The curious timing of Bob Bradley's abrupt, stunning dismissal won't seem so curious if we discover that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati already has identified a successor.
Whether it's Jürgen Klinsmann (everyone's odds-on choice) or Marcello Lippi (among the longer shots) or someone else completely, the new man will find two distinctly different improvement projects: one is developing long-term solutions to a complex, multi-layered developmental puzzle. That's a massive undertaking, one requiring big thinking, money and bold strokes.
Part of the big picture includes the filling of critical vacancies for the under-23 and under-20 men's national teams.
WAHL: BRADLEY FIRED BECAUSE U.S. GOT STAGNANT
Attached to those longer-term targets will be a more immediate focus on short-term improvement. Whether you believe Bradley's tenure was fruitful or flawed, there is always room for improvement. Gulati obviously shared the view that things had gone stale, and was clearly concerned enough to eat the last three years of a four-year deal (annually worth about $500,000) signed less than a year ago.
The first question to answer is the "who." Gulati says the federation will have something else to report on Friday, so the wheels of speculation are spinning at top pace.
From there, the question to answer is this: How quickly can the new man in charge bang out the dents in the program?
What dents? First, the team was wildly inconsistent, with remarkably high highs that were regularly undercut by some pretty humbling lows. Under Bradley, the United States knocked seemingly peerless Spain on its backside in 2009. There were early wins over Mexico (back before that delicious cup of cream started to turn) and then a pulsating, late charge into second round play at World Cup 2010. There were appearances in three Gold Cup finals and one Confederations Cup final. World Cup qualification was relatively painless.
But there were bumps along the way, including a couple of recent black eyes that probably tipped the balance in Gulati's eyes. An embarrassing Gold Cup loss to Panama on June 11 only exacerbated the growing concern after ramshackle showings at home against Argentina, Spain and Paraguay.
Panama was ranked No. 67 at the time, and the United States had never lost in Gold Cup group play. That one night could probably have been forgiven if not for the unstable performances around it.
Even in victories lately, Bradley's men were fairly underwhelming. And when they blew a 2-0 lead to Mexico, which trashed the Americans over the last 60 minutes on that fateful day at the Rose Bowl, the larger message was delivered loud and clear: a new generation of bright and talented Mexican players was upping the regional stakes. Years of domination might just lie ahead for Bradley's side if the status quo was maintained.
The Mexican comeback was ironic in some ways. Yes, there was another notoriously blown lead, the 2-0 margin lost to Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. But "comebacks" going the other way probably generated equal consternation. That is, the United States under Bradley developed an alarming propensity for sleepy starts. Bradley's men did rally heroically so many times to overcome early deficits. But questions rightly lingered: what were the issues in terms of leadership, motivation and possibly even player selection that kept putting his team in early holes?
So, perhaps a new man can help in this regard. Perhaps a Lippi or (again, more likely) a Klinsmann has the big-game, big-stage presence and a little more of a tactical touch in the critical moments. Klinsmann is more of a motivator compared to Bradley, a highly organized taskmaster.
Eric Wynalda, whose U.S. national team career spanned ten years and 107 caps, believes Gulati covets just such a "been there, done that" guy. Wynalda has long supported Bradley, but noticed danger signs after that loss to Panama. "I just don't think he was moving the game forward fast enough to the liking of his employers," Wynalda said by phone Thursday afternoon. "Bob knows that's part of coaching, part of the gig."
Like everyone else, Wynalda sees Klinsmann as a logical selection for U.S. Soccer, although he says the red tape could still tangle those efforts anew. Gulati and U.S. Soccer were hesitant before to relinquish certain controls to the charismatic German; so we'll see who might have budged if Klinsmann indeed becomes the selection.
But big choices on policy and philosophy certainly can't help the United States improve at left back. Or at striker. Those are the most gaping holes in the player pool for now.
If the choice is Klinsmann, a former forward, he could possibly introduce a new layer of confidence and high-level know-how to one of the young strikers in the American pool, Juan Agudelo and Jozy Altidore in particular. Klinsmann worked magic with young players and enlivened a stale Germany program with fresh approaches in the run-up to his country's surprising third-place finish at World Cup 2006. (Although it should be said that "Klinsi" could never quite shake the whispers that assistant Joachim Low was the real inspiration behind that starburst of 2006 success.)
Something else any new man can do: give everyone a clean slate and perhaps add an extra dosing of passion and fight, while stripping away a creeping hint of complacency among some individuals. As the U.S. side has gotten more technically proficient, it may have lost some of its former identity as a bunch of stubborn, never-quit clock-punchers.
And the new boss may revive a few national team careers. Bobby Convey, for instance, has long been on the outs after making some less-than-flattering remarks about the program. Freddy Adu's ongoing audition may be a little longer now compared to what it might have been under Bradley, who surely would be less tolerant of any lapses back into immaturity. A new coach, who hasn't dealt with the "old Freddy" might have more patience. (And he might have fresh ideas on how to use Adu.) Jose Torres, a playmaker who never fit Bradley's style and seemed to lose the coach's trust, could get a fresh audition (assuming he can get some quality minutes at his club).
On the other side, a few players who never lost Bradley's trust will surely be standing outside the velvet ropes when a less partial observer reviews the video. Jonathan Bornstein can't like his chances. Altidore will certainly need to polish his game when a coach begins rotating potential strikers through the inspection stations.
Can the changes make a difference by the next match, an Aug. 10 date against Mexico? Perhaps not that quickly -- but World Cup qualifying begins in less than a year, and any fixes can't wait much longer than that.