In part one of this series, we saw an overview of Bob Bradley’s career, focusing on his time as the United States national team manager. Bob saw some pretty amazing heights, from the ethereal Gold Cup 2007 campaign to the extraordinary Confederations Cup in 2009 that saw his USA squad beating European and soon-to-be world champions Spain. But not all of Bob’s time with US Soccer was pleasant, and by the time he was deposed, most people could only talk about what he did wrong. So first, let’s look at a few highs from Bob’s time at the helm of the US Men’s National Team.
Gold Cup 2007: Running Riot in His First Major Tournament
It’s not easy to jump right into a new position and be successful, but against all odds, Bob Bradley took his new USA squad straight through to the final of the 2007 Gold Cup—and won it. Bob was quite known for his trial-and-error method of team selection, and in this tournament it worked wonders for him. He discovered multiple effective partnerships and tactics, but he was able to identify just the right players for each match—something he did not always manage with his USA squad.
The group stages saw the USA cruise through without a scratch—3 wins out of 3 matches. The first match against Guatemala saw Clint Dempsey pick up his 3rd career Gold Cup goal. The defense was resilient and Bob’s substitutions were very tactically intelligent: bringing Jay Demerit on after Onyewu’s ejection was a defense-minded move that proved effective in keeping the clean sheet and securing the win. Bradley changed the players for game two but kept a similar tactic, playing Jay Demerit and Michael Parkhurst (in his first competitive match for the USA) in a fledgling (yet effective) central defensive partnership. The striking partnership of Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching proved equally effective, with both players getting on the scoresheet in the 2-0 win. Ching’s goal, assisted by Mapp, proved very similar to Clint Dempsey and Taylor Twellman’s combination from the first game—showing Bradley’s competence in combining the right players for the job. Bradley later took the calculated risk of an early substitute, bringing Landon Donovan on for the ineffective Benny Feilhaber. Donovan immediately had an impact, claiming the assist on Brian Ching’s goal barely 10 minutes into his time on the field. Again in the 3rd group match against El Salvador, the most effective attacking came from Landon Donovan down the flank and Clint Dempsey and Brian Ching’s strike partnership (once Ching had been substituted in) up front.
The quarterfinals saw Bradley bring back one of his tried-and-true partnerships of Taylor Twellman and Clint Dempsey, the latter providing the pass that led to Landon Donovan being fouled in the box and scoring the subsequent penalty. One interesting part about this Gold Cup campaign is how many minutes Michael Bradley—he often played only a half to two-thirds of a game, either being substituted in or out sometime during the second half. What Bob was hoping to do with this was up for debate: was it nepotism? Or did he see Michael’s potential and attempt to give him valuable match experience alongside veterans like Pablo Mastroeni?
The semifinal match brought out what was probably THE most effective squad Bradley could put on the pitch, even though most of what he tried out in the group stages worked delightfully. The central defensive partnership of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra was resilient; both players had the experience and skill to hold off an unexpectedly powerful Canada team. One of the unsung heroes of this tournament for the USA was without a doubt DaMarcus Beasley—he held his place throughout the tournament and worked very well with strikers and midfielders alike. He earned the penalty that won the match after having his legs clipped by a Canadian defender after an excellent ball in by Clint Dempsey. Picking the right players for the right position was one of Bradley’s greatest skills, even if things like Michael Bradley’s ejection clouded the public’s view of his team selection.
That said, Michael Bradley’s red card meant he would miss the dramatic final against the old enemy Mexico—replaced in the starting lineup by the (usual) supersub Benny Feilhaber. It was Feilhaber’s stunning volley that won the match and broke Mexico’s heart to clinch a perfect run through the 2007 Gold Cup. Besides Feilhaber’s inclusion, Bradley replaced Eddie Johnson in the starting lineup with Brian Ching, who earned the penalty that Landon Donovan scored in the second half. Much of the team stayed the same, especially defensively, which proved that Bob Bradley did have tactical nous—even more so considering that he had only been on the job for a few months. A few minor hiccups aside, Bob proved brilliant in his first major international tournament, and more than a few heads turned when the US stormed onto the stage with such a dramatic win.
The Confederations Cup: What Dreams Are Made Of
Being a Liverpool fan, the feelings I associate with this tournament are akin to those I feel when I see the famous Liverpool banner from the 2005 Champions League campaign that read: “Make Us Dream.” That’s what all USA fans (and for a brief moment, the entire country) were feeling when, despite two destructive losses in the first two matches, the United States managed to progress all the way to the final.
In the very first match, a 3-1 loss to Italy, Bob played with one striker, Jozy Altidore, and two defensive midfielders–Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark. This was about the time when fans and pundits really supported Michael as a player, instead of attributing his inclusion to nepotism. His shaky performances were never really forgiven until he proved himself to be a world class midfielder in this tournament. Ricardo Clark, on the other hand, showed his true colors in this match by getting himself sent off early in the match. One of Bob Bradley’s underlying weaknesses has always been his lack of opponent awareness—he occasionally completely misjudged the tactics and mindset of the other teams, and the defense-heavy way he set his team up against Italy, practically the inventors of defensive football tactics, showed his lack of preparation that caused his downfall.
The game against Brazil seemed to go quite similarly–a single striker formation that culminated in Jozy Altidore being substituted early in the second half. It was unwise to put such pressure on an inexperienced young man, and Jozy’s early substitution was more of a mistake on Bradley’s part than the young striker’s. Bob was also so attached to using two defensive midfielders that he replaced the suspended Ricardo Clark with DaMarcus Beasely, a player more suited to the wing. The central midfielder role went from Feilhaber to Sacha Kljestan, who got himself sent off in the second half. Once again, the team was in disarray and Bob’s meager substitutions were no match for a clinical Brazil squad that put up three on the Americans. So what did Bob learn from his first match? Seems to be nothing: the same tactics were ineffective and the team was once again left on the back foot against a very skillful, quick team.
So, strike one and strike two. The Egypt match rolls around, and Bob knows the stakes–they must win by at least three goals. For once, Bob analyzed his opponents properly—Egypt were no Italy or Brazil, and he finally put out an attacking team to exploit Egypt’s weaknesses. He played something much closer to a 4-4-2 formation, though Bradley Jr. and Clark were played a bit deeper. Clark, for some reason, was decided to be worthy of this match despite the red card in his previous outing. This selection proved to be one of Bob’s biggest negatives during his time with the USA. But the biggest difference with this formation was the use of two strikers, Charlie Davies in addition to Jozy Altidore. This proved to make a huge difference, with Davies scoring within the first 21 minutes. Having a more technically gifted player like Charlie Davies to play off of Altidore, the more traditional number 9, proved to link the play brilliantly and build a more fluid, attacking team.
So the USA makes it to the semi-finals of a fairly big international tournament—some may refer to it as meaningless, but as stated before, the big teams brought all of their major players to compete. In this semi-final match, the Spain squad that played against the US was the same as the one that beat Holland in the 2010 World Cup final, bar two changes of players of similar skill (likely due to current form), Albert Riera and Cesc Fabregas in 2009 for Sergio Busquets and Pedro. But what is especially interesting about this semi-final, concerning the United States, is that Bob Bradley based his tactics and selection off of the win that preceded this match. After playing extremely defensively against two top teams, he realized that his team played best while in an attacking mindset—even against the best team in the world. He brought back the Jozy-Charlie strike partnership and went with the same central midfielders—Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark. The silliness of his obstinate need to play Ricardo Clark aside, this formation provided a similar fluid, attacking play that Spain never saw coming. Spain had some of the greatest midfielders in the world playing through the middle—but miraculously, Clark and Bradley were able to neutralize them. And the two superstars of the US squad, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, were able to do what they do best and attack the flanks where Spain had only the fullbacks to counter. This attacking instinct by Dempsey and Donovan was able to neutralize the attacking tendencies of Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila, seriously hindering Spain’s ability to cross in from the flanks. This also meant that the fullbacks were easily pinned down by the US’ width, and the first goal came from excellent play between Clint Dempsey and Charlie Davies on the left side, where Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso were drawn towards Dempsey and Carles Puyol moved outside to cover Charlie Davies. This freed Jozy Altidore down the middle to shield the ball from Capdevila, turn and shoot. The ultimate team goal, as Charlie Davies played an important part in drawing a center back out of position after one of the fullbacks had let himself be caught too far forward as well. The second goal demonstrated this principle again: after a tackle in the middle of the pitch, Benny Feilhaber demonstrated his tremendous potential by dribbling towards the penalty spot and then shifting sideways, drawing Capdevila and Puyol towards the center, allowing Donovan to move outside and collect the pass that he crossed towards Clint Dempsey, who also found space as a result of Feilhaber’s trickery. Dempsey, just as with Altidore, found a bit of luck to beat Sergio Ramos, but nevertheless was able to score USA’s second historic goal that day. The momentum was with the USA squad because Bob Bradley learned from his previous games and set up the team in such a way that gave them the tools to defeat Spain.
The final in this tournament, however, went less than spectacularly despite a brilliant start. Goals from Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan proved that the US’ win over Spain was no fluke, that they were the real deal. Sadly, the United States’ most glaring weakness—defense—proved to be the team’s real downfall. Michael Bradley, who as mentioned above blossomed into a true defensive midfielder, was suspended and replaced by Benny Feilhaber. So when the US came out with guns firing to score two first half goals, it was obvious that when they were in free-flowing attack mode, it was hard to stop them. But as the game progressed and Brazil clawed their way back in the second half, Bradley put his team on the back foot, where Brazil were allowed to run amok with barely any defensive trouble. Were it not for Tim Howard, the score would have been much higher. Defensive substitutions after Brazil’s second goal only proved Bradley’s narrow-mindedness; had he tried to gain the momentum back instead of trying to entrench, the US might have scored the winner, or at least held off Brazil to get to extra time. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. On their coach’s orders, the US kept backing up and backing up until eventually they fell flat on their backs and let Brazil dance around them.
World Cup 2010 Qualifying Campaign
The United States men’s national team does not have the best reputation, even within CONCACAF; qualification and subsequent success in international tournaments is never guaranteed. So even when Bob Bradley started the USA’s campaign to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, expectations weren’t particularly high. But Bradley knew that if he wanted to keep his job, he would have to qualify without any major hiccups.
The second round of qualifying, where the United States entered the competition, started off with a bang—a first leg 8-0 win over Barbados followed by a 1-0 win on the return leg (albeit with a weakened team) kept American spirits high. Considering the opponent, the US was expected to win comfortably—though probably not this comfortably! Bob fielded an attacking squad in the first leg that saw braces by Clint Dempsey and Brian Ching with three other players getting on the scoresheet.
The group stage started off very well, with 1-0 wins over Guatemala and Cuba, followed by a 3-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago. A 6-1 win over Cuba came next, though it unfortunately preceded an unexpected 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago. A simple 2-0 win with a squad of reserves over Guatemala finished off the third round. It was around then that Bob Bradley started to look at new players, players that he would need for the future; even though it was serious competition during World Cup qualifying, teams like Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago offered chances for up-and-coming players like Maurice Edu, Charlie Davies, and Jozy Altidore to prove why they deserve a chance. This helped shape the future of US Soccer, and is likely to be one of Bradley’s greatest achievements as US manager.
The fourth and final round of qualifying that resulted in who made it to the World Cup and where each country was seeded turned out quite well for the United States—definitely one of the peaks of Bradley’s tenure. The youth players that Bob had invested in during the previous rounds began to reward him for giving them a chance: his own son Michael scored a brace in the very first match, proving all the doubters wrong and making Michael a national soccer hero. Of course it didn’t hurt that the opponent was the old enemy Mexico. A 2-2 draw against El Salvador came next, but what followed this has gone down in United States soccer history—Jozy Altidore scored a sensational hat trick against Trinidad & Tobago, again proving that Bob Bradley had invested wisely in the young striker. The rest of the campaign was far from easy; losses to Costa Rica and Mexico threatened the United States’ position in the standings, but slim 2-1 wins against El Salvador and Honduras eased the pressure on Bradley’s men. More young prospects were given a chance during the early and middle stages of this round, but at such a crucial stage in the qualifying, Bradley was forced to stick with players he knew he could count on to do the job. Even older players like Conor Casey were called upon, and it was his brace in a 3-2 win over Honduras that secured the US a place in the 2010 World Cup. The qualifying was capped by a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica that gave the USA the top spot, barely edging out Mexico, much to the fans’ elation.
Bob Bradley might not have always made the best decisions, but in the course of these three events he showed that he was more than a competent coach, and if it weren’t for his stubbornness, he might still be in the job. Many of the players that he offered a chance to early in their careers turned out to be excellent choices, and often he found just the right player to put in a certain position. Luckily for Bob, he will definitely be remembered for many of these moments, where he assisted in building the foundations to put US Soccer back on the international map. All US fans are indebted to his service to the sport in America, even if his many weaknesses stood out enough to lose him the job permanently.