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.
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.”