Friday, July 29, 2011

US soccer culture - not Bob Bradley - is to blame

Poor Bob Bradley. He always was U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati’s Plan B.

Twice, Gulati failed to land his prized national team coaching candidate, Jürgen Klinsmann, and twice he settled on the stoic but hard-working Bradley.

To his credit, the no-nonsense New Jersey native never indicated he suffered from wounded pride. Bradley went about his business with diligence and dignity, and he had a keen appreciation for what it meant to represent his country.

"It has been an incredible honor to serve as head coach. I am proud of everything we've accomplished,” Bradley said in a statement Thursday night, hours after being fired.

There is plenty to be proud of. During his five years at the helm, Bradley shepherded the U.S. to the final of four of the six tournaments it entered, winning the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and falling just short vs. Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup following a semifinal upset of Spain. The U.S. also finished atop a World Cup group for the first time in 80 years.

But it wasn’t enough. It never was going to be enough. And that’s because for all his qualities, Bradley represented only where the U.S. has been as a soccer country, not where it hopes to be. He was a product of the college system so many now deride, and he built his coaching bona fides during the early days of a mostly mediocre MLS. Few with World Cup dreams will be moved by that resume.

The U.S. national team has been led by an American coach since 1995. It now appears Gulati is ready to end that streak because the only coaches who’ve been where the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to go carry foreign passports.

Klinsmann is the heavy favorite to take the job. His coaching accomplishments don’t match Bradley’s, but he’s a powerful symbol nevertheless. He won a World Cup as a player and directed a young, stylish and exciting German team to the bronze medal at the 2006 World Cup (with home-field advantage and a top assistant, current Germany coach Joachim Löw, who has proven to be a quite capable international manager in his own right).

Klinsmann lives in Southern California and appears accessible, yet he possesses genuine international pedigree. The fact he was fired from his last coaching job (at Bayern Munich) after only nine months and hasn’t held steady employment in more than two years somehow hasn’t removed any luster from the “golden bomber.”

That’s because to all those American fans who worship at the altar of the English Premier League and La Liga, and to those who believe the U.S. should be contending for a World Cup despite the fact soccer has been taken seriously in this country for a mere quarter century, Klinsmann and coaches like him represent a quick fix. He’s charismatic and has yet to make a single scandalous substitution decision.

He’s the anti-Bradley. He’s the future.

However, there is little Klinsmann can do to change the real reasons the U.S. fell short vs. Brazil, Ghana and Mexico. Those are issues of soccer culture, player development and priorities.

Some have argued the U.S. punched above its weight under Bradley, considering the second-tier clubs for which the vast majority of the team plays. Klinsmann cannot inject more money and expertise into MLS’ nascent academy structure, can’t fire the youth club directors who stress winning over learning and can’t alter an American ethos that steers talented teenagers to college rather than to pro soccer careers.

The players who Klinsmann, or whomever is given the job, will select for national team duty are the finished product. Subtle changes in philosophy, lineups and tactics won’t make a significant difference.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Klinsmann, or a similarly sexy foreign coach, can’t have a positive impact. If Bradley failed, it was as a communicator, not a tactician. He never really got the hang of explaining himself, his decisions or his philosophy to fans and media, and reportedly wasn’t much of a motivator. His knowledge of the game was lost in translation.

The new coach won’t be tied inextricably to American soccer’s failed development system. He’ll have that European aura, cache and instant respect. With that bully pulpit, Klinsmann (an excellent communicator) or whoever gets the job could exert significant influence on U.S. soccer culture.

Klinsmann, for one, might have unorthodox methods (he forced Bayern players to take yoga classes), but he certainly understands how top players are produced. He understands club culture and the importance of a unified, modern developmental system like those found in countries that win World Cups.

The U.S. must follow suit, and the best thing the new national team coach can do is push and prod the vast and often competing interests in American soccer in that direction.

Bradley’s successor won’t win a World Cup. But he just might help convince those who want one what it takes.

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