There was a time early in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign when the United States was winning, the aging, status quo of players was "getting the job done", and the tactical strategies then-head coach Bruce Arena used in the 2002 World Cup were enough to succeed.
The wins were coming. Qualification looked likely. All the reports were positive.
Then the 2006 World Cup disaster commenced. The U.S. failed to advance, lost to Ghana for the first time, and Bruce Arena was in essence forced to resign.
So far, the Gold Cup appears to be Bob Bradley's version of Arena's qualification cycle.
The squad selection is the status quo, and the tactics look relatively the same as last summer's World Cup. The team is "getting the job done" (a phrase being used by both the players and pundits), but not much else.
To boot, after the United States' opening Gold Cup game against Canada, both Sports Illustrated and ESPN's player rankings were overly positive (their ratings can be found here on SI and here on ESPN) even though the play by the United States was mediocre, Jozy Altidore's goal was a good strike but save-able, and Canada being a sub-par opponent.
The 2-1 loss to Panama was a bit more telling. The U.S., rather ironically, lost to a team that tactically chose to play the same way Bradley's team plays against better opponents: organized and team-defense oriented, waiting for opportunities to counter-attack, and hoping for brilliance from individual attackers.
Strangely, the U.S. couldn't adapt to its mirror image.
And finally, the Guadeloupe 1-0 win was a disappointment to all involved, and unlike Bruce Arena's tenure, players, fans, and pundits are more aware of the situation; this team is not playing well at all.
Clint Dempsey is coming off his greatest club season. Donovan enjoyed a strong world cup, outside of Michael Bradley and Altidore, all the starting players are earning first team minutes and experience, and the current roster is a decent mix of veterans and up and coming players.
Based on the teams involved in the Gold Cup, this should be the perfect formula for advancement to the finals, but things are not going as planned.
First, it's clear that CONCACAF teams are getting better, even Guadeloupe can field a professional team.
But that doesn't mean they're all playing in the English Premier League. The United States fields all professional players as well. It only means that any team has enough experience and fitness to be dangerous if a team isn't prepared. Still, the quality of Canada nor Guadeloupe is strong enough to compete on equal footing with the U.S.
The American team should be favored.
But it also means teams like Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador have the talent to upset a mediocre or under-performing American side.
However, that doesn't mean the United States shouldn't win, especially when hosting the Gold Cup. Something else is going on.
A play late in the Guadeloupe game might be a hint at the underlying issue.
Clint Dempsey held the ball at midfield and Landon Donovan was making a run to his left between the outside and center defenders. The right play would have been to attempt a through pass to Donovan on the break. Instead, as Dempsey is prone to do, he held the ball a touch too long and was fouled by a Guadeloupe defender tracking back.
Granted, Dempsey won the foul, but all momentum was ruined. Naturally, Donovan came back to Dempsey and told him as much. Dempsey responded with an opened armed gesture suggesting "what else do you want from me."
Unfortunately for Dempsey, the answer was clear to everyone watching as well as to Donovan and the announcers.
What may have been missed though was the subtext of the conversation. It doesn't matter if Donovan was right. Somewhere over the last year, Dempsey's game improved dramatically and Donovan's hasn't. Even more importantly, Donovan's tournament play hasn't earned him the right to demand the ball from anyone.
Over the group stage of this tournament, Dempsey has proven himself to be a step above his teammates, and in respect to this evolution, the players feed the ball through him nine times out of ten. This wasn't quite the situation at the World Cup.
Now, Dempsey, by leaps and bounds, is the best available option. No longer is there a sense of camaraderie and equality based on relative levels of skill and experience.
In and of itself, such a situation isn't a bad thing. However, it's clear the team dynamics haven't changed to deal with Dempsey and all of the other issues facing this team.
While the team is aging, some like Dempsey, Donovan and Howard are entering or are in their prime, and Bocanegra and Cherundolo have become the grizzled veterans, there seems to be a lack of true leadership and an overall competitive edge to this team.
It doesn't mean there aren't individual displays of personal motivation. Clint Dempsey pulls down players as he's dribbling by them as he's being fouled. He's clearly motivated.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones appear motivated, but for Bradley, it's translated in his work rate, and Jones, it's displayed with untimely fouls or petulance when being substituted.
In other words, their actions aren't galvanizing the team. There aren't enough players in the starting eleven with that bite, a truly fearsome attitude and reputation that infects the whole team.
Think Nemanja Vidic or Wayne Rooney for Manchester United. Both had a relatively consistent level of play this year and are imposing presences. To an extent, Carlos Puyol and Javier Mascherano serve the same purpose for Barcelona (and these two didn't always start, proving that the source for this style of play can come from anyone).
Yes, these are the two teams that played in the Champions League final, but before that point is used as an excuse, consider the Ghana team that beat the U.S. They played with that same edge and motivation without those players. A team can exude intensity without a squad overflowing with world class talent.
Along with a competitive edge, a team can't win without leadership, but outside of Tim Howard--who is trapped between the goalposts--there just isn't a team leader, a true team captain on the field.
The team, the media, and the coach can talk about quiet leaders, or how Carlos Bocanegra is taking on that mantle as he's moved to the middle of the defense, or how players lead by example.
But a team needs—and in particular this team—needs a veteran leader that demands respect, dictates the style and personality of his squad, determines the pecking order of players (so conflicts like that between Dempsey and Donovan can be decided), is the play-maker and creator for the team, getting everyone involved, and is a vocal, inspirational talisman the team can rally around.
Cherundolo and Bocanegra, being the elder statesmen, should be the ideal candidates, but neither have the presence needed for the job. Whenever the television pans to this theoretical leader's face, there should be a fifty percent chance that it catches the player barking orders, directing traffic, or re-organizing the team.
The camera hasn't caught that U.S. field player on video yet.
With young players being injected into the player pool, a search for defensive replacements, and a core group barely breaking thirty, this team desperately needs that leader. Unfortunately, there are no viable candidates. That dominant, inclusive, personality (Tim Howard), isn't a field player, and can't unify this team.
Outside of the normal criticisms of Bob Bradley's team—which includes tactical issues, player selection, and technical ability—now intangible qualities, like chemistry, heart, and competitiveness are issues.
That's something no one could say about a Bob Bradley team before.
Who is to blame?
Steve Cohen at goal.com believes it comes down to coaching (the link here at Goal.com), and he does a good job backing up his opinion as well as touch upon a couple of other issues I'm addressing as well.
However, for a number of reasons--one being Bradley's flaws have been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere, and since it's unlikely he'll be dismissed no matter what--the blame should be shared from top to bottom.
First, Sunil Gulati and everyone involved in Bradley's rehiring are responsible, but not for the obvious reasons.
A friend of mine posed this question: How many of the players believe or really want to play for Bob Bradley?
In all likelihood, probably very few outside Michael Bradley.
This isn't all Bradley's fault either. By reputation, actual talent, or availability of resources in Europe, most of the foreign based players have coaches equal to or better than Bob Bradley (17 out of the 23 players on the current squad play outside the U.S). He garners little respect through prestige.
Plus, he's a conservative coach.
So what are they to learn of innovative tactics and in their practice sessions that they haven't seen before?
Remember, there's always the idea (however unlikely) that a big name manager might be out there ready to coach this team, and while no player on the current squad would admit to such thoughts, it's there in the back of their minds. There's a big difference between wanting to impress Pepe Guardiola or Jose Mourinho as opposed to Bob Bradley.
That's not Bradley's fault. He can't change who he is. But this is a situation the federation may have underestimated, especially before giving a national team coach a second World Cup cycle.
Bob Bradley stabilized a listless national team and has arguably accomplished more than any other U.S. national team coach. However, this is a different team now, and problems like the current one are exactly why most national team managers fret about overstaying their welcome.
Of course there's Bob Bradley's own mistakes, including his roster and game-day selections. His team needs more offense, but he keeps with an overly conservative central midfield, formation and players.
Instead of working in more of his younger and versatile offensive players (Bedoya, Kljestan, and Adu) against Guadeloupe, he maintains a 1-for-1 substitution strategy (switching Wondolowski for Agudelo and Lichaj for Ream) even though his team looked the best when he was forced to move to a 3-4-3 at the end of the Panama game.
He has allowed freer roles for Dempsey and Donovan. He also recognized the importance of moving Bocanegra to the middle and at the same time getting more width with Lichaj, but these are only half measures; the team's not scoring.
Why not find a way to utilize Sacha and Bedoya, the two players with the broadest skill to support a completely unrestrained Donovan and Dempsey?
Both have looked strong in their cameo roles and understand the system. They smartly (whether instructed or understood) played one touch at the end of the Panama game. Clearly, theyhave something to prove and are motivated.
At the same time, their introduction allows Donovan and Dempsey to push forward and support a front line lacking experience and goal scoring prowess.
Plus, why call up Adu, another offensive player, if he's not going to be used?
Finally, it is a coach's responsibility to motivate his team, create chemistry, and encourage a team philosophy. Otherwise, what is a coach good for? Bradley hasn't done that so far.
Keep in mind though, with adults and professional athletes, this is easier said than done.
In the end, no matter who is the coach or what decisions he makes , it comes down to the players on the field.
Coaches only have three subs during a match. International coaches get limited time with players, and they can't play the game for them, and true motivation comes from the inside, not out.
And motivation isn't the only quality in a player's hands.
Tim Ream's foul to give up a penalty was inexcusable at any level--except maybe at 10 year old recreational play--despite Bocanegra's belief that most players have been there.
Which bench player should get more playing time?
Maybe Boca has, since he has a penchant for reckless fouls, but not in the box, and even Bornstein hasn't given up that foul--leaving his feet as a player is heading outside of the area. It's up to the player to have more composure and make a better decision.
The same can be said for the lack of intelligent tackling, spacing, and decision making.
There are few players I know that would willingly give up the ball to a central midfielder that tracks back within two to five yards of a non-pressured defender to request the ball. Most players would refuse to pass the ball to the midfielder (Bradley and Jones have both been guilty of this numerous times), wave them up the field to support an anemic attack, and, if they are not out-rightly insulted, tell the player to stop tracking back so far.
Oftentimes, a style of play, habits, technical ability or lack there of, and intelligence can't be fixed by a coach. There's only so much that can be done, and the players on the field need to resolve the issue or they lose.
Overall, the 2011 Gold Cup squad has issues. Thankfully, struggle and crisis tends to demand the best out of those willing to rise to the challenge. Hopefully, that's the case for this group.
Here are the cumulative player ratings for U.S. players that have seen the field so far:
Who should start next to Altidore?
GK, Tim Howard, 6: Howard backed up an amazing game against Canada with an awkward save in the Panama game that contributed to the goal. With a lack of further opportunities to improve on his performances, all that can be said is that he's done his job.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 7: Some might feel this rating is a little low. He's been the most consistent defender, shutting down his opposition, getting forward as much as possible, and has even taken on players.
There are a few things to keep in mind: As a veteran, he needs to be a stronger leader, also Guadeloupe and Canada were two of the teams the U.S. played so he should be able to contribute to the offense, and which U.S. player has gotten on the end of a Cherundolo cross?
Getting the ball into the area isn't the same as putting the ball on the head of an American forward. I know part of that responsibility falls on the attacker, but keep track of how many Cherundolo crosses never make it to an American body.
Still, he's been America's best defender so far.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6: A great stop-gap in the center of the defense for Bob Bradley. But, at this point in his career, he's clearly a limited player lacking agility and speed, foot skills or strong passing ability (he opts to play a long ball that usually ends up in turning possession over to the other team), and he probably won't be much help come 2014.
He better have a strong partner more adept at the physical demands of defense to compliment the experience and organization he brings to the back line.
Also, with Donovan and Dempsey wanting to move inside from the flanks, Bocanegra needs to add width to the attack, and he's not equipped to do so. He will not be an outside option for much longer.
D, Clarence Goodson, 5: One of the heir-apparents to a center back position, he's been struggling with strong, physical opponents (understandably considering how skinny he is), positioning, and unfortunately, not as talented with the ball at his feet as Tim Ream. T
his is an important tournament for Goodson. He needs to address his struggles and improve.
He's great in the air, scored a goal, and if he can address some of the drawbacks in his game, and perhaps, eat a cheeseburger (he needs to gain weight badly), the future of the U.S. central defense is his to lose after Ream's performance (Bradley didn't even include Ream on the bench for the Guadeloupe game).
D, Tim Ream, 2: At the beginning of the Panama game, the U.S. hadn't seen the level of composure, control, and distribution from U.S. center backs in a long, long time. Tim Ream was an important part of that display.
Then, it all fell apart. Goodson and Ream couldn't handle the physical, aggressive, and often times intelligent play of Panama's counter-attack. It culminated in Ream's ridiculous challenge.
It's not one single event that has hurt Ream, but how it all came together. He wasn't ready for the Panamanian attack, he didn't adjust, and he panicked. Ream shouldn't take all of the blame (no one helped him or the American cause that day), but because of the progression of events and his foul, he became the scapegoat.
It doesn't help that the move to put Bocanegra in the center worked out, and Goodson improved against Guadeloupe.
He's young. Hopefully he'll have a chance to redeem himself.
D, Eric Lichaj, 6.5: Played well against Guadeloupe, strong in challenges, good on the ball, and got forward as needed.
However, defensively, Lichaj lost his mark and was out of position a number of times. It didn't hurt him against Guadeloupe, but against a stronger forward, like Chicharito and the rest of the Mexican team, such defensive gaffs result in goals.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7.5: I've already talked at length about Dempsey. Best player on the team. His touch is impeccable. He's still getting better every game.
Some people may make a lot out of his late goal line mis-finish as well as his inability to convert his headers and other chances, but compared to whom?
When teams struggle, players try to do too much (like hold the ball too long). I think that's what we saw with Dempsey against Guadeloupe.
His role is also changing since he's now the go-to player for the U.S.without question. It will take him some time to adapt. His distribution needs to improve. If he can convert on some of his through balls to forwards, things could change dramatically.
M, Michael Bradley, 5.5: Started out strong against Canada, mainly because he pushed up field and put himself in position to support the attack. This is especially impressive considering he had not had first team opportunities all club season. His passing improved as well.
But by the second game, Bradley was back to dropping deep and failing to be the transitional link and option in the attack.
Jones and Bradley have absolutely no chemistry, want to play the same position, and have settled for splitting the field in two. One has the right, the other the left, tentatively moving forward if the other drops deep, but ultimately waiting for the other to push forward, then immediately dropping back to fill the other's position.
It's as if there's an imaginary line in the offense where neither wants to move beyond.
The U.S. plays without a true central midfield attack. Stuart Holden is dearly missed. The question is whether Bradley, Jones, another player, perhaps from the bench, or Bob Bradley will fix this situation.
M, Jermaine Jones, 5: Most of what was said about Bradley can be said about Jones. He's a little better with the long ball than Bradley, but likes to go to it too much. Against better teams, will turning the ball over on such low percentage passes come back to hurt the team?
Both struggle to switch the field fast enough, pretend they're center backs (seriously, watch the next game, and notice how both drop within five yards of a defender even when the pass isn't needed, especially when another defender has vacated the space), and Jones didn't have the impact Bradley did against Canada.
Plus, Jones' undressing was unnecessary. He didn't need to strip off his shirt, even if it was in personal frustration rather than a slight against Bob Bradley. Jones has a reputation for being difficult. He doesn't need to feed it with gestures like that. It's distracting and not the type of display needed by the team right now.
Also, he is now the king of untimely tackles since Bradley has restrained himself and Bornstein isn't on the field. His foul partly caused the first goal against Panama. He needs to be more thoughtful with his physical play.
M, Landon Donovan, 5: If fans didn't know who Landon Donovan was, they wouldn't have been able to distinguish him from any other supporting player for the United States.
Like Dempsey, his role on the team is changing, but unlike Dempsey, he isn't adding to his game. Either he doesn't have the speed, or doesn't want to take on defenders any longer. He has the service, and he has proven he can make the right pass, so he has other skills.
Where are they?
Donovan may be at a critical point in his career. There may be few tangible skills he can add to his game, but he can still improve mentally. Beckham had to do it in order to stay relevant. Donovan can do it as well.
Even if he isn't plateauing, the team's changing, and he needs to adapt accordingly.
M, Alejandro Bedoya, 6: Along with Kljestan, has benefited the most from this tournament. He's done everything asked of him, played with energy and intelligence (even if he did dive), and should be given a larger role moving forward. His play has been better than Donovan's.
M, Sacha Klejstan, 6: What is it with American players not wanting to eat? When Sacha turns sideways, he can't be seen on the field. If the U.S. beats Jamaica, Goodson and Kljestan need to go out and have a steak dinner.
In all seriousness though, Kljestan and Bedoya give Bradley more options than he's willing to use. They have played competently, and Kljestan in particular can play a number of positions. He can pass, shoot, and handle the ball. In the few opportunities he's been given, he's played intelligently. With others struggling, should he be given more of a role?
M, Maurice Edu, N/A: Not enough time to really make a difference or get a good reading of his play. But he's been playing attacking mid at Rangers and played all season. Bradley has to find a way to get him involved, even if it is off the bench (since he has not played well opposite Bradley or Jones when given the opportunity)
F, Juan Agudelo, 5: No longer the surprise to opponents he was before. This is part of growing as a player. Unfortunately, he doesn't get much help on the front line. Individually, Altidore's having a good tournament, but he's not the type of player that creates, which is where Agudelo shines...when he's able to play off of others.
F, Chris Wondolowski, 3: If Tim Ream is benched for his play against Panama, how is Wondolowski allowed back on the field after his three yard miss?
Right now, just about every American born soccer player is going, "I can get myself into a position like Wondolowski and fail to score. Why can't I play?"
Wondolowski was chosen because it was believed he might be able to finish chances. Presently, he's doing the opposite. If he doesn't change his performance soon, he might end up being the second coming of Taylor Twellman: strong in the MLS, unable to score regularly at the international level, and eventually being overlooked.
F, Jozy Altidore, 7: Lucky goal in the Canada game and an amazing strike against Guadeloupe.
For the Canada goal, he made the right run to get in position to have a look at goal and the strike was a precursor to the laser he struck against Guadeloupe.
Still, Jozy remains inconsistent. By the Panama game, he had stopped moving with any regularity and and once again failed to be a factor.
Jozy disappears for long stretches, goes down too easily (he's not going to get calls with any regularity because of his size), doesn't start or finish runs all the time, doesn't utilize his size and strength, and has a cheap and predictable bag of tricks most defenders have seen.
But he has scored two goals; currently, he's a contradiction.
Jozy has moments of brilliance, like his second goal, but then he appears lazy and unintelligent. So far, he's been an island. His individual contributions have earned him two goals on the stat sheet and the highlight reel, helped the team get out the group stage, but he remains out-of-sync with his other attackers.
He's at a crucial point in the tournament and his career. He knows he can score, now can he create for himself and for others with any consistency? We'll all get an opportunity to find out since there's no one to take his place.
Coach, Bob Bradley, 4: Right or wrong, when a team struggles, the coach takes the blame. The team's underperformed. It shouldn't have lost to Panama and should have beaten Guadeloupe by more.
How far will the U.S. go in the Gold Cup?
As already mentioned, Bradley has options on his bench, his 4-4-2 isn't working against these opponents, and it's his responsibility to motivate and ensure players understand their roles. He's done little to improve his team's play.
Still, the team has advanced, done the bare minimum required (it's starting to be his M.O.), and even substituted his son late in the Guadeloupe game.
In the end though, the team isn't where it needs to be, and that's why there's talk of sacking him. Still, Bradley has at least one chance to fix things...the Jamaica game.
Hopefully, he'll be able to.