When the USA National Football Team beat Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, and scored two goals against Brazil in the final, we were all as pleasantly surprised if not shocked as we were when the same team beat Algeria on Donovan’s last gasp score in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But the subsequent loss to Brazil in the finals of the 2009 tourney and to Ghana in the round of 16 in the 2010 tournament were neither surprising nor shocking to most of us. In fact, most of us expected those results.
The USA is a football neophyte still. We do not have the pedigree born of years of international experience and success nor have we produced a better generation of players than the ones who represented us in those two world football gatherings. That is not all bad–in fact, the team is pretty good and has performed at a level that is a step above most fans’ expectations. Many of us feel that when the first string is in we have a relatively competitive squad, one that has a chance against most others, save the top 25 national sides. That is a lot of progress for a national team that did not regularly field a competitive side at the international level until about 25 years ago.
But what the Gold Cup clearly pointed out was that Coach Bob Bradley did not have a clear handle on his team, either from a strategic perspective or from an emotional leadership one. Our team played uninspired football all tournament-long and even their surprise start against Mexico in the finals proved to be a fluke. What we witnessed was a collection of options (players) brought together to fill in the latest trial run (strategy) in hopes of pushing through a very weak field into the only game that mattered.
What we should have seen, was the second best team in CONCACAF intensely readying itself for the forecasted game of the year against a very good Mexican side who was our better on paper. We should have watched our guys easily power through a collection of weak opponents in increasingly stronger performances building up to that showdown. We should have felt the intensity from game one, a communal spirit that showed all team members knew that the real objective was reaching another level, the 2013 Confederations Cup, the perfect pre-World Cup tune up. They should have remembered that the previous such cup, in 2009, showed what we might be able to achieve if things went our way when we needed them to. But, we never got there, not in intensity or focus or results.
Ironically, what we did witness was the future of the team in the legs of Freddy Adu, Robbie Rogers, Juan Agudelo, and Jozy Altidore, when they were actually on the pitch. Every so often, we saw a line up that worked well together for as long as that line up remained on the pitch. But the clicking formations never did, they were always broken up and substituted, sometimes illogically. We never got to see our players play in the rhythm that is born of knowing who your teammates will be.
When the USA team fortuitously reached that fated game, and had their finest 25 minutes of play, they could not sustain the physical effort, the momentum, and the level of play, long enough to grasp the gift that, until the 29th minute of the first half, had fallen into their laps. Just think: sixteen additional minutes of concerted focus would have seen the USA go into the locker room at half time with a 2-0 lead. What is truly disheartening is that most of the ensuing Mexican scores were eminently preventable and the indelible takeaway was the players’ looks–not once did they seem to know who should have been preventing what befell them or how. They had no shared experience to draw on of how to proceed because there was none.
In as much as a coach is not on the field, Bradley cannot be blamed for a walkabout goalie or a look away from a central defender facing a striker winding up for a shot. But a well-coached and well-led team owns up to its mistakes, particularly to one another on the pitch. It is the ethos of team sport participants that you swim or sink together and you hold each other up. Our team did not have a clue–that they were at fault, that there was something different they should have done to prevent their defeat and what that something might be–and that reaction was clearly the result of a joint failure, some might argue mostly Bradley’s.
Bob Bradley coached the US Team through some of its finest moments and for that he deserves our gratitude. But US Soccer President Sunil Gulati was right in terminating the coach’s tenure. And now comes Jurgen Klinsmann.