What if Jurgen Klinsmann never got the US men’s national team job? What if, despite the Concacaf Gold Cup final loss to Mexico in 2011, now-LAFC boss Bob Bradley finished the 2014 World Cup cycle? What if we could glimpse at a different wrinkle in American soccer history, one vastly different from our own?
We’ll have to use our imagination, of course. But here’s what our little corner of the soccer world might have looked like had Bradley not been fired in the summer of 2011 to make way for Klinsmann.
1. Freddy Adu’s career finally gets some traction
Before the 2011 Gold Cup, Adu was bouncing around Europe on loan deals from Portuguese giants Benfica. He’d played for Belenenses (loan cut short), Aris in Greece (barely played) and in the Turkish second division. He’d been out of the USMNT for two years, and Bradley’s decision to include him in the team was a surprise, to say the least.
Nobody was surprised when he didn’t play a minute in the tournament’s first four games, but that all changed in the semifinal against Panama, when Adu came off the bench to help create Clint Dempsey’s game-winning goal. When he started the final and had a hand in the two goals that gave the Americans a 2-0 lead against Mexico, Bradley’s belief in the one-time prodigy seemed to have paid off.
Of course, the result didn’t stay 2-0, and Adu didn’t stay in the Turkish second division. After the tournament, the Philadelphia Union pounced, reuniting Adu with Peter Nowak, his coach at D.C. United. With Bradley at the helm of the USMNT, providing encouragement and opportunity at the international level, Adu stayed focused, motivated and fit in Philly.
With stability with both club and country, Adu discovered what always seemed to elude him: consistency. Bahia? Never happened. Those unsuccessful trials in England, Norway and the Netherlands? Below the then MLS All-Star. Stints in Serbia and Finland? Nope.
Instead, Adu piled up goals and assists, took the Union to the playoffs and helped the US qualify for the 2014 World Cup as a game-changing attacker off the bench. In MLS and with the USMNT, he found an ideal role and finally delivered on the talent that thrust him into the public eye as a 14-year-old.
2. Landon Donovan plays in his fourth World Cup
How would the 2014 World Cup have been different with Bradley at the helm? For one, Donovan would have made the squad.
The sabbatical still happens, but Bradley doesn’t harbor any long-term animosity. Instead, the USMNT boss welcomes the country’s most decorated player back into the team at the 2013 Gold Cup, a tournament Donovan dominates in both realities, and coach and player are quickly on the same page.
When the big payoff arrives the next summer, Donovan is in prime form for the LA Galaxy and USMNT. Alongside Jozy Altidore (whose hamstring holds up) and Dempsey, the US front line is an absolute menace. They still lose to Belgium in the Round of 16 – Germany win the group, even with Donovan in the fold, and the Belgians are just too good – but there’s no drama, no distractions and no “what if” for the greatest player in USMNT history.
3. US Soccer has time to make the right hire for 2018 World Cup cycle
This time, there’s no awkward power transition in the middle of a World Cup qualifying crisis. It never gets to that point.
After Brazil, Bradley is hired to coach Le Havre and guides the French club to promotion and Ligue 1. US Soccer turns to defending MLS Cup champion manager Peter Vermes, who brings his high-pressure approach from Sporting Kansas City to the national team.
4. USMNT qualifies for 2018 World Cup in Russia, makes the quarterfinals (and beyond?)
Instead of disaster, qualifying for Russia is a breeze as Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie bring young legs and enthusiasm into a veteran-laden team. Behind Pulisic and Altidore’s goals, the USMNT win their group and a Round of 16 game. The entire country is behind them.
A semifinal (and perhaps more) is there for the taking