by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer
When news broke earlier in the week that Sunil Gulati had finally ceased his near teenage girl obsession with Jurgen Klinsmann and finally awarded Bob Bradley the contract extension he deserved, I let forth a fist-pump and an exclamatory “all right!” Following a four year cycle that saw the once caretaker coach lead the U.S. Men’s National Team to a Gold Cup trophy, second place finish in the Confederations Cup, and a round-of-16 match in the World Cup, Bradley met all reasonable expectations thus far in his tenure. Dumping Bradley at this juncture would only undue the progress made under his tutelage and leadership.
Now, I realize that a great number of fans of the national team were clamoring for a change at head coach — most calling for some foreign coach to come in and lead the U.S. to glory over the next World Cup cycle. Others wanted to see a change because they believe in the quasi-evidence that second-term coaches always fail to meet expectations in their next go-around. I even read the musings of a small set of supporters that found Bradley to be to boring and unimaginative, and that he had reached the maximum level he could achieve.
Sure, I was as disappointed as any supporter over the way the USMNT crashed out of the World Cup against a beatable Ghana team. Another early goal surrendered — all because of a questionable call to start Ricardo Clark instead of Maurice Edu — and a listless first half offense, then followed by a great second half equalizer, before coming up short in extra time. I was mad for the rest of that day, and for many days to go as I reflected on the lost opportunity to advance through a very favorable knock-out round schedule.
But I healed from the experience, and I took a necessary step back to ask myself whether the USMNT and coach Bradley had done everything asked of them. My tentative response was yes, and as the taste of the defeat waned, changed to a resounding affirmative. Casual conversations with other observers of the World Cup — people who mumbled under their breath for the scalp of Bradley — only strengthened that belief that the results of the World Cup and the development that lead up to it showed the USMNT moving in the right direction.
The surprising lack of action before the big friendly with Brazil last month made me curious as to what the leadership of the USSF had in mind for Bradley. Then, recent comments from Landon Donovan suggested that the Bradley era was essentially over. Other national teamers were audibly silent, whether to the press or on their ubiquitous Twitter accounts. Even I was resigned to the idea that Gulati was going to make the change at head coach.
A little background on why I strengthened my support for Bradley in the weeks following the U.S. loss to Ghana: In the middle of July, Tottenham Hotspur visited the Bay Area as part of their preseason training and to take on the San Jose Earthquakes in an exhibition game. I was fortunate enough to talk to numerous players and coaches with Spurs during that weekend, where everyone to a man told me they thought Bradley did a stupendous job in South Africa and asked me why the supporters were all up in arms to have him fired. Knowing the history of consternation the English display for their own national team coaches through the years, I was rather taken aback by this universal support for the embattled Bob Bradley. Instead, I asked further why they viewed Bradley in such a popular light.
The argument went something like this: the USMNT was definitely a team on the rise, but it was clear that the players available were limited. When the best outfield players on the team are a loaner to Everton and a part-timer at Fulham, how could an objective observer not be impressed with the results of the team as a whole? Even Spurs gaffer Harry Redknapp was overly optimistic about the job the Americans and Bradley did in the World Cup, more than once commenting on what a truly complete job he had done with such a roster. Now before you vilify me for believing anything that comes from the media darling ‘Arry, his message was clear each time I spoke with him, that the U.S. was making great strides in International soccer, and the coach deserved the credit.
The lack of attention to the status of Bradley by the time the Brazil friendly rolled around was especially upsetting. Was the game going to be a tribute to a lame-duck coach or the first match in the preparations for the next important tournament? When a post-game report speculated that Bradley and thanked his players for their efforts in some sort of prelude to his resignation, I was genuinely worried about what was next for the national team.
By all means, the idea of Klinsmann as coach is intriguing, if for no other reason than having listened to his arguments about the youth development system in the U.S. he was able to expound during his television appearances at South Africa. He talked a nice story about how the U.S. would never rise above its current level given the state of affairs in our youngsters’ soccer development. He gained a lot of support among his audience as he pushed the buttons that would galvanize them to rally on his behalf. Many fans seemed anxious to see Klinsmann ride in on his white horse and vanquish the pay-to-play model of youth soccer that was killing the chances of the U.S. to ever crack the elite group of successful soccer countries.
And Bradley remained silent, much like the incumbent candidate in an election that preferred to let his actions speak louder than the rhetoric being spewed by his opponent. He and Gulati know that the changes are beginning to take shape across the country that will eventually lead to a better pool of player talent. Already many of the clubs in MLS were running or initiating development programs for local talent. The league itself — a place where Bradley cut his coaching teeth for many years — was signing these home-grown players at rates high above historic rates. Young players from overseas, especially Africa and Latin America were joining MLS and providing quality competition for rising American stars. Our domestic league certainly doesn’t have the pedigree of the long-established European leagues, but the remarkable progress being made since its inception in 1996 cannot be discounted. I’m talking to you Klinsmann.
Flash forward to Monday afternoon, fresh off a weekend where Gulati had reportedly met with the former Germany head coach in Los Angeles, and a short, but sweet message was broadcast on Twitter by the USSF — “U.S. Soccer has agreed to a contract extension with USMNT head coach Bob Bradley through the end of 2014.”
And then strangely to me, but not surprising given the negative chatter I’d heard for nearly two months, vast numbers of supporters clogged the internet with their disappointment at the announcement. Instead of reading all of that, I immediately applauded the decision to keep the USMNT moving in the right direction under Bradley’s leadership. Instead of throwing away all the progress made over the last four years and hire an outsider to start building the foundation of the team anew, I was pleased to see Bradley get the opportunity to expand the successes of the team for four more years.
The safe choice, the cheap choice, the boring choice — I want to say in my opinion that the Bradley contract extension is instead the right choice. With next summer’s Gold Cup tournament, which holds an invitation to the 2013 Confederations Cup in the balance, coming up quickly, now is not the time to be experimenting on going in a whole new direction with the national team. Incremental progress, the same mentality that is seeing MLS grow in stature year after year, is the true measure for success with the USMNT.
Bradley has proven he has what it takes to coach a team to expectations, and has now been rewarded for those efforts. The next four years will see an increase in those measures, and with Bradley at the helm, I am confident the national team will deliver.
Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.