With Bob Bradley freshly back in the fold as the U.S. coach with a four-year contract extension, USSF president Sunil Gulati probably concluded, not unreasonably, that U.S. Soccer's best move for the 2014 World Cup cycle would be to subscribe to the "safe rather than sorry" theory.
There's no denying that for the past four years, Bradley has turned in a coaching performance that one would classify, at the very least, as decent to solid. In fact, he's probably far exceeded expectations given that he was originally appointed as a place-holder interim coach. However, aside from the fact that very few coaches have succeeded when staying on for a second World Cup cycle, I still think that for the U.S. to reach its full potential, it requires a world-class coach, something that Bradley, for all his strengths, simply is not.
Granted, there are strong reasons that can be advocated to justify Bradley's retention, but on the flip side, one can produce a counterargument for each as follows:
1. The U.S. produced a strong World Cup performance. Yes and no. There are two ways of assessing the U.S.' performance in South Africa. From the positive perspective, progress past the group stage is always an achievement for nations that aren't recognized powers, and the U.S. also topped its group for the first time. However, it must be said that despite facing arguably the most favorable draw it's likely to receive (not just in the group stage, but in terms of a potential run to the semifinals), the U.S. fail to take the lead in any game except one, and it was actually an injury-time goal and a couple of minutes away from what would have been an absolutely catastrophic first-round exit.
2. Bradley got the most out of his talent. There's no doubt that the U.S. campaign was hamstrung by injuries to defender Oguchi Onyewu and striker Charlie Davies, who proved irreplaceable. One could easily argue that Bradley did the best with what he had. It's certainly an argument that former national team and current Galaxy coach Bruce Arena subscribes to. "Our players don't suddenly get better with a foreign coach," Arena told Yahoo! Sports. "They don't suddenly become Superman. It is a bunch of crap to think otherwise."
True, the U.S. certainly isn't overloaded with world-class talent, and no one is saying that had Guus Hiddink coached the U.S. in South Africa, he'd have definitively reached the semifinals with the same squad. However, at the same time, it's undeniable that a superior coach can take the same bunch of players and make them a better team. Can this point really be argued? By the same token, there's no question that Bradley's strategic nous suffers in comparison with the great tacticians in the world today. While it's commendable that Bradley has improved considerably in this respect (compare the efficiency and speed in which he made substitutions in South Africa to the previous summer's Confederations Cup when he was far too slow to make adjustments), the U.S. still seems to set up the same way almost every time out, with little in the way of an alternate strategy in case Plan A fails.
3. The U.S. needs an American coach who understands American players and the U.S. Soccer structure. The most commonly cited argument in favor of retaining Bradley appears to be the myth that whoever coaches the U.S. has to have an understanding of the U.S. domestic system and the mind-set of the American player. By that premise, perhaps managers should never coach in foreign countries at the club level, let alone the international level. The only thing a foreign coach needs to do if he accepts the U.S. job is to have an open mind about the U.S. player pool and a work ethic that ensures he scouts MLS exhaustively. While you can make a very solid case as to why a foreign coach would find it hard to adjust to MLS (salary cap, college draft etc.), those arguments really don't apply to the national team, especially considering most of the first-team regulars play overseas. And if one accepts that, as Arena says, "And I will say until I am on my death bed, the USA should be coached by an American coach," then why weren't the likes of Dominic Kinnear (arguably more accomplished than Bradley) and Jason Kreis (arguably more progressive than Bradley) seriously considered?
4. Bradley motivates the players extremely well. This is another argument that carries some weight, with the U.S. team's never-say-die attitude impressing many observers. However, can we really be sure that this is a function of Bradley's ability to get his players to play for him? After all, I'm surely not the only person who finds it interesting that very few, if any, U.S. players have come out publicly in support of Bradley since the announcement of his contract extension.
I'd also point out that one could easily argue that this never-say-die attitude is actually one of the more common traits that define what one thinks of with top American players, along with a much more blue-collar attitude (compared to their European counterparts) and solid work ethic. After all, players such as Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have often displayed much the same approach playing for their club teams in the Premiership.
5. Bradley was in high demand with foreign clubs. It appears as if Gulati had decided that if he was going to make a change, then it would only be for former Germany and Bayern manager Juergen Klinsmann, and failing that, then Bradley would be the second choice. I'm not sure why Gulati felt he had to rush the decision, though.
For a start, I'm still surprised he didn't make more of a push to at least interview other top candidates (both foreign and domestic) -- especially since World Cup qualifying doesn't begin for at least a year, giving Gulati plenty of time to assess the merits and interest level of current unemployed coaches (like former Villa coach Martin O'Neill) or take stock of the situation in summer 2011 when more coaches would inevitably be available. Could it be that Gulati felt pressure from the reported interest in Bradley from Premiership clubs such as Fulham and Aston Villa? If so, that would be a mistake since both clubs have subsequently indicated that Bradley was never a serious candidate, and almost certainly in both cases, it appeared that Bradley's own representatives were the ones who approached both clubs to gauge their interest in him and not the other way around.