It’s midsummer and I haven’t written anything sports related in awhile. With the NFL going through perhaps the most insanely active week in its history, the MLB trade deadline fast approaching, labor talks finally starting up in the NBA, and the US Women’s soccer team fresh off a heartbreaking loss in the Women’s World Cup, it’s clearly time for some blogging about . . . .the US Men’s National Soccer Team (“USMNT”).
Last night, those of us who are die-hard fans of American soccer were taken by surprise with the announcement that Bob Bradley was fired as manager of the USMNT. With that news fresh in mind, there will be exactly zero such fans surprised by the swift announcement this morning that Bradley’s replacement will be the legendary former German player (and World Cup winner) Juergen Klinsmann, who previously also managed Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup.
I am deeply conflicted by this set of moves, the timing of which is more than a little strange. After the 2010 World Cup, in which Bradley coached the USMNT to its first group-stage first place finish after a miraculous last-minute goal by Landon Donovan followed by a disappointing second-round loss to Ghana, rumors abounded that Bradley’s contract would not be renewed and he would be replaced by Klinsmann.
At that time, I was an advocate of bringing in a new coach, though I was (and remain) uncertain that Klinsmann was a good fit for the position, preferring that US Soccer again search for a domestic coach to replace Bradley. Unlike others, my reasoning for wishing to see Bradley replaced at the time had nothing to do with dissatisfaction with Bradley, who very much won me over despite my skepticism when he was initially hired. Instead, it was my belief at the time that parting ways would be beneficial for both parties – for whatever reason, national team managers around the world seem to have a terrible track record when they return for a second World Cup cycle, and at the time Bradley was viewed as a possible candidate to become the first American to coach in the first division of a major European league.
Bradley’s contract was nonetheless renewed for another cycle, supposedly because US Soccer could not agree to the terms Klinsmann was demanding and was unwilling to consider any other candidates. This was followed by a disappointing 2011 campaign under Bradley, featuring a 4-0 embarrassment in a friendly with Spain, an even more embarrassing 2-1 loss to Panama at home in the group stage of the Gold Cup (the first time the US has ever lost at that stage of the Gold Cup), and a deflating 4-2 loss to Mexico in the finals of the Gold Cup after taking a quick 2-0 lead.
But Bradley was not fired immediately after the loss to Mexico in late June. Instead, he was fired more than a month later, just a week and a half before a rematch with rival Mexico. Moreover, it’s unclear how much of the USMNT’s performance in 2011 can be laid at Bradley’s feet. The generation of American players relied upon so heavily for the last decade, especially on defense, are rapidly aging and clearly on the downside of their careers – Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu. Donovan seemed to have lost his focus on the national team again this year even as he begins the downside of his career – during the Gold Cup the supposed superstar of the team proved to be far more effective as a substitute than as a starter. The team was additionally hurt by an injury early in the year to Stuart Holden, who may have been on his way to being the best American player in Europe this year.
True, the US has some promising young talent at its disposal in players like Juan Agudelo and Eric Lichaj, as well as the enigmatic but-still-young-enough-to-turn-it-around Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu. But the middle generation of players who should be entering their prime right now and will necessarily be the core of the 2014 World Cup cycle is underwhelming, to say the least, consisting of mediocrities and perennial disappointments like Jonathan Bornstein, Jonathan Spector, Robbie Rodgers, and Sacha Kljestan. Michael Bradley, Bob Bradley’s son, is almost certainly the best of this bunch, but he has regressed significantly this year after spending his club season on the bench.
Point being that the talent cupboard is pretty bare right now, though it might get a bit better if and when Holden returns to form. It’s thus not entirely right to blame Bradley for the disaster that this year has been. In some ways, Bradley’s willingness to experiment with players, often his downfall in the past (e.g., starting Ricardo Clark in the second round of the World Cup against Ghana), might be exactly what the US needs right now.
Will Klinsmann be able to do better with what we’ve got than Bradley? I don’t know, but the timing of this is puzzling, unless US Soccer has been secretly negotiating with Klinsmann ever since the end of the Gold Cup, which is entirely possible. In waiting this long to bring Klinsmann on, US Soccer has lost nearly an entire year of allowing its coach to evaluate its talent for the next World Cup cycle. This is particularly troubling given that Klinsmann is: 1. Not an American, and thus is less able to understand the particular psyche of the American player; and 2. Has only really been in a position to closely observe American soccer since March, during which time he has been a “consultant” for MLS side Toronto FC.
I hope I am wrong. But it’s clear that, his resume notwithstanding, Klinsmann would have his work cut out for him even if he had longstanding close ties to the American game and had been hired in late 2010. That he is being hired a year into the cycle and lacks those ties to the American game makes it somewhat unlikely that 3 years from now we will be able to reflect on the Klinsmann era and say definitively that his tenure was better than an additional cycle under Bradley would have been.