NEW YORK -- Is a second World Cup cycle one too many for a national-team coach?
It's a reasonable question for any coach -- not just the U.S.' Bob Bradley, who signed on for four more years on Monday -- and especially these days in international soccer. Italy's Marcello Lippi and France's Raymond Domenech coached their teams to the 2006 World Cup final, but their second acts in 2010 were undeniable failures. Lippi relied too long on players who in the end were too old, and Domenech ... what didn't Domenech get wrong the second time around?
Nobody questioned whether Bruce Arena should have gotten a contract extension after the U.S.' historic World Cup quarterfinal run in 2002 -- at least not until after the 2006 World Cup, when the consensus was that things had grown stale and (heard this before?) he relied too much on veterans in the U.S.' disappointing first-round exit.
I happen to think that Bradley did a good job in his first four years as the U.S. coach. Whenever he had his full team together, the results either met or exceeded expectations: second place in the 2009 Confederations Cup (ahead of Spain and Italy); first place in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament and 2007 Gold Cup (ahead of Mexico); first place in World Cup Group C (ahead of England) and a second-round World Cup finish overall. The loss to Ghana and some of Bradley's lineup choices confounded those who rued the U.S.' missed opportunity, but when you consider the mid-level clubs of the players, the Americans probably punched above their weight in South Africa.
Bradley is a good man whose work schedule would make Jon Gruden blush. His teams compete hard for each other, are extremely fit and don't disintegrate at the first sign of trouble. His résumé as the U.S. coach is pretty solid. And yet it's possible to think all of those things and still wonder if any coach, including Bradley, deserves a second World Cup cycle in charge. National-team coaches aren't U.S. presidents; the phrase "one-term national-team coach" is hardly a black mark in the soccer world. In fact, it's the norm.
And so, on Tuesday, I sat across from Bradley and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati in separate one-on-one interviews, cited the history of recent two-term national-team coaches -- Lippi, Domenech, Arena -- and asked the question: If we agree that it's reasonable to wonder whether second acts are a wise idea (even after a good first term), is there a reasonable response that would support Bradley's beginning a new four-year World Cup cycle?
"There are two sides," Bradley said. "The first side is ... that ability to know how to read your team, to make sure they're motivated, to keep things fresh. That is what coaching is. If you look at Duke basketball the last few years, you'd say that at certain points Coach K felt like some things needed to be done a little differently. Maybe little technical adjustments: Did they defend exactly the same way they always did? Or maybe it's other adjustments. He's referred to how coaching the Olympic team sort of reenergized him.
"This is what coaching is. ... At any given moment you either do a good job or you don't. You could run a week of good training sessions, and if you start the next week and for whatever reason training's not as good -- either with what you do or the energy or if it's too long -- then all of the sudden there will be a sense that it's not as good. So you've got that challenge on a regular basis, and I appreciate and enjoy that part of coaching.
"The second part pertains to national teams: If you have a team in one competition and the team does well, as you prepare for the next competition is the same team going to be good enough the next time around? Where are you in terms of age? Are they still as motivated?
"In club soccer the best example for me was the AC Milan team that won Champions League [in 2007]. When that team won, you had a team that had gotten older, and they'd had tremendous success with that group of guys. So do you give that group a chance the next year to try to come back and do it again? Or do you already begin to say this was great, but now the process [of change] has to begin?
"This time around [with Italy at the World Cup] you got a feeling in the lead-in period that as great a coach as Lippi was, that sense of being loyal to the same guys, all those things come into play. World Cups are interesting, because you're not a team for 12 months a year. So when you come into a World Cup, you have those weeks. Based on the mind frames of players coming out of club seasons, physically where are they? Mentally where are they? Then all of the sudden this thing gets going, and sometimes a good result can kick-start you. Sometimes a bad result puts that much more pressure on. Those are all the factors."
Interesting stuff, and more candor than Bradley was willing to use in his media teleconference on Tuesday. In other words, Bradley clearly is aware that he needs to be open to change personally over the next four years -- he used the words "reinvent" and "reenergize" on Tuesday -- while not being afraid to continue introducing change (read: youth) into the national team. Awareness is one thing, but action is another. Will he be able to follow through? Can he fight the urge to maintain the status quo?
Gulati, for his part, acknowledged his real concerns about staleness, but he added that he felt Bradley's awareness and experience outweighed the possibility that eight years is too long for any national-team coach.
"I've asked that question myself and to Bob, and we've talked about it," Gulati said. "The problem becomes, when you look at [Lippi, Domenech and Arena] in their second cycles, things could so easily be reversed in '02 and '06. ... At this level the margin is so thin, and the coach is no better or worse if Landon [Donovan] puts the ball in the side of the net [instead of scoring against Algeria]. It's the same work that the coach has done. ... It's awfully hard when you come down to one game and everything depends on that. ... It's not only when you worry about the freshness or is eight years too long? It's not only the coach and whether they'll be interested, but it's the reaction. I can be super-enthusiastic the second time I teach a class -- [Gulati is a Columbia economics lecturer] -- and if it's the same students they may say we've heard all this. So we talked about those issues for sure."
Once again, though, for now it's only talk. That's all it can be at this point. Bradley did a good job in his first four years. My skepticism over his reappointment has less to do with Bradley than with any coach in this position, even ones who got historic performances out of their teams like Lippi in 2006 or Arena in '02. The history of World Cup second acts, especially over the last 16 years, is not a particularly good one.
Can Bob Bradley prove the exception to the trend? We're about to find out.