The United States performance thus far in the Confederations Cup has been disturbing. Obviously Italy and Brazil are no one’s idea of a favorable draw, but Bob Bradley’s team often appears listless and without ideas.
Since the 1994 World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team has attempted to build itself with a succession of US born coaches. Why?
In 1990 Hungarian born coach Bob Gansler led the United States to its first World Cup since 1950. Sure the team was demolished in Italia ’90, but just qualifying earned the ’90 team a special place in US Soccer history.
The pressure was on in 1994 as the United States hosted the World Cup amid international concerns over the historical weakness of the US National Team and the lack of a domestic outdoor league. US Soccer turned to Serbian Bora Milutinovic to mold the US team into a competitive unit. The US won an improbable victory over a heavily favored Colombian team in the Rose Bowl and advanced to the second round, losing to Brazil despite playing much of the game with a man advantage.
The reputation of the United States as a soccer power had grown so much by this time that Colombian Andres Escobar was murdered for his own goal that cost Colombia their tournament run. The message was clear: Lose to the terrible US and it will cost you your life.
Having qualified for consecutive World Cups and advancing past the first round in 1994 apparently completely satisfied the powers that be at the US Soccer Federation. The USSF effectively stated, “Thanks internationally experienced coaches, but we’ll take it from here.”
Enter Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, and now Bob Bradley.
Steve Sampson presided over the horrific 1998 World Cup where the US lost to Iran and finished 32nd out of 32 teams in the competition.
In 2002 Bruce Arena enjoyed the greatest modern success of any US coach, surprising Portugal’s “Golden Generation” in a classic 3-2 victory that spawned Jack Edwards’ hilarious call at the final whistle, “MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY!!” That team exploited an absurdly favorable second round matchup against Mexico to reach the quarterfinals, an unfathomable feat.
The 2002 team honestly might have damned the US National Team from further progression through the present day. When you look back at that tournament, the US were maybe just as lucky as they were good. The US got up 3-0 on a Portugal team that clearly did not expect any sort of challenge. By the time Portugal realized they had a fight on their hands it was just too late. Portugal still battled back to come within one goal of stealing a draw. If the game had gone on ten minutes longer, they likely get that goal.
The US followed up that win with a bitterly contested 1-1 draw with host South Korea. Then the US with their tournament on the line lost 3-1 to an already eliminated Poland team and required outside help from South Korea to ensure their advancement. 4 points. That’s it.
But forget all that. US Soccer’s home grown coach strategy had been justified. The team reached the quarterfinals!
At present, US born coach Bob Bradley is at the helm of a US team that to this point has been largely listless in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. They appear to be riding reputation more than anything in less than inspiring results over the minnows of CONCACAF. And when I say minnows of CONCACAF I mean everyone except for the US and Costa Rica. Mexico is horrendous all of a sudden.
Funny thing about that reputation of US Soccer: what is it? It’s one of a team that in its best years has shown the ability to cobble together 4 points and bilk other teams’ misfortunes to sneak into the second round of the World Cup Finals. Honestly, who do we think we are?
In comparison, England recently turned to Swedish coach Sven Goran Eriksson and now Italian Fabio Capello to guide their national team in efforts to replicate their championship of 1966. Don’t you think that the venerated tradition of British soccer could produce better coaches than the United States? You would be correct. But England doesn’t want to participate. They want to win.
The US on the other hand seems content to trot out coaches whose previous biggest games were either NCAA Tournament competition or MLS playoffs. Both the NCAA and MLS have an important place in the development of the US game, but let’s get real.
Eriksson and Capello between them have coached Juventus, Real Madrid, Benfica, Milan, and Roma. When they stand on the sideline for World Cup competition they have the benefit of having coached in games of similar magnitude. When Sampson, Arena, or Bradley man the sideline for the US in World Cup competition it is the biggest game of their lives. The international coaches have the benefit of having their tactics vetted by top notch European competition. With the US coaches, they just hope whatever they have works.
In England the players can look to the coach for a steady hand and a stabilizing effect. In the US the coaches through their inexperience are just as shell shocked as the players.
What makes this extra frustrating is that personnel wise the United States have made the right moves. The team is full of young talent in the likes of Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan, and Michael Bradley among many others. Wouldn’t these players benefit more from an internationally established coach with a proven record of success?
Wouldn’t an international coach provide needed pressure on domestic players such as Landon Donovan to search out tougher competition abroad or risk not making the team?
Steve Sampson enjoyed great success as an assistant at UCLA, and later at Santa Clara. Bruce Arena built by far the best reputation of the three at Virginia. Bob Bradley was an assistant at Virginia before coaching Princeton and later a handful of MLS teams. These are great coaches if you want to win in NCAA Division One. When it comes to the World Cup, we appear to be getting what we pay for.
The US still has time to salvage the 2010 World Cup with a coaching change. Bob Bradley has succeeded in integrating a new generation of US players into the national team. He has coached his son Michael Bradley into a savvy holding midfielder with international potential. That’s a fine legacy. I would however like the team to compete, and not be satisfied with just qualifying for the World Cup. To that end I believe finding an established international coach is the next step in the maturation of the US National Team.