If Bradley Era Ends, US Could Change

Celebrated and criticized equally, Bradley's future still unclear

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Only time will tell if Tuesday night’s 2-0
loss to Brazil was, in fact, the swan song of a curious career at the
helm of the US National Team for Bob Bradley.

Maligned for his
mistakes as much as he was celebrated for his successes, Bradley was
often laid bare in front of an increasingly savvy American soccer
audience finally qualified to hold their top man accountable for
everything.

That’s a testament to how far soccer in the US has
come. But it comes with the price most national-team coaches face around
the world. Suddenly – and thankfully – job security is a slippery slope
atop the US ranks, just as it is in Argentina or Brazil, two nations
who parted ways with their coaches when expectations weren’t met in
South Africa.

For his part, Bradley simply might not want to face
it anymore. He hasn’t said as much publicly, but he also certainly
hasn’t trumpeted his credentials as the right man to carry the torch
into 2011 and beyond. With a quintessential steely glare and Dragnet
sensibility, he has stuck to the facts as the pressure has mounted
since the team’s exit from the World Cup, vanquished by a Ghana team
they rightly should have beaten but didn’t.

Bradley's contract
lasts through December. He has games to focus on before then. He’ll wait
for the impending discussions with US Soccer, and see how things shake
out. Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

POLL: Where
will Bradley be coaching this fall?

But there are
other facts here, too. He has been openly praised by Sir Alex Ferguson,
the Manchester United boss whose endorsement is a commodity as rich in
soccer these days as Thierry Henry’s smile or Cristiano Ronaldo’s
faux-hawk.

He’s been linked at times to a job with Fulham (a job
Bradley says he never directly discussed with the club before it was
recently filled), and the talk now is of a courtship with Aston Villa.
There’s a possible job opening coming soon, too, at D.C. United, a place
where Bradley naturally fits if he chooses to return to MLS.

If
Bradley does leave, will it signify the end of an era in US soccer?
Understandably so, but perhaps no more than any other coaching change at
the beginning of a four-year cycle. The impression left by Bradley
since his precarious full-time hiring in May 2007 isn’t defined by one
moment, but rather a collection of opportunities seized and chances
missed for a man who fittingly never harps too long in public on
failures or accomplishments.

Bradley’s group is a relatively
insular one, and has been for years. His players seem doggedly devoted
to his work ethic, his commitment and his eye for talent. He’s possibly
the most faithful coach the US has ever had, sticking with debatably
talented players during an era when he’s had more American depth at his
disposal than ever before.

And Bradley’s teams, fittingly, have
been enigmatic at best. They could conquer Spain, but they were also
doomed to fight tooth and nail with Honduras or Algeria. They could
stifle England or play admirably against the Dutch but, as they did
Tuesday, they could also get completely outclassed for 60-plus minutes
against a glowing Brazilian group of teenagers not even ready for prime
time.

The only reliable trait to Bradley's team is that they could
always play better. At least, he led US fans to think so. It's unclear,
however, if they ever truly could.

"The things we we need to work
on are always the same," Bradley said. "At a high level, the abilty
with the ball to see things faster, move things faster, take advantage
of certain situations. When you play better games, the window is smaller
and it closes faster."

There is no singular accomplishment here.
The win over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup was equaled by a
titanic collapse against Brazil less than a week later. The win over
Algeria, which rocketed US Soccer onto the front pages and courted
presidents and dignitaries to watch their games, was matched by a loss
to Ghana that left players and fans alike exhausted and disappointed.

No,
not all was right for the Americans on Tuesday. The bulk of the group
seemed in a daze somewhere between a South Africa hangover and dreams of
upcoming European seasons. They sparkled for 25 minutes before allowing
Brazilian phenom Neymar to crash the party, then they leaned heavily on
backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan to keep it from getting ugly.

"It
shows that defending against the best teams in the World Cup or against
teams like Brazil, that’s something we need to continue to work on,"
Bradley said. "To be able to play in these kinds of games where you can
be dangerous with the ball, move it quickly, create chances and still
when balls turn over, defend. That’s what we’re shooting for always."

Regardless
of his own personal future, Bradley showed his cards that the end of an
era is looming. Omar Gonzalez earned his first cap, Alejandro Bedoya
his first start. Carlos Bocanegra – the definitive veteran of this team
and the captain for many of the finer moments of Bradley’s tenure – said
after he came out in the second half that this new group was so young,
he couldn’t figure out who was the oldest player on the field.

Bocanegra
will likely be gone from the starting lineup by the 2011 Gold Cup, or
perhaps enjoying a well-deserved victory lap. Steve Cherundolo admitted
he’s unsure how long he’ll stay in the pool. Jonathan Bornstein, Robbie
Findley and Sacha Kljestan are traditional Bradley favorites, and could
be left out if a new coach takes the reins.

Findley and Edson
Buddle are largely unproven talents thus far. Herculez Gomez is a story
perfectly made-for-summer movie, but who knows if he’ll cash in on last
winter’s breakout.

“There’s definitely gonna be a lot of change,
man,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “You know how that goes the year after
World Cup. In two years we have qualifying, so this is the year you
have to try things out and see if things work.”

Said Bocanegra:
“It’s definitely a transition year. … Hopefully we can hang on as long
as possible. But we understand the process.”

The process. Every
nation endures it every four years or possibly less, and now the US are
no different. That includes players and their coach, feet finally held
to the fire as closely as they should be, with little room for relief.
Bradley’s tenure has built him into a both a valuable commodity and a
candidate for expulsion at the same time, leaving lasting uncertainty
whether Tuesday’s match here was the New Jersey native’s homecoming or
his going away party.

“This team has always been good about guys
knowing if it’s time to bow out or if they have something left in the
tank to keep going,” Cherundolo said. “In the next four years, some guys
won’t be around, and some guys will.”