For U.S. soccer, caution trumps ambition

August, 31, 2010

The U.S. national team is on hiatus during the international break, but the U.S. Soccer Federation isn't. It was announced Monday that coach Bob Bradley has received a contract extension through the 2014 FIFA World Cup. That's too bad. Bradley's a solid coach with a fine record, but recent history shows that one World Cup cycle is enough for any coach.

Italy's Marcello Lippi and France's Raymond Domenech patrolled the coaching sidelines at the 2006 FIFA World Cup final. Four years later they were performing soccer's version of the perp walk in South Africa. Bruce Arena was an unprecedented U.S. head-coaching hero in 2002, which was certainly not the case four years later.

After reportedly flirting with Jurgen Klinsmann yet again, the U.S. Soccer Federation pulled its punches once again. It's not a disaster in the manner of January Jones' Emmy Awards gown, but the decision is a letdown for the members of Uncle Sam's Army who hoped ambition would trump caution (and control) this time.

In the wake of the U.S. loss to Ghana in South Africa, the German legend outlined his blueprint for a U.S. soccer revolution during an ESPN World Cup broadcast. Klinsmann's hiring would have been a bold move, but bureaucrats rarely do bold. They tend toward old, as in habits. And apparently Bradley's a habit they aren't ready to kick.

Bradley is only interested in winning games, not winning revolutions. No matter the sport, every head coach is judged by one thing: win-loss record. Bradley boasts a 38-20-8 record as the U.S. coach. Among his highlights, a runner-up spot at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and leading the U.S. to a first-place finish in Group C at the 2010 World Cup. Two accomplishments not even Arena could attain.

But can Bradley maintain the attention of his players for another four-year cycle? It's an enormous challenge and one that, even with the best of intentions and skill, he's not likely to meet. At some point, every team tunes out its coach, however successful (just ask Pat Riley), and that is the big danger for U.S. soccer in extending Bradley's deal.

Despite his winning record, there is a feeling that Bradley should have done more with the current group. Coaches are expected to have their teams ready to play. And this has been a huge weakness for Bradley. Time and again during his reign, the U.S. has trailed in games, usually early on after a midfield breakdown that saw the opposition gain the ball 25 to 30 yards out and score on a long blast. Good coaching corrects that problem, but it has yet to be solved during Bradley's tenure.

That tenure looked to be coming to an end as recently as last week. But while U.S. Soccer kept him dangling, Bradley made an unexpectedly ambitious statement that showed the competitive streak that fires every great coach. He said he wanted the Aston Villa manager's job vacated by Martin O'Neill. Alas, in head-in-the-sand England not even an American owner steeped in the business of credit can give credit to a U.S. soccer coach. On Sunday night, Villa released a statement saying that any prospective candidate must have EPL coaching experience. That shut the door on Bradley's Premiership ambitions.

Now he can turn his attention back to the U.S. national team and the real job at hand -- taking the squad to a new level. Many may see that level as attaining at least a quarterfinal place at the next World Cup, but it's much more than that. It's about the U.S. dominating CONCACAF opposition on the road as well as at home. It's about winning in Costa Rica as well as in Mexico. It's about winning in places like Slovakia and Denmark. It's about assured, professional play on defense that keeps the game tight in the early going no matter the opposition. And it's about taking the best U.S. team to Copa America whenever the chance arises so that American players can experience the next-best test to the World Cup.

That's a lot to ask of any coach. It's a task that needs fresh ideas, which is something Klinsmann has in abundance, but it's just as likely that Dominic Kinnear and Jason Kreis would have them, too. And so would the aforementioned Martin O'Neill. Instead, U.S. Soccer recycles Bradley for another World Cup cycle. Not necessarily a bad thing, but like the U.S. performance in South Africa, it leaves a lingering sense of disappointment for what might have been.



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