Thursday, July 28, 2011, will be a day US soccer fans will remember for some time. Especially those who have been on the “Fire Bob” bandwagon for the last several years.
In a surprise move, the US Soccer Federation announced in a terse press release that Bob Bradley has been “relieved of his duties” as head coach of the US men’s national team. No other details have been provided yet, but you can be sure the second-guessing will echo into the next several weeks.
The first question fans are going to ask is, of course, “Why now and not last summer?” After all, even US Soccer President Sunil Gulati seemed to suggest last June in South Africa that the US team’s performance had not been good enough.
“Disappointment” was the word Gulati used after last summer’s World Cup exit, echoing the sentiment of many US fans. Despite winning their group for the first time ever, the US didn’t do so in very convincing fashion and many believe the run to the Round of 16 — where they lost to Ghana — should have been longer.
But the USSF didn't make a change after returning from South Africa, despite re-entering into negotiations with Jürgen Klinsmann, who had also backed out of those same talks following the 2006 World Cup. Bradley was still their man, in spite of the protests of many fans.
And though Bradley coached the team to a 5-5-4 record in his second tenure, the team simply never seemed to kick its ugly habits: conceding goals first, lacking urgency and an inability to string together two straight 90-minute performances. The accomplishments of Bradley's first term were no longer enough — they needed to progress.
Winning back the CONCACAF Gold Cup was a must. Obviously, the US didn’t. And capitulating in the final to Mexico after taking a 2-0 lead seemed to be the period at the end of the sentence.
I won’t go so far as to say firing Bradley was the right move. In many ways, I still feel he is the best man for the job given the current circumstances. But if a move had to made, there couldn’t be any further delay before World Cup qualifying begins next fall.
Say what you will about the USSF’s stubborn support of the Bradley regime — and really, you cannot fault the man himself for doing what he could with what he had at his disposal — you have to be pleased that the time to make the change is now, when there actually is time to rebuild the program.
The biggest push between cycles is over. The Gold Cup is really the only focus for the national team between World Cups, and that ship has sailed. With Thomas Rongen out as Under-20 coach and an influx of young talent pushing into the senior pool, it was either time to commit fully to the next two years or make an immediate change. And Gulati chose to make a move.
What comes next is an even more important choice for Gulati, perhaps the most important he has ever made. The US are not about to become a superpower on the international scene, and they won’t be a favorite to win a World Cup for a while. But they are more on the verge of becoming a major player internationally than at any point in their history.
That surprise 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run was a taste of what happens when talent, potential and timing all come together. The ’09 Confederations Cup was even more of a teaser, a sampling of how far the national-team set-up has come since the triumph of just making the World Cup in 1990.
Now, more Americans are playing top-flight professional soccer than ever before, in MLS, in Europe and Mexico. And the American talent pipeline has matured. It is now on the doorstep of even greater things. What it needs now is the right leadership to steward it to the next level.
Is an internationally accomplished voice with extensive knowledge of the US set-up — a guy like Klinsmann — the right choice for USSF to get it there? Maybe. Is a candidate from within still the logical choice? Sigi Schmid? Jason Kreis? Peter Nowak? Also possible. Or maybe there’s a wild-card candidate out there who will surprise us all.
But now is the time where Gulati & Co. must make a very careful choice. Who they settle on will not only will have to figure out how to get the best out of the current talent and encourage the countless kids who now grow up dreaming of playing in a World Cup, but also send a message to the millions of American fans who are now invested in the fate of the US national team: The US is going to keep progressing.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.