in office. The US should look for a new boss.
The record for the second go-around is almost always a disaster. Italy’s Lippi, France’s Domenech and even the US’s Arena can all attest that the second trip to the dance is almost always worse.
Why is this? National teams need a fresh set of eyes to keep the team playing in a manner the Marine’s call “frosty.” Teams that are alert, aggressive and ready for action always do better. Teams that develop a comfort level with their coach and whose players assume (usually correctly) that their rapport and history will guarantee their place almost always underwhelm.
Four years from now, Landon Donovan will be treading that fine line between being a supremely experienced player who can dazzle and a 32-year-old player who is losing a step. If Donovan is really on the latter side of that line, will Bradley have the fortitude to drop him? If a manager does that to a player who has been with him for seven and a half years, will the rest of the team find that emboldening or demoralizing?
The US may be ready for a coach that combines the strategies and tactics of a foreign manager with the physical fitness and sports science expertise of a US coach. Who is that person? It is hard to say, but managing a young and improving US team is a plum position for many coaches of high reputation. It would be a strong move for US Soccer to explore that job pool.
As for Bradley, I would love to see him become the first American to manage overseas. I don’t doubt his ability and his intellect, and it would be fascinating to see the Princeton educated and hyper-disciplined Bradley bring something very new and very American to a European club team.