As expected, the U.S. has advanced past the first round of World Cup Qualifiers with a 9-0 aggregated victory over Barbados, a team chiefly made up of amateur and semi-pro players. Nothing wrong with 9 goals, but that was 8 in the first leg and a single goal this last weekend on the away leg. You could just point to the scoreboard and say, “mission accomplished,” but then you’d risk appearing as clueless as the last guy to utter that phrase.
It wasn’t about the result in this round, it’s about how the U.S. played and continues to play under Coach Bob Bradley. Look back to the three previous friendlies against England, Spain, and Argentina; look back further to other games and last summer’s Gold Cup and you see a team that doesn’t seem to know how they should play. And so they play listless, boring, defensive soccer. The kind of soccer that earned Bradley his ‘Bunker Bob’ moniker back when he coached the Metrostars.
International soccer is so different than other sports because it’s always leaning towards the World Cup. You want your team developing the right players and tactics to not only qualify, but arrive at the big event playing well and looking dangerous. To that end, international friendlies (games that don’t really count) are supposed to be for trying out new combinations and formations, etc., but Bradley has so far failed to do this with any creativity. Sure, he’s called in a lot of players at different points, but he usually ends up with the same basic squad, playing the same stolid empty bucket midfield with a single striker. Boring. Predictable. Ineffective. We hope the other team screws up or we can get a set piece goal. That’s our strategy.
For my hardcore readers, this approach was similar to the Illinois offensive game plan against USC in the Rose Bowl. You remember how we attempted two down-the-field passes the entire first half because “we didn’t want to give up the big play”. Yeah… Playing not-to-lose. It’s similar to the always maligned prevent defense. It’s similar to a basketball strategy that chiefly involves milking the shot clock and fouling a lot in an attempt to keep the game close.
You have a situation where players come to U.S. Camp, are told over and over, “We’re going to play for the result,” which means, “Don’t try anything aggressive.” It’s a defeatist mindset because it stifles any creativity and says to the players, we can’t hang. Even against Barbados, a true minnow, Bradley trotted out the two defensive midfielders. On the away leg, he started the game without a singe true forward on the pitch. And even when the U.S. had the ball, had plenty of time, they didn’t seem to know what to do. Contrast this with some of the other regional teams, or better yet, with upstart Russia in the UEFA Euro Championships.
Russia is coached by Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman who’s been successful for South Korea and Australia in the past two World Cups. Hiddink’s teams will come at you. They can attack and score goals. More importantly, they seem to believe they’re going to score goals. In the U.S., we don’t think we’re going to score, and that seems to our central strategic tenet.
So how do you fix it? The World Cup Qualifiers get more difficult from here, and you have two years until South Africa… You tell Bob Bradley, “thanks for minding the shop” and hire the best international name available (basically copying what Mexico has already done with Sven Goran Eriksson). You change your approach and you do it now.
But U.S. Soccer won’t take this path. They will stick with Bob, whose Bunker tactics along with occasional moments of brilliance by Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu, should be enough to get us through qualification. Once on the big stage, though, it will be three and out for the U.S., and we’ll look clueless while we’re doing it. This is a real shame, because we do have some truly talented players. Players — like the Russians — that could really make some noise under the right leadership.