I have sat down at my computer today to make an announcement and ask a question. At first I was going to do a piece on the Gold Cup Final about whether or not Saturday's result indicated Mexico in the ascendancy, the United States in the decline, or both. After watching my DVR recording of the USA vs. Mexico match this morning, I was left struck with several interesting revelations and a few other gigantic reminders of how some things just never change, and I've decided to write about those instead.
First of all, I think this match settled the long-standing debate over who is the best outfield player for the national team. Pundits and fans alike have been going back and forth on Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey for some time now, and both men have their merits. Donovan is the heart and soul of the USA, and if he doesn't play well the Yanks rarely win. Dempsey, on the other hand, has been crushing it in Europe. He's the all-time leading goalscorer for an American in England, a living Fulham FC legend and probably the most technically gifted player who has ever pulled on a USA jersey. There's very little between the two of them.
Neither of them, however, are the best. That man is Steve Cherundolo. The "Mayor of Hannover" is not only one of the most consistent and successful outfield players in US history, but he proved in this tournament that he's also the most consistent performer in a US shirt. He had a phenomenal tournament, making almost no mistakes defensively and offering a fantastic crossing option going forward. Not a single other player for the Yanks can claim to have played at that high a level throughout the whole Gold Cup.
To be honest, I've long thought that Dolo belonged in this conversation, but Dempsey's last two domestic seasons and Donovan's performance at Everton and in the World Cup had me thinking that the University of Portland product was falling to a distant third. Ironically, it was not Steve's performances that finally sold me on his supremacy in the American outfield pantheon, it was his absence.
There is little doubt in my mind that Cherundolo's injury was a key factor (and possibly the only factor) in the US's monumental capitulation on Saturday. Despite the fact that they managed to score after he left, it was painfully obvious that the back line was totally out of sorts. Lichaj had a great tournament playing on the left, but when Dolo went down he was switched to the right and the oft-maligned Jonathan Bornstein was sent to the left side. Bornstein hasn't played consistent starting soccer in quite some time, and it showed when he was burned for being badly out of position on Mexico's first goal. For me, this isn't just a situational issue. The steadiness Dolo has brought to the right back position whenever healthy is invaluable to the US team and also to his Hannover 96 squad in Germany.
Before I move further in my analysis, I want to give credit where credit is due. Mexico is a very, very, VERY good side. Better than they've been in a few years now. Chicharito could be the best young goal-poacher in the world right now, Giovani Dos Santos is recapturing his old Barcelona form for El Tri, and both Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera are phenomenal talents. Mexico absolutely cruised through this tournament, rarely looking too bothered by any of their opponents until the final, which compares favorably to the hiccups the USA experienced on their road the final.
Now, on to Bob Bradley. First, he needs to be commended for two things. One, benching Donovan against Jamaica and Panama took a lot of guts, and it was the right call. Secondly, playing Freddy Adu in the semifinal and then starting him in the final was arguably an even ballsier call than the Donovan decision. Freddy's recent career has been nothing short of a classic Greek tragedy, and even naming him to the squad was a stretch after he spent the last half of the season in the Turkish second division with Rizespor. But he was playing well there and it turns out, after his bright cameo against Panama and the fantastic start he managed against Mexico, that it was the right call. Bob must have felt he had to go bold to get the results he needed, and it paid off.
With that said, I don't understand why he didn't continue to be bold. When Cherundolo went down, Bradley ignored the option of putting in Spector at right back or switching Lichaj and moving Bocanegra back out left and instead slotted in Bornstein, a player whose inadequacy at the international level has been illustrated ad nauseum both in the press and by his own play over the last four years or so. Not only that, he's struggled mightily for playing time at the domestic level in Mexico this season. Spector at least got minutes for West Ham this season, and Bradley had other options in the middle of defense if he wanted to move in that direction. Bringing in Jonny B directly contributed to Mexico's first goal, and the US never seemed to recover after that.
That substitution was a case of Bob Bradley continuing to play inexplicable favorites. Bornstein has been a Bradley era mainstay ever since he took over the national team, and one thing that Bob has always done is stick to his shortlist of favored players. Another thing he's demonstrated is an inability to adjust tactics when playing with the lead. The fact that the Yanks went from 2-0 up to a 2-4 loss should be all the indication anyone needs that he has gotten no better at that.
Bradley's tactics lend themselves to being an underdog. He tends to come out with a slightly lame gameplan early on that is focused on weathering the storm and trying to discover opponents' weaknesses in the first half, almost as though he's doing all of his scouting in-game. Then, "Coach Rope-a-dope" makes tactical switches and subs in the second half, snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat or managing a gutsy one- or two-goal victory. Against equal or lesser opposition, or if the USA unexpectedly gains an advantage early, this tactic nearly always comes back to bite him.
Some say that the 2-0 lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer, but the Yanks needed to do better when defending that lead. I would argue that by that point, they had Mexico against the ropes, and had they pressed (and not had Bornstein covering the left) they may have found a third goal and put the game away in the first half. A Bob Bradley-coached team will never be able to do that, at least not on purpose.
So I ask, then: is Bob Bradley's job in jeopardy? His expectations were to make the Gold Cup final, and he did that. But in the process, he presided over the US's first-EVER loss in Gold Cup group play, and made teams like Guadeloupe and Panama look far tougher than they really are in the process. Then, he gave up a two-goal lead and a berth in the Confederations Cup by making the same mistakes and sticking with the same tired strategies he's been knocked for using since day one when he assumed control after the 2006 World Cup. Is there a case to be made that he didn't do a good enough job in reaching his expectations, and therefore a change is in order?
What do you think? Is Cherundolo the best outfield player in US Soccer? Should Bob lose his job? Who would you like to replace him? Continue the discussion in the comments section below!