Bob Bradley is out as coach of the US men’s national soccer team. Bradley, who took over in 2006, has helped the team achieve some decent results. In 2007, the US beat archrivals Mexico in the Gold Cup Final (the North and Central American Championship) and in 2009 lost the Confederations Cup Final 3-2 to Brazil. But the 2010 World Cup was a disappointment for Bradley and his team. The US gave up early goals and had to fight their way back into matches. Their heart was impressive, their defending and tactical cohesion not so much.
Bradley had a chance to prove his doubters wrong (and he had many) at the 2011 Gold Cup. But once again the US had to rely on spirited rallies after going down early. They seemed under-prepared and defensively frail. All would have been forgiven had the US not blown a 2-0 lead against Mexico in the final, conceding 4 goals thanks to a string of defensive mistakes and blunders.
The decision to replace Bradley was probably made before the final whistle sounded. The team lacks an international caliber centre-forward and has no depth at the back. But with players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard in the side, American fans wanted more than the cautious, often taciturn Bradley could provide. They were especially displeased by his tendency to stick with players even as they struggled mightily on the pitch. Loyalty is an important quality in soccer: Jonathan Bornstein scored a crucial goal for the United States against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. But his defensive liabilities mean the leftback is usually a catastrophe waiting to happen against top wingers. Brazil, Ghana, Mexico and Spain have all proved that over the past year but Bradley has stubbornly stuck with the player.
Now, Bornstein and a few other Bradley favorites have reason to be nervous. New coach Jurgen Klinsmann has promised American fans “positive rather than reactive” football. He has the resume to back up that claim. As a powerful goal-scoring forward, Klinsmann won the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championship with his home country, Germany. As a coach, he led his nation to the third-place at the 2006 World Cup. He has lived in California for the past 13 years, speaks fluent English, knows American soccer, and has even used American fitness and psychological methods in his European coaching gigs. He is charismatic, media friendly and fond of attacking football (in many ways, Klinsmann is the opposite of Bradley). He is the natural choice. In fact, Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation, approached “Klinsi” about coaching the team after both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
Klinsmannn has his work cut out for him ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He will need to find a solution to the troubled forward spot. Jozy Altidore, Bradley’s favored starter, has scored 3 goals in 3 years with four teams since his move from New York to Europe. The 18-year old Juan Aguedelo, who played at the Gold Cup, still looks raw at the international level. Perhaps Klinsmann will be creative and play without a true center-forward: Landon Donovan (whom the German brought to Bayern Munich in 2009) and Clint Dempsey are attacking midfielders who have scored 68 goals between them for the US. They could well handle the goal-scoring duties.
The defense is the real worry. Aside from right-back Steve Cherundolo, who is now 32, the US has no completely reliable defenders. The center-backs are powerful but slow and prefer to boot the ball out of danger rather than play it around. The US hasn’t had a dependable left-back since Frankie Hejduk, whose natural position was on the right, played at the 2002 World Cup. Klinsmann will have to mask these defensive frailties with midfield help and rely on the outstanding play of Howard between the sticks.
Finally, the big question is: will Michael Bradley retain his starting spot? The son of former coach Bob, the defensive midfielder was accused of benefiting from nepotism when he made his US debut five years ago, shortly after his father took over. But Bradley has played well since then, despite a fiery temper that has seen him earn red cards, and earned his place in the squad. These days, he has heavy competition from Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones, harder-tackling players who are not as effective going forward. It all depends on what tactical setup Klinsmann employs.