World Cup

Why Soccer's Bob Bradley Returned to U.S. Team

| by

Consider the following some leftover/half-baked ideas in the wake of Bob Bradley copping Sunil Gulati's four-year re-up.

* * *

Club v. Country, American style:

The Revolutionary War began in 1776. This much we know.

Over time, the British influence grew less-and-less pronounced over the "Colonies."

Yet one area the crown still seems to whole a decent amount of sway is in how Americans digest and consume soccer news. Rightly or wrongly, the English influence hovers over how things go down in the States. (*)

(*) Paying attention to the EPL vs. MLS is a tired debate for another day.

A lot of it's a language issue. It's easy to read stuff coming from England and get wrapped up in it.

If, say, my knowledge of the German language extended beyond knowing how to ask where to get a blood transfusion, perhaps this little ol' blog would have a Bundgesliga recap every Monday instead of the English/Barclay's Premier League.

Moving on.

Next week, if you catch any of England's Euro 2012 qualifiers -- recommended for the trainwreck/making fun of Fabio Capello elements -- notice the banners draping around the arenas bearing the Cross of St. George. Note how they'll be adorned mostly by names of smaller, non-Premier League clubs like, for instance, Crewe Alexandra or Stockport County.

That's not to say the only people in England that care about the Three Lions are lower-league supporters. Think about it this way, if you support a club like Manchester United, that eats up most of your time. You're fortunate enough to watch the talented Wayne Rooney on a weekly basis. If you're stuck in a lower/non-league club, your best chance of experiencing soccer at the highest level comes from the England Team ... a dire, bitter, cynical existence no doubt.

How this translates across the Atlantic is that it's pretty easy to tell from this past summer's World Cup, Americans don't exactly hate soccer as we've been lead to believe seemingly since Bethlehem Steel disbanded. Most reasonable sports fans, take Deadspin founder Will Leitch, who I traded a few emails with during the Cup, can see the value of the 32-team all-or-nothing tournament every four years. Maybe some of this has to do with the fact it's fun to root for American when it's the underdog in a sport.

Either way, the scorn of the Mariotti's and Romes of the world is fading toward irrelevance.

Thanks to the heroics of Landon Donovan and the gritty, gutty U.S. team -- granted a team that won just one game in South Africa and needed 93 minutes to do so -- found some baseline connection with a wide swath of people, something soccer in the States had been waiting for ever since, probably, the ball deflecting off Joe Gaetjens ear in Belo Horizonte at the 1950 World Cup.

What this created, in a roundabout way, is people who's only concrete interest in soccer -- one where they have a connection on the emotional level -- is the exploits of the U.S. National Team. For these folks, the U.S. represents their de facto club team.

Naturally there's absolutely nothing wrong with people caring only about the U.S.(*), the bandwagon has plenty more spots. Look, Tuesday afternoon on "Sportscenter" the pathetic home attendance of the Tampa Bay Rays in a pennant race draws more time than Bradley's new contract. This is still America, after all.

(*) If you're in this boat, give club soccer a chance, whether it be MLS, EPL, La Liga, the League of Taiwan, whatever. The day-in, day-out life of following a club is sometimes more rewarding than the "all the eggs in one basket" international soccer sometimes devolves into occasionally.

Yet the problem as it relates to a large segment of people being 1) angry 2) saddened 3) disillusioned by another four years of Bradley is that people want to watch every U.S. match and be entertained by some kind of semi-mythical soccer, think a cross between Brazil 1970 and Spain 2008 with a dash of Lionel Messi's XBox doppelganger.

International soccer isn't so much about beauty, though, is it? In theory, the results should speak for themselves.

It's a rehash of the old debate, is soccer supposed to be art or science?

Once again the trap the U.S. falls into, is that since 1990 the time, money and resources pumped into the program has pushed the team head-and-shoulders above everybody in CONCACAF aside from Mexico. As a result it's hard for even the most ardent U.S. fans to get all that excited by playing Guatemala or El Salvador. Call it a snobby or haughty attitude, but it exists.

Throw in the news today that CONCACAF is probbaly going to axe the "Hex" round of qualifying and chances are the U.S. won't even play Mexico in a 2014 qualifier, making the road to Brazil perhaps a little more fraught with peril -- only two of four qualify as opposed to three/four of six -- but surely a lot less exciting from a matchup, tactical standpoint.

At the same time, there is no logistical way for the U.S. to play teams like England, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, etc. in meaningful settings aside from the World Cup, tangentially making next summer's Gold Cup all the more important since it holds the "Golden Ticket" to the 2013 Confederations Cup -- a.k.a. a rare non-World Cup chance for the U.S. to prove its mettle in a meaningful tournament.

So regardless of it Gulati re-hired Bradley, went for Jurgen Klinsmann or another coach with a foreign pedigree or even a Steve Niccol-type, the man on the sidelines won't spice up what is, unfortunately a sort of soccer limbo the U.S. remains stuck in.

* * *

Self Awareness:

Maybe the best consensus around all the voices on the U.S. soccer Inter-nets can draw in the wake of the Bradley re-hire is this: what do people realistically expect from the U.S. heading into 2014?

Is the U.S. ready to pose a legitimate challenge to win the World Cup?

Is the U.S. what it is, a 95-percent lock to qualify, who is making up the 32-team numbers?

Should U.S. fans be happy that the squad has gone in 20 years from total irrelevance/laughingstock status, to a legitimate Top 20 team in the world?

Or better yet, is the U.S. still at the point where the draw in December 2013 plays perhaps the most meaningful role in what happens at the next World Cup?

There are two schools at thought working here and there's tough to sort out.

On the one hand the U.S. is sort of at the point of, to crib from Dennis Green, "who we think it is." For many that's acceptable. The U.S. will qualify, put out a competent team, struggle in key areas with technical skill, make up for it with heart and hustle ... then go home sort of happy.

It's not a bad approach, yet the way the U.S. went out to Ghana in June, with the World Cup draw breaking as fortunately as it ever will sullies the sunny optimism some might have. You know, if not here, when? What changes in four years, with the most important U.S. players moving toward the wrong side of 30, aside from Michael Bradley.

The flip side of this is new expectation is that the U.S. should compete for, at least, the quarterfinals of every World Cup. Again, is a tricky line of action lest we forget but three Americans (Oguchi Onyewu, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones) are on European clubs currently playing in the Champions League. True, the U.S. might have more options than every before, at least at certain positions, but not exactly the elite, cultured players who make the difference at the highest levels.

Yet if the people believe U.S. Soccer don't dream big, what exactly are we doing here? Should it be taken seriously that the stated U.S. goal is to win a World Cup, or is this going to end up an eternal pipe dream? Does it just make for a good quote to put up and keep the carrot in front of people's noses?

The best thing to come out of the U.S. under Bradley is that the team believes it can play with anybody ... even if that believe includes conceding goals in the first five minutes and making the work all that much harder.

In America look at some of the things we've seen in sports recently. The aforementioned Rays played in a World Series. Tiny Butler reached the NCAA Tournament finals. Kurt Warner -- a former grocery clerk -- led a team to multiple Super Bowls.

Hell, what's the enduring sports memory of the 20th century for Americans? I'd bet a lot of folks would answer, the so-called "Miracle on Ice"?

Granted, this stuff sort of plays out better in the pages of a Disney sports movie script, than it does on the field vs. the Brazil and Spains of the world. At that point, thing like, you know, tactical nous play a bigger role than any "sports montage" ever could.

Your personal verdict on the Bradley re-hire likely depends if you're happy with the slowly building status quo, or if you harbor bigger hopes for what the U.S. can grow into and become.

* * *

Best, Worst Job:

So ... if we look at it objectively, is the U.S. National Team head coaching job desirable?

Pro -- Outside of us loser soccer Internet trolls(*) as U.S. coach you have next to no media pressure outside of the occasional rant by Alexi Lalas, depending how much Red Bull he's had in a given day.

(*) Michael Bradley's thoughts, not mine.

Con -- If nobody really cares, how excited can you get for the job if you're in the Klinsmann/international mold?

Pro -- Unless your name is Sven-Goran Eriksson, qualifying out of CONCACAF is about as sure a bet outside the host country.

Con -- Outside of the matches with Mexico and occasional high-profile friendly, the majority of U.S. matches you're expected to win (with ease) including trips in-and-around the inhospitable jungles of Central American. Not fun.

Pro -- The U.S. possesses a deep sporting culture and plenty of great athletes ...

Con -- ... where the best aren't exactly farmed toward soccer and those that do aren't raised in the most rigorous technical club systems like Europe or South America.

Pro -- Overall, you're mostly judged on your World Cup matches by the general public.

Con -- Overall, you're mostly judged on your World Cup matches by the general public.

Pro -- With MLS here to stay and players getting ample chances in Europe, the U.S. theoretically possesses a deep talent pool.

Con -- You might be forced to play somebody like Robbie Findley in an important World Cup match.

Pro -- If you have the right set of grand ideas, you can implement leave your stamp on the team that seems eager to take steps toward becoming just-below elite level.

Con -- The U.S. is used to doing things its own unique way. If you don't have an innate knowledge of how U.S. soccer operates you're probably not being considered for the job in the first place.

If you want to weigh it, the U.S. job probably falls somewhere in the middle. You don't have the daily pressures of a Brazil or England, yet you're not working with the elite caliber players those nations possess.

The job, you'd think, would be attractive to a football wanderer like a Guus Hiddink, but the biggest turnoff to most foreign-style coaches is that the U.S. infrastructure is so unique right down to the core level. Most non-Americans are going to scoff at how American players are grown and probably want wholesale changes.

Probably most coaches wouldn't want the job because -- forget the salary -- they want to coach. Bradley basically said as much and was actively seeking the day-to-day duties afforded to a club boss.

An international coach, most of the time is spent scouting players. In the U.S.'s case that means watching a lot of grainy footage on your laptop of the Danish league. Sure some coaches wouldn't mind this relatively pressure-free life style, but the best ones want to be challenged. Throw in the fact your best prospects are playing either in MLS or scattered across European backwaters and cobbling together a working 30-man squad isn't as cut-and-dried as it seems.

In that regard you kind of feel bad for Bradley, that nobody in Europe is willing to take a flier on him. Aside from the National Team camp in January and the couple FIFA dates sprinkled on the calendar, how many days a year does he actually get to go out onto the field and coach? Who knows, maybe he learns from his mistakes of the last four years and figures out a way to stop the terrible early starts and find a way to close out matches.

For the U.S. to probably take that next step -- perhaps the hardest in the world, in breaking into the upper tier of soccer nations -- it needs a dreamer with vision. As the USSF is currently constituted, that's simply not going to happen. Beyond that, turning the average youth player from a good athlete who wins trophies to a mini one-touch version of Xavi takes years, time and money.

The bare minimum a U.S. coaches needs to achieve is qualify for the World Cup. At this stage, off the buzz of 2010 Gulati couldn't afford to even consider risking this not happening in 2014, hence Bradley became the safe (if not only) choice for the job.

* * *

Today's closing thought:

What was the name of that old Fatboy Slim album? "Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars"?

That's sort of how I personally feel about how all this went down and what the U.S. is going to do going forward. We all, as fans, want the U.S. to shoot for the best, but we're stuck settling for what we are. It's not a great feeling, but it could be a whole lot worse. Look at nations like Scotland, who may never reach a World Cup in our lifetimes again.

More than anything Bradley's return reminds me of an episode of "Louie" from a few weeks ago, when Louis CK was on a date in a coffee shop and gets browbeaten by a young high school tough. His date is appalled how Louie shriveled into a wimp when challenged by the football player from Staten Island.

Intellectually, she says, she understands why Louie didn't do anything to the kid, but emotionally at a primal level she was massively turned off by his massive cowardice.

My brain can rationalize and accept why Bradley returning to the helm of the USMNT for the next four years isn't the worst thing that's ever happened in the history of professional sports. Emotionally, though, it leaves me a little empty, as in, we've seen this story before and its hard to envision the sequel being a whole lot more interesting. A fresh set of eyes and ideas after four years isn't all that much to ask, is it?

Here's to hoping, like most of my non-Andy Carroll preseason EPL predictions, I'm wrong.