BRENT LATHAM - Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Dear Coach Bradley,
Can I call you Bob?
First, congratulations on the game against Argentina. It was enjoyable to watch, and after the 180 minute displays against England and Spain, I wasn't even sure before the game that I wanted to tune in.
So I'm glad that we got that straightened out. What a difference it makes to have a player like Donovan on the field who can hold the ball and create a semblance of an offensive threat himself. Adu looks like he might be on that track too. Thanks for giving him some time.
OK, look Coach, I want you to know who this letter is coming from. Not some casual follower who happens to tune in when the World Cup rolls around, and doesn't realize how much hard work it takes in between to get to one, but someone who follows soccer in the US and abroad all the time.
There are a lot of us now, Coach Bradley, more than ever. US Soccer fans who know the game, the players, who follow this sport with the same passion most Americans follow football or basketball or baseball. And the US is our team. We care.
I'm writing this letter to you today Bob, because some of us are a bit concerned. Not all of us, mind you, but some of us. The last three games have been trying for us fans. We haven't scored, and we never really looked like competing much until Argentina.
It was a tough, ambitious stretch, we'll give you that. You and Sunil deserve all the credit in the world for lining up friendlies, two of them on the road no less, against world powers rather than the usual regional cupcakes.
Still, some of us have come away from this string a bit discouraged. It has been hard, though, to figure out exactly what doesn't sit right about the results of the three friendly matches. Logic dictates that not getting embarrassed is an accomplishment of sorts when visiting two European powers and then hosting FIFA's number one ranked team within a string of ten days.
And yes, we have shortcomings in our talent level compared to the teams we have played. The midfield can't hold the ball. The forwards can't put it in the net. The defense is too slow and lacks the skill to compete at the highest level. Players are missing. We sympathize.
We know, you're working with the hand you've been dealt. It's just that some of us are beginning to question not your effort, but if you really know how to make the most of that hand.
See, Coach, the problem with the analyses that blame the players' inadequacies is that they will never resolve the central debate here. The question is this: Is US soccer really still at a stage where we can expect to get manhandled every time we play a world power? Do we really need more learning experiences, or are we truly ready to compete at an elite international level? OK, that's two questions.
We can discuss the US player pool and development all day but that won't change the resources that the federation has to work with. While everyone would prefer to have Rio Ferdinand on the back line and Lionel Messi up front, that is simply not an option the US has.
We're not the only nation in that boat, but I remember Russia and Croatia beating England to a Euro spot, and Spain lost to Northern Ireland, among other teams, in the runup to the Euro. Why shouldn't we, too, face those teams with the expectation a good result, not just to learn from the experience?
Another thing: the truth is that the US player pool is deeper than ever and becoming more stocked by the year. While we are not as talented as Argentina or England, we may never be. If we wait until the day that we can compete on talent with the World's best, well, we all may be dead by then. We'll have to go with what we've got, unless we are going to nationalize a bunch of Brasilians.
So the only thing left to discuss here, Coach, is, well, you. And I'm afraid a cold analysis suggests that the only variable that can really be changed in the two years that separate us from South Africa is the man at the helm.
You are the X factor here coach. Certainly you can understand our doubts about whether Landon, Adu, Dempsey, and the gang wouldn't be better served by someone with, well, a little more profound experience. I don't want to tell you that you're out of your league here, coach, but how many Capellos or Erikssons have you run into in MLS over the years?
Perhaps I'm wrong, and having an experienced international coach wouldn't make a difference. But I know there's no way to find out without trying.
And one more thing we do know: the US played three very good teams over the past two weeks. Three games, one point. One dismal effort, one workmanlike effort that came up short, and a great effort that produced a tie with perhaps the world's best team. Remind you of anything, Coach?
While Spain, England, and Argentina are three of the world's most talented teams, it is conceivable that the US, with the luck we've had in previous draws, could find ourselves drawn in South Africa with a very similar lineup. And in order to advance out of such a group at the World Cup, something would have to change drastically over the next two years.
We will certainly need to have learned something by then. But what have we learned from these three games? That not scoring goals means you can't win a soccer match? That playing two or three defensive mids at a time means that you'll likely defend for ninety minutes before eventually tiring and conceding? If that's it Bob, then maybe you needed the learning experience more than the players.
So what it all comes down to Coach Bradley is this: you're doing a fine job, if the goal is to get to the next World Cup and then crash out of the group stage, then to wait four years more for the American Messi and Ferdinand to emerge. But our stated aim is to be among the world's elite, to advance past the group stage at the next World Cup, and to earn respect at the international level.
To do that we have to change our perspective out of learning experience mode. We should be fielding a competitive team that is confident in its ability to get results against anyone. Call me unrealistic, call me a dreamer, but if you don't aim high, you'll never find out what you might have achieved. That's the attitude a good federation should have, and I am willing to bet that's the attitude that a Klinsman or a Scolari, for example, would bring to the US. I just can't visualize either of those guys talking about learning experiences instead of winning soccer matches.
With the resources we have to invest, there's no reason we couldn't find someone like that. We just need to be willing to spend some of that fortune that the Argentine fans paid to see the match the other night, or schedule a benefit match against Mexico somewhere.
And one more thing, Coach, we need you to get out of the way.
Coach Bradley, thanks for your time and dedication to US Soccer, which, by the way, we share with you. But it's clearer now more than ever that your tactics won't get us to where we want to be.
So I'm asking you to do one more thing for US Soccer: relinquish your title of permanent coach of the national team. If someone better is out there, then be willing to step aside. If Sunil won't fire you, and we know he won't, then step down.
Coach Bradley, you're a good American soccer coach. But I'm afraid that tactically you're way out of your league on this stage. Why not make way for someone who isn't? At least then we could end the debate about whether our team is lacking in skill or in tactical leadership.
Let's not waste an entire World Cup cycle just to prove that you're not on the same level as the best of our opponent's coaches.
That's one thing we've already learned.