WHAT IF WE WERE NIGERIANS?
For those who follow world soccer closely, you will have noticed that last week, Nigeria took the remarkable step of firing their caretaker coach, Shaibu Amodu, after a third place finish in the African Nations Cup, and with only months to spare before the World Cup.
"The federation was sensitive to the demands of passionate Nigerians, both highly placed and not so highly placed," Fed President Sani Abudullahi said.
Makes an American soccer fan think, doesn't it? Is it crazy to fire a coach so close to the big date? Or is it the best choice if a mediocre or worse performance is the best case scenario?
Now, I'm not here to reignite the "fire Bob Bradley" debate, as it may seem. That ship has sailed. This is Bradley's team, he'll run it the way he sees fit, and we'll see where he gets them this summer. After three plus years in charge, if nothing else, he's at least earned the right to tackle the World Cup in his way.
But that reality shouldn't preclude us from what could be a useful exercise, in the context of the Nigerian example: thinking about what might be different if Sunil Gulati's trigger finger were as itchy as Abdullahi's.
Let's set some ground rules. It's not really important who the imaginary coach that might take over a U.S. team with only three months to spare might be, because I am not advocating replacing Bradley, and don't want to talk about tactics, or skew the discussion by introducing a coach perceived to have a higher profile or simply be better than our current one. So let's say deposed Nigerian coach Amodu were, for some reason, brought in for the job.
Omitting the admittedly important tactical changes that might take place, what tweaks in personnel might a fresh pair of eyes make with the Nats, with so little time to spare? Here are a few issues that might receive immediate attention from a new coach in our alternate Nigerian universe:
Issue #1 A central role for Jose Francisco Torres.
Torres is a young, but unique player. Formed outside the American system, he can do things most of our players still cannot. Though Torres is still very green, his ability to control a game's tempo in the midfield and distribute with flair and success are still pretty unique in the American pool. The comparisons to a young Claudio Reyna, who at Torres' age was captaining the midfield, are apt.
I think one of the first changes our Nigerian coach would make would be to give the young Texan a serious run out with the first team. In the "friendly" capitulations late last year against Slovakia and Denmark, the Americans' main problem was not that they couldn't recover the ball, it was that they simply couldn't hold it when they got it, or complete a pass out of midfield. Torres, in his few brief appearances thus far, has demonstrated the ability to change that. In this Nigerian dream world, Torres would get his chance to prove he is ready now to take that place alongside Michael Bradley in the center of midfield.
What Bradley will do The American coach clearly sees Torres' potential, or he wouldn't have brought him in so many times over the last year and a half. But Bradley still seems to think Torres is too green, and not fully adapted to his system, to take such an important role.
But Bradley's hand has been forced with young players in the past - see Charlie Davies. With Benny Feilhaber and Clint Dempsey out for the Holland match next month, and other contenders like Robbie Rogers and Sasha Klejstan having had their chance to impress, there would seem to be a place in the midfield for the young Pachuca standout, who has continued his solid play for one of the better teams in Mexico early this season. Whether Bradley gives him some time to show his wares is a question soon to be answered. Amodu would.
Issue #2 What to do with DaMarcus Beasley?
No one still in contention to make the plane for South Africa 2010, not even Freddy Adu, looked more out to sea at the onset of this club season than two-time World Cup veteran DMB. But since his reinsertion into Rangers lineup following an injury crisis in December, the former Chicago Fire man has responded with a sizzling run that seems to have surprised everyone but him.
Beasley's immediate reinsertion into the lineup after injury suggests Walter Smith's newfound confidence in him the coach actually said Beasley brings Rangers "qualities no one else does" - is enough to keep Beasley on the field for the rest of the club year, and force his way into Bob Bradley's plans. Our Nigerian coach would surely be eager to look at a resurgent Beasley as a key alternate in the midfield.
What Bradley will do - Beasley is a known quantity to the national team coach, so he's very likely to concur with our man Amodu. Bradley has made no guarantees, but Beasley's form at a top club and ample experience are very likely to get him on the plane. The recovery of one of the team's veterans just in time for the World Cup is good news all around. Beasley is a usable and somewhat flexible bench option in midfield, and he may be an alternative at left back in a severe pinch (a distinct possibility).
Issue # 3 What's to be done in central defense?
Amodu would likely get to work immediately reassessing the centerback position. The candidates to deputize alongside the standbys have been woefully inadequate, and time is running out.
Defenders, and central backs in particular, are at a premium at the World Cup because they are the most likely to be suspended for yellow card accumulation, and three or even four CBs will see the field if the US makes a deep run into the tournament. Those cards naturally accumulate at the end of the first round and in the knockout rounds so the selection of backup CBs is more than a triviality.
With Oguchi Onyewu's status uncertain, it's troubling, then, that the same group that has failed time and time again to get the job done against backup CONCACAF competition continues to get all the looks. I think Amodu might throw caution to the wind and test the upside of Omar Gonzalez, who like Torres is still green, but has been improving in leaps and bounds since he came into the MLS at the beginning of last season, and may be ready for a further breakout.
What Bradley will do On this one, little. Bradley is loyal to his veteran players, and loath to test young players too soon. That helps explain why the same second string center back pool, which has proven time and time again that it doesn't have what it takes, are still getting looks. The coach has called in Clarence Goodson specifically for the El Salvador game, and with Chad Marshall also in the mix, Gonzalez is unlikely to get an extended look this year.
Bradley sees Gonzalez as one for the future. It's easy to understand the coach's preference for veterans, but as Amodu might claim, what good does it do to hold back a young prospect on the rise in order to give a veteran another shot, if that veteran is not up to the task?
Issue #4 What, if anything, to do with Freddy Adu?
Where does the one-time prodigy belong in this discussion? Adu has shown glimpses of life in Greece - hardly the stuff World Cup dreams are made of - but Adu's backers still see something special in the ex- DC United, Real Salt Lake, Benfica, AS Monaco, Belenenses attacker.
Hector Cuper, a fine coach, also seems to see it, and that alone should provide some proof that Adu is not finished yet. He does bring a special quality, an ability to take on defenders one on one that is somewhat lacking though less and less - in the American player pool. But Amodu might not be fully convinced.
What Bradley will do- If he were a straight-up forward, Adu's skills would be more interesting at this point, but the U.S. is stacked at midfield and Adu just doesn't add what the other, more regular players do. I think any coach would feel about the same as Bradley on this one.
Still, given his recent resurgence, both our imaginary and real coaches would likely give Adu one last look in March. If he can continue to impress, against Holland and for his club, he may snag one of those leftover forward spots as a hybrid attacker.
Issue # 5 The Jermaine Jones affair.
Amodu will have been surprised to see everyone stateside throwing in the towel on Jones, despite his continued struggle to recover from that chronic leg injury. An outsider would immediately recognize the value of Jones to any team. To a new coach, Jones would be this year's John O'Brien the one guy you might take even if he's not fully fit. He's that much better than the other options.
Admittedly, choosing a recently fit Jones is a risk. But it is one that our alternative Nigerian coach would almost certainly take. This is a risk-reward scenario that provides a significant upside. Jones at anywhere near the top of his game would be an addition that could make all the difference in a second round or quarterfinal matchup. It's hard to say that about the alternates at the position, Maurice Edu and Ricardo Clark, who will also likely be in shaky playing time situations for the next three months.
What Bradley will do - If Jones sees the field this season, and I'd put those odds at a little below even, it won't be until after Bradley has had his last chance to take a look at players in Europe. So if Jones were to return in, say, early April, for the last six weeks of the season, then Bradley would have to choose a player who has never worn an American shirt for his World Cup roster.
"Team chemistry" is likely the issue weighing most heavily on Bradley's mind here. Remember, our Nigerian coach doesn't have to worry about that we've destroyed any chemistry that existed by bringing in a new coach at T minus 100 days. If, in a dream scenario for American fans, Jones gets healthy, what Bob Bradley does about it will go a long way towards demonstrating his approach to the Cup.
Issue # 6 The goalkeepers.
The U.S. has a solid starter and leader in Tim Howard. But something is happening right now in the Premier League that might catch Amodu's attention. Brad Friedel's form, all the more impressive for his advanced age, has been nothing short of scintillating. As good a goalkeeper as Howard is, at this point in time it's pretty clear that Friedel is the better choice between the sticks.
Of course Friedel retired from international soccer after his all-tournament worthy performance in South Korea and Japan, and hasn't looked back in the eight years since. Would he come out of retirement for one more World Cup if Amodu called him up and told him the starting job was his? Only Big Brad knows the answer. But I wonder if Amodu wouldn't give it a shot.
What Bradley will do - Nothing. This is a non-issue. Luckily, Timmy is a great keeper in his own right. Plus, it would be grossly unfair to Howard, who has put in the work over the years to get the team to South Africa.
For Bob Bradley, fairness is certainly part of the calculation. Less so, perhaps, in Nigeria, where coaches are jettisoned after winning four of six games in continental competition. So unlike our imaginary Nigerian coach, this go-round at least, the U.S. will likely rely on the known qualities rather than the X-factors that could blow up in their faces.
Which approach will pay off? It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the Americans' steady hand is a more intelligent approach. But soccer is not nuclear physics. A deep World Cup run for a second-tier soccer nation like the U.S. or Nigeria is sometimes more about catching lightning in a bottle by finding the mix of players that works now, than about establishing a team and sticking with it.
All the Americans' planning could lead to little if the U.S. doesn't take the chances needed to get past the big teams in South Africa. Even with the most careful preparations, as another famous Nigerian would tell us, unknowns arise and things fall apart. In June, we'll find out which approach bears fruit.