The thought on many minds was: If the U.S. stumbles against Honduras in Chicago, is that it for Bob Bradley?
Suddenly, the game at Soldier Field became more than a World Cup qualifier. It was a deathwatch, a chance to rubberneck at an accident site. Considering the economic climate, this was a deranged form of Schadenfreude, one that wore screw-ins and was looking to get stuck in.
Well, after a clumsy beginning, the U.S. side found its footing and came from behind to win 2-1. It wasn't pretty, but they got the three points. And when you think about it, in qualifying, that's all that matters.
What stood out most was Carlos Bocanegra's celebration after knocking home the winner. Celebrations can tell you a lot about a team. Normally, the players celebrate with each other or they jump into the stands or they do a routine rehearsed a thousand times in front of the mirror. But Bocanegra dashed to the sideline and leapt into the arms of the coaches. Here was the captain rallying to Bradley's cause.
It got me thinking about why Bradley inspires a certain amount of sound and fury. Is it his stern demeanor? But his players have always praised his straight-shooting style. And after the Honduras game, Bradley looked like Jimmy Valvano, trying to hug anyone he could in a white U.S. jersey. I almost expected him to run into Sam's Army for a group hug. Those are not the actions of a heartless man.
Is it his American-ness? There's nothing he can do about that. Furthermore, I don't buy the fact that an American coach can't succeed with the U.S. team. Granted, Bradley probably wouldn't be able to get a job coaching a top European club right now, but that's not a criterion for the U.S. job, nor is it an indication of a coach's ability. Think about this: Would any top European club hire Diego Maradona? Probably not. But he's still the coach of Argentina.
Extra food for thought: No team has won the World Cup with a foreign coach.
Is it the fact that Bradley's not Jürgen Klinsmann? I've heard many times how the U.S. should "upgrade," if they can. In theory, I agree. But does anyone really think Klinsmann -- or Hiddink or Capello or whoever -- would've done better than Bradley over the past two years? Look at the numbers:
Bradley's overall record since taking the reins in December 2006 is 25-9-4. That's pretty good, especially when you remember that several of those losses came against the world's very best, including Brazil, Argentina, England (in London), and Spain (in Santander). Two of the other losses were with the young "B" squad at the Copa América.
One might argue that the U.S., at some point, has to start overcoming the "world's very best." Well, the Yanks did earn a draw against Argentina in front of a massive crowd in New York last summer. But realistically, the U.S. is just not there yet.
On the flip side, Bradley has done everything asked of him so far: He won the '07 CONCACAF Gold Cup to earn a spot at next week's Confederations Cup; he got the team into the Hexagonal with barely a hiccup; he now has it well positioned to qualify for the World Cup; and he has three wins and one draw in four clashes with Mexico (though all the games were on U.S. soil).
Others question the team's style. For example, why did the U.S. play a 4-3-3 in Costa Rica? Why does Bradley insist on the two holding midfielders, robbing the team of any attacking thrust up the middle?
Bradley, I hope, would be the first to admit the 4-3-3 was a mistake. The U.S. simply doesn't have the talent to pull something like that off. That said, the players' performances didn't help the cause.
Does Bradley's decision to even try the 4-3-3 mean he's not up to the task? Absolutely not. It would if he failed to learn from the mistake. He didn't. The team shifted back to the more familiar 4-4-2 for the Honduras game, and Bradley showed a new willingness to adjust to situations on the fly.
First, he inserted Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein at the outside back positions. Then he started the hastily called-in Conor Casey. Most importantly, Bradley made an inspired decision to bring Benny Feilhaber on, in effect scrapping the "two holding midfielder" system for one that encouraged creativity and attacking. And the U.S. offense suddenly popped.
Feilhaber's re-emergence after months in the wilderness indicates one thing to me: Bradley is going to be more proactive now that the pressure is ramping up. This is a good thing, especially as the team heads into the busy and vital summer schedule.
First up is the Confederations Cup. Doing well against Brazil, Italy, and Egypt next week is important -- very important. It will show that the U.S. is ready to compete outside of CONCACAF, which, frankly, the rest of the world views as a backwater in the football world.
However, the Confed Cup is not nearly as important as is the trip to Mexico City in August. That game, Bradley's first in the Estadio Azteca, could become the defining moment in his U.S. coaching career. It will either shut everyone up or bring the knives out again, this time even sharper.