If you bought stock in Team USA's chances at the 2010 World Cup, it's time to sell now before it plunges toward rock bottom.
After reaching new heights during the Confederations Cup, the U.S. Men's National Team and their fans have been brought back down to earth after yet another run of uninspiring performances.
Sadly, this level of play has become commonplace under Bob Bradley.
Yes, the matches against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago ended in victories for the U.S., shooting them to the top of the CONCACAF qualifying table. But the Americans were perilously close to earning nothing from those two matches. Had that been the case, they would be sitting in fourth place, outside of the guaranteed qualifying spots with just two tricky matches remaining in the cycle.
How can a team that beat Spain just a couple of months ago revert back to such poor form?
Add in equal parts inconsistency and conservative coaching, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Clint Dempsey has been the most prominent offender when it comes to inconsistency on the pitch. The man who won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player at the Confederations Cup has a nasty tendency to disappear at inopportune times.
Dempsey played a decent match against El Salvador, scoring once and coming close on a couple of other chances. Four days later against Trinidad and Tobago, Dempsey was arguably the most ineffective player on the pitch, something that seemed to affect the rest of his teammates.
At an individual level, we can point out Dempsey's numerous turnovers against Trinidad. He was very careless with the ball, even cavalier and reckless at times. After he scores goals, Dempsey has a tendency to be too lazy with his ball-handling, and that rolled over from the second half of the El Salvador match into the Trinidad match.
If you look at the U.S. midfield as a whole, you can see just how much of an effect Dempsey's play has on the team. The U.S. struggled to maintain possession against Trinidad and at times was dominated in the midfield despite having far superior talent. When one of your best possession players disappears, everybody else tends to follow suit.
The American defense also remains a mystery. Against the Spanish, they were a well-organized, dynamic group who were sure-footed in their clearances and blocked shots. Against much weaker CONCACAF opponents, they were out of sorts. A foolish Jonathan Bornstein defensive error—one of the worst clearances you'll ever see—allowed El Salvador to take a 1-0 lead against the run of play on the American's home turf.
The best teams in the world do not suffer from these defensive lapses. They maintain organization even when under fire.
Even the addition of Oguchi Onyewu against Trinidad did little to stabilize the back line. They were still scrambling to clear the ball too frequently, and were bailed out multiple times by the woodwork and the agility of Tim Howard.
We can use Spain as an example yet again. The Spanish took dozens of shots in that match, but an American body prevented the shots from reaching Tim Howard repeatedly. They managed to keep him safe against one of the most potent midfields in the world, but couldn't do it against CONCACAF minnows.
Bob Bradley's conservative nature means that if the U.S. ever finds itself behind in a match, they will struggle mightily to come back and earn even a draw. Even worse, his willingness to sit back and attempt to soak up pressure means that the U.S. will also struggle to hold onto leads—as they did against Brazil—because they allow their opponents to get numbers forward into the attack.
It's not as if Bradley doesn't have creative, attack-minded options at his disposal. Jose Francisco Torres has been fantastic in very limited action. Benny Feilhaber has got his groove back. Freddy Adu wowed audiences in Beijing, and hasn't been given an honest chance since. Stu Holden is one of, if not the best attacking midfielders in the entire U.S. pool.
Yet, Bradley is reluctant to give these guys extended minutes. Instead of pairing an out-and-out attacker in central midfield with his son Michael, he often prefers to use a defensive midfielder like Ricardo Clark or Pablo Mastroeni.
The younger Bradley is an excellent distributor of the ball, but he is not an attacker. He seems to do his best work in a holding role—he's an excellent tackler, occasionally moving forward into attack if the flow of the match allows. In essence, Bob Bradley is using two defensive-minded players at times when he has paired his son with Clark or Mastroeni.
That is a pairing that should be used late in matches to protect leads, not starting matches when the U.S. needs to bring home three points. If Bradley were to shift to more defensive tactics later in matches, using Michael as a fulcrum to launch counterattacks, the U.S. would be far more successful in establishing and maintaining leads.
There is no good reason—especially in World Cup qualifying—to not attempt to go for three points from the very first minute. Those points are valuable and you have to imagine that an aggressive midfield would help the U.S. win even during those tricky CONCACAF away matches.
Under no circumstances should Trinidad and Tobago ever dominate the U.S. midfield, but that's exactly what happened on Wednesday night thanks to Bradley's conservative tactics. I know Clark scored the match-winner, but he should not have been starting in the first place. By using Holden, Feilhaber or Torres from the outset, the U.S. would have been able to dictate tempo and in all likelihood would have found the back of the net much sooner.
While Bradley's preferred style of play might be good enough to eke out victories in CONCACAF, the U.S. will be sent home early from South Africa unless they actively try to control the match. A defensive shell is not the answer, unless the goal is a second-consecutive first round exit.