With the first kick of South Africa 2010 almost exactly a year away, it's time to take a look at what we've learned, and that starts with head coach Bob Bradley. After his most difficult stretch of his 2½-year tenure, the honeymoon period is officially over and we can reflect on some of the things he has done right, and some of the things that need to change. Here are five thoughts:
1. The U.S. has a major weakness: giving up early goals. The Americans have surrendered goals in the opening 15 minutes three times in the Hexagonal, and two straight within the opening five. That's a back-breaker. Sometimes you're just caught off-guard, as the U.S. was in Costa Rica when Álvaro Saborío torched three would-be defenders and sent a pretty chip over keeper Tim Howard. Sometimes it's a bad decision that kills you, like when Clint Dempsey tried to back-heel a pass against Honduras, which was promptly scooped up Wilson Palacios, who passed to Carlos Costly for the easy goal.
"It was a little bit of, 'Crap, here we go again,'" joked U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra when asked about what was going through his mind after the early goal on Saturday. But it's no laughing matter. What these goals had in common is that they reflect a lack of concentration on the Americans' part. You can't start playing catch-up after the whistle has barely blown. That changes your entire approach to the game and hamstrings players into different roles.
"One thing you try to get across to a team is, you can have a great idea of tactics you can have a great plan," said Bradley Saturday night, "but the ability to deal with the game as it unfolds, the ability to respond at the right moment, the ability to make sure that whatever is needed as a group, you go for it. That's what the game is about." He'll argue otherwise, but losing concentration early in a match is a failing Bradley needs to correct immediately.
2. Calling in players who are riding the pine with their clubs is not as black-and-white as it's made out to be. Bradley has taken an enormous amount of heat for calling in players like DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Heath Pearce and a handful of others who have seen little game action for their European clubs. While I do agree that you need match-fit players, I'm not of the opinion that Bradley is making the wrong call. You need to have the best players you can at your disposal. If they impress in training, you can't afford to keep talented players like Altidore out of the lineup.
Of course, the results aren't conclusive: While Altidore, despite some rust, looked generally effective up top and should probably stay in the starting lineup, Beasley clearly is suffering from a lack of confidence, looking horrible against Costa Rica and shaky against Honduras. "Sometimes you show faith in a player and he's ready and it's a good situation," Bradley said. There's no hard and fast rule for these situations since it's case-by-case for each player. We need to lay off Bradley for this one.
3. The time to experiment is long gone. I applaud Bradley for rolling out a highly experimental 4-4-3 lineup that stresses power in the attack and tries to take advantage of passing skills. It's a gutsy move and a dreamy hope that the U.S. one day can play pretty, one-two touch football made famous by the Dutch.
But the problem with it is twofold: 1) Trying that experiment in Costa Rica, in a stadium where the U.S. has never won, where the artificial turf makes normal passing near impossible and where the conditions are just all-around awful, was a huge mistake. That game was simply too high-stakes to experiment like that, and the U.S. never got its act together after surrendering that early goal and couldn't even hear each other over the deafening noise at Saprissa Stadium. 2) More importantly, the U.S. simply doesn't have the personnel to run that kind of offense. The 4-3-3 requires fluid movement up the flanks and close-ball skills that -- aside from Benny Feilhaber and José Francisco Torres -- aren't to be found in the U.S. ranks.
4. The youth movement is the right call. Say what you want about Bradley's tactics, but one of the things I admire most about him is his willingness to throw young players into the mix. No U.S. coach has done that as well -- under Bradley, 30 players have received their first national-team caps.
His reliance on his own son, 21-year-old central midfielder Michael, has proven to be the right decision. Pairing him with 23-year-old Sacha Kljestan has shown mixed results, but the Chivas USA star has a huge upside with the national team. Giving 24-year-old Jonathan Bornstein the nod at right back gives the U.S. its best chance at keeping up with fleet-footed opposing wingers, and taking a flier on 23-year-old left back Jonathan Spector, a former Manchester United youth product who has struggled at West Ham, is the right gamble.
"Any time you're a young guy and you get that opportunity, you've got to make the most of it," said Bornstein. "A lot of guys have been able to get the chance [under Bradley]." Giving youngsters a shot in critical games goes miles in building their confidence and giving them the experience they need for the big stage. That makes this summer extremely crucial: After the Confederations Cup in South Africa, Bradley will construct a "B" team to send to the CONCACAF Gold Cup next month.
Much like the experimental roster he fielded for the '07 Copa América, that group is expected to be a young unit. It may not be a sexy tournament, but it will give Bradley added depth when the time comes to make his cuts for the World Cup roster. And given the Americans' history with late-in-the-game injuries to regular players, the senior team will need experienced guys who can step in.
5. Bradley can ignore the calls for his head. From the mainstream media to the blogosphere to the fan chatter, after the Costa Rica loss, the speculation began anew if Bradley is the right man for the job. Or at least the question was beginning to be asked: Is Bradley on the hot seat? I knew the answer, but still asked U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati anyways. He laughed and rolled his eyes.
The answer is no. Even if the U.S. had lost to Honduras, firing the head coach wasn't an option. Through all the ups and downs, one thing the U.S. does not do is replace a coach in the middle of a World Cup cycle. Bradley is hugely respected within the federation and has a clear idea in mind of how he wants this team to look, and perhaps more importantly, what its character should be.
Barring epic disaster, firing a head coach mid-cycle is the wrong call. Just ask Mexico: El Tri is on its fourth head coach since the '06 World Cup, and Javier Aguirre's first game in charge was another uninspiring loss. Bradley's boys can march into the Azteca on Aug. 12 and stab the Mexicans right in the heart -- a fourth loss in the Hexagonal would likely send them out of the World Cup for the first time since 1990 and plunge the Mexican federation into its most chaotic state in its 82-year history. That's what happens when you have an itchy trigger finger. The U.S. job is Bradley's, and he should move forward with confidence.