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Path to progress for U.S. national team not likely to include Bradley

The stream of World Cup matches, once coming at such a beautiful breakneck pace, has slowed to a crawl. So the soccer lovers' quadrennial Shangri-La is nearly done.

But there will still be plenty to talk about, especially around U.S. Soccer, where a reckoning is near.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has a few more days in South Africa to soak up the atmosphere -- and possibly to seethe and stew about a tournament that could have gone further for the United States. Indeed, a bright opportunity was squandered with a Round of 16 loss to Ghana, a fact U.S. Soccer's top decider surely considered during two days of weekend quarterfinals.

He's not alone. Back here in the States, where Gulati will soon return and begin sorting out the U.S. program's future, there is a lingering melancholy over what might have been.

While the pain will ease over the next four years, the task ahead will not. There are big-picture issues to consider; identifying and cultivating the collective talent pool foremost among them. It's a complex, multilayered matter that deserves careful examination and then decisive action.

Of more immediate concern is the question of whether U.S. coach Bob Bradley is the right man to oversee those efforts. And though the wounds of World Cup 2010 are still fresh, it's becoming difficult to see any outcome that doesn't involve a change being made.

Start with the fact that precious few World Cup managers survive to complete the next cycle. Change is almost always deemed the way forward. Only two managers from Germany 2006 made it to South Africa, and those were the two who made it all the way into the final in Berlin four years ago.

ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas said he believes there will be a change -- even though he doesn't believe Bradley has performed poorly. He added there is no question that the U.S. coach moved the program forward in his four years. But Lalas likened it to a relay race, where different sets of strengths are required for the various legs of the race.

"Every part of a relay race is important, and they probably all have different strengths that are important in that specific time period," Lalas said. "But you might have to use different people at different times to get you there."

There are clearly pluses and minuses with Bradley. But the temptation to reach for more, to stretch the program further than it went in South Africa, is likely to be overwhelming, especially with such an easy out; Bradley's contract expires in December, which means that a change will cost U.S. Soccer very little in economic terms.

Gulati certainly seems to be leaning toward a change, judging from his comments last week. He described "mixed results and mixed emotions" when asked about the Americans' South African campaign -- but there was nothing mixed when he said flatly that the team did not meet his full expectations.

"I think the team is capable of more," he said. "I think the players know it. I think Bob knows it. At that level, we are disappointed we didn't get to play another 90 minutes, at least."

Particularly distasteful is the missed opportunity to extend the public awareness bonanza. Nothing inflates domestic soccer's profile like a deep World Cup run. In the U.S. case, the warm PR afterglow of second-round passage was unfortunately brief, with just three full days between a Wednesday win over Algeria and a Saturday-afternoon elimination against Ghana. A win over the Africans would have kept the U.S. team front and center in the news cycle all week. In terms of opportunity cost, that was priceless.

"It is a missed opportunity to stay in the American public's eyes for another four, five six days, maybe 10 days, when interest is at an all-time high," Gulati said. "I have no doubt there will be people still watching at bars at strange times, the TV ratings will still be good, but what the ratings might have been for a quarterfinal game or dreaming beyond that?"

Does that mean Gulati is blaming Bradley? No, but the coach bears some responsibility.

Bradley got a lot from a side with limited depth in some spots and big, gaping holes in a couple of others. Still, Bradley's fingerprints are on the loss for some starting selections that went wrong, notably the Ricardo Clark pick against Ghana. Neither will the choice to start Robbie Findley be recalled as a master stroke.

And the propensity for slow starts must be considered. Bradley's strength is in dutiful organization and creating structure. But questions will linger about whether he can summon the passion from the opening whistle.

So, with that structure in place, does the United States need a coach who can draw emotion from the first minute, not just when pressed into a corner? Additionally, does the United States need someone better at identifying what each individual match requires from a personnel standpoint? Bradley made halftime changes in three of four South African matches; it's a red flag when the prearranged game tactics need tweaking that regularly.

Thus, there is every chance that Gulati could decide Bradley was the best person for the job four years ago but not necessarily going forward, just as Lalas said. That's hardly an unreasonable position to take.

Those shortcomings shouldn't completely overshadow the job Bradley did accomplish. He had two interconnected missions all along: to qualify for the World Cup and then get into the second round. Everything else was always a bonus -- or it was, at least, until the bracket broke open so invitingly.

Shaping much of the decision regarding Bradley's fate will be about other choices available. If Gulati surveys the landscape and doesn't see anyone within reach, someone who could complement and improve on the progress made since '06, then he might opt for caution. That scenario seems unlikely, however.

Which brings us to Jürgen Klinsmann, a name that will certainly come up. And it should.

Gulati wanted Klinsmann in '06 but finally walked away from the bargaining table when the German legend asked for too much control over player availability. His desire to have more time with the players (in summer months, when they would be taken away from MLS sides) now seems to be justified. Or, at the very least, it seems like a reasonable request. Gulati is a thoughtful man, and he will surely wonder in his quiet moments if Klinsmann was right, if perhaps he should have remained at the table a little longer. Would the American team still be in South Africa if Gulati had?

Klinsmann wasn't necessarily talking about Bradley when he discussed the U.S. loss two days later on ESPN. But Klinsmann certainly wasn't being complimentary to the team's overall mental approach. He said it took just 10 minutes of watching the timid U.S. side against Ghana to conclude that the Americans were in big trouble. He suggested that the United States failed to properly manage the understandable intoxication of such a dramatic win over Algeria.

"What I mean is that they didn't recover mentally and physically from that win," he said, mentioning how the U.S. players were obviously still stuck in the moment, snared in the euphoria and the excitement they had stirred back in America. "Suddenly Bill Clinton is coming by, Mick Jagger is in the stands, and all that takes you away in a World Cup. You can't allow that. It's about now and tomorrow; it's not about what happened an hour ago. So once you win this tremendous game against Algeria, an hour after the game, after you do your interviews and then get all that stuff done, then you start to actually prepare for the next game."

Klinsmann mentioned he had been at the same place with Germany four years earlier, navigating highly emotional moments and dodging the big potholes along the road of success.

"You have to bring down the players right way, back to the ground," he said. "You have tell them, 'Forget about Algeria. It's done. It's all about Ghana.' I had a feeling they were not really prepared for Ghana for this battle."

No one could hear that and feel great about Bradley's chances. Not when the words are being spoken by Gulati's first choice all along.

Bradley might have been a good choice four years ago, but may not be the man to carry the baton from here. It's getting harder to see this thing going any other way at this point.

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