Monday, June 28, 2010

It Was Never Meant to Be

(Soccernet/Jim Brown/US Presswire)

Call me cynical for having always having my doubts. It's been a roller coaster supporting the United States men's national team leading up to and including the World Cup. The highs (and lows) of the Confederations Cup last summer, the comebacks against England and Slovenia after conceding early, the heart stopping finish against Algeria, and of course the finale versus Ghana. We are lucky to have a talented squad, oozing with mental toughness, class acts, hard workers, and potential. But all that amounts to nothing, however, if you can't convert that into a complete winning mentality with goals and victories. The key word here is a complete winning mentality. Quite frankly, this team didn't have it, nor the proper leadership to cultivate it.

It started at the Confederations Cup in South Africa last summer. After getting pummeled by a combined score of 6-1 to Brazil and Italy in the opening matches of the group stage, that never say die spirit ignited and we beat Egypt 3-0 to move through (surpassing Italy with the 2nd tie breaker of goals scored). And then the shock defeat of Spain - the best, and up to that point, unstoppable team on the planet. Yet it seems every high point this team reaches is almost instantaneously followed up by a let this case shipping a 2 goal halftime lead against Brazil to ultimately lose 3-2 in the final.

Back to reality - CONCACAF World Cup qualifying which has been somewhat of a pushover for this team. Sure we drew 2 and lost 2 on the way, but it never seemed to be a real issue to overtake the likes of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago. As a result, American fans were filled with that all too familiar feeling of potential. And let's be fair here with how we as a nation approached this tournament and the past few World Cups - the level of potential has always been higher than expectations. Our dream run in 2002 was epic and raised the sport's profile, but nobody really expected this team to challenge for a quarterfinals or semi-finals birth. We were expected to get out of the group and nothing more than that. We knew we had the pieces - just not a finished product. (To give you an idea of the complete opposite, see England -- ludicrous expectations surpassing potential).

So why no finished product? Why did we show how good we really were 1 half at a time this tournament only to fuck up and piss away any chance at success the rest of the time. Why can we play like we did against Spain one day, and lost to Trinidad and Tobago in qualifying on another? We held a lead for a total of 3 minutes in this tournament (injury time at the end of the match against Algeria). We allowed a goal to be scored in the opening 13 minutes in 3 of the 4 games we played. That's just unacceptable.

It might be cowardly to point fingers and place all the blame on one man - and I stopped myself from doing it after the Algeria match - but I really have no other option than to pick out Bob Bradley. To be fair certain things were out of his control. Our back line has always been suspect and it proved our undoing in the end. As for an out-and-out striker, well we just don't have one. Jozy Altidore may only be 20 years old but he by no means is the answer up front. Not a single goal from any of our forwards in this tournament is a big problem - and it seems like there aren't many strikers coming through the ranks.

But that's all the slack I'm gonna cut him. I praised him endlessly for being able to see problems on the field and adjust with tactical substitutions. But you can't always rely on doing that in the middle of a game when you're already losing!! Starting Ricardo Clark instead of Edu, and then getting lucky with that yellow card as an excuse to sub him out after 31 minutes. That's inexcusable. We were handcuffed with only 2 substitutions after that. And then who to pair up with Jozy - Buddle or Findley or Gomez or Feilhaber or why not Dempsey. You could even argue that maybe the real issue was Jozy himself - to what do we owe this 20 year old forward in the making who has warmed benches since 2008 and scored once in 34 appearances. 34 appearances in 2 years! Maybe the problem wasn't who to pair up with him but who to replace him. Bradley let us down in this tournament because after 4 years at the helm, he still doesn't know his best 11.

Finally there's the issue (and this is the MOST important of all) of motivation. Those early goals we gave up say something about Bradley's ability to frame a proper mindset in the locker room. Team talks, motivational speeches, hip hip hoorays - call em' what you'd like. Bradley didn't have any. Whatever he used didn't work. If ESPN could do a better job garnering excitement for the England match than the American coach himself could do for his own squad, then something is truly wrong.

I think we learned that Bradley was the right hire in 2006 - he has made enormous strides with US soccer to bring us to where we are today. But we also learned that he isn't the right man to take us to that next level of success. At no point EVER did I think he could motivate these players to progress in a World Cup. We've been plagued with inconsistent performances. With an aging squad which requires a number of changes before Brazil 2014, it's time for someone else to take the reigns and begin the process of making this team a serious contender.

Keep your heads up. I don't have a cure for how upset and unfulfilled you must be feeling after this elimination - there's no worse a feeling. But be sure that this team, as we did so many times throughout this tournament, will fight back. We'll recover from this loss and take away many positives. Let's just hope there's someone out there to put all these pieces together into that finished product we've been yearning for all these years.

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