WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Saturday afternoon, U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley wouldn’t admit that the pressure was on, or that a CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal loss to Jamaica might put his five-year reign in jeopardy.
It was, and it very well could have. But Bradley’s stoicism was justified. It turns out he had an ace up his sleeve.
Players decide games but coaches put them in position to succeed, and Sunday’s comprehensive 2-0 victory over Jamaica at sold-out RFK Stadium was as much a victory for Bradley as it was for his team.
Criticized recently for his squad’s slow starts, uneven play and tactical rigidity, the coach selected a starting 11 unlike any he fielded at last summer’s World Cup or during the Gold Cup’s first round. It featured five midfielders rather than four, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in their customary deep roles and Clint Dempsey, Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya up front supporting lone striker Jozy Altidore. Kljestan and Bedoya were reserves in the Gold Cup’s first three games.
Landon Donovan, who arrived in Washington at around 7 a.m. after attending his twin sister’s wedding near Los Angeles, was on the bench. For years, Bob Bradley had deployed Dempsey and Donovan as outside midfielders, with the space behind the two forwards left empty. It appeared this month that opponents had solved it, and the U.S. was unable to either maintain possession or consistently involve its strikers in the attack.
Instead of stubbornness, Bradley offered inspiration. His son Michael Bradley and Jones ran hard and passed smartly, while Dempsey, Bedoya and Kljestan were dynamic and tireless. They interchanged with each other, showed for the ball and ran Jamaica ragged. The Americans imposed themselves on a team that had gone 3-0-0 in the group stage and didn’t skip a beat when Agudelo replaced the injured Altidore in the 12th minute. By the time Jones gave the Americans the lead four minutes after half time, the "Reggae Boyz" were spent.
“We just felt the way they defend, that we could play a lot of passes, make their defenders have to make decisions about who they would step to. Now our ability to move the ball for 90 minutes would control the game and also create chances,” Bob Bradley said. “Clearly this idea that we keep improving in terms of how we move the ball, the rhythm of our play, this kind of thing, is part of our growth.”
The new formation, which gave each midfielder more passing options and created an attack that could challenge Jamaica from different spots on the field, enabled that growth. What Spain did to the U.S. in that object lesson of an exhibition on June 4 outside Boston, the Americans did to Jamaica here in Washington.
“We wanted to be a team tonight that passed the ball well and moved the ball around a lot, so I could find those gaps behind Jozy at the beginning and Juan…and really kind of change positions with Clint and move the ball around,” said Kljestan, who clearly has improved after his first year at Belgian power Anderlecht.
“We just did a good job of passing the ball and moving and interchanging positions. We’re a good passing team when we want to be, especially in a game like that we needed to be able to tire them out.”
Donovan replaced Bedoya in the 66th, and a minute later Jamaica was reduced to 10 men on a red card to defender Jermaine Taylor. Donovan, whose Gold Cup has been somewhat subdued, wasn’t as energetic as Bedoya but helped the U.S. keep the ball. In the 80th, the hard-working Agudelo, who’d done all the thankless running expected from a lone striker, found some space on the right and delivered a perfect cross to Dempsey for the insurance goal.
“We were patient. We were confident. We moved the ball around well,” Dempsey told Sporting News. “We made it difficult for them to play out of the back. We were able to find players in between their lines, able to create chances for ourselves.”
Multiple U.S. players said that an event like the Gold Cup, which doesn’t afford nearly the same amount of pre-competition training as a World Cup, is about getting better and coming together as the tournament progresses.
“We’re more of a team,” Donovan said of the reasons for Sunday’s performance. “That takes time to get there. We’re starting to really understand how we want to play. We’re executing.”
Bob Bradley has come along as well, watching and learning how best to take advantage of his side’s strengths. Understanding starts at the top, and on Sunday, Bradley proved he was up to the challenge.
His demeanor at the postgame press conference was far different than the day before. He began by speaking something that sounded like German, in reference to the man of the match award given to Jones, a German-born son of an American serviceman who asked Bundesliga veteran Steve Cherundolo to translate. Bradley, well known for his serious demeanor, broke up the room.
A spot in Wednesday’s semifinals is just reward for a coach and a team that, at least for a day, figured it all out. Now, instead of facing questions about the his long-term future, Bradley will lead a team to Houston that will be favored to advance to the Gold Cup final.