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World Cup: All but not great things come to an end

By popular demand?!?

Not an image you see every day in soccer. Actually, you almost never see it, especially since I have no idea why Howard has his fist extended.

The only way the Bob Bradley era could end, really. Expectations met, but opportunities missed. Acceptable-to-excellent results (they did win the group, after all), but the nagging feeling they had little to do with the coach in charge. Solid in-game adjustments, but only to repair inexcusable starting lineup decisions. Excepting only the five halves at the Confederations Cup–3-0 over Egypt, 2-0 over Spain, 2-0 over Brazil at the half–Bradley’s entire four-year tenure at the helm of the USMNT has been one long Yes, but. So it’s no surprise his team’s World Cup run ends the same way: Yes, they won the group. But they could have made the semis*. Yes, but, Yes, but, Yes, but.

Not that the failure against Ghana is entirely Bradley’s fault. One of the things we learned at the Confed Cup was that the U.S.’s first 11 could hang with anyone but that just one or two dents in that lineup–even the wrong late-game substitution–would result in a huge dropoff in performance. Between then and this summer the U.S. took three major dents: Onyewu got hurt. Clark got hurt. Davies got really, really hurt. If there were semi-palatable options for the two latter dilemmas, there weren’t for the replacement of Onyewu, which after the first two matches became sadly necessary. Bocanegra and Demerit were the best we had. Against Ghana, they just weren’t good enough.

But if you can excuse Bradley for some of his team’s defensive woes (and even give him credit for the needed benching of Onyewu and faith in Jonathan Bornstein, who frankly stunned us all with two solid performances), you cannot for starting Clark or Findley. You can find the same sentiment in approximately 7 bajillion places across the Internet, of course; I’ll let my buddy Brian Cook make the case against Findley and echo Dan Loney’s take on Clark:

I actually hate now having to join the Haters’ Choir, but – okay, starting DeMerit was understandable, because – nothing against Clarence Goodson, but I’ve got lots of things against Clarence Goodson. Starting Robbie Findley was slightly less understandable – in other words, insane. Yes, his speed was a factor – he missed those shots very quickly. Starting Clark was incomprehensible. If it’s not fair to say Bob Bradley lost this game, then it’s probably never fair to credit or blame a coach for anything.

This is true. Bradley’s excuse that he wanted Clark’s fresher legs makes zero sense–actually, it makes negative sense, more like absolute zero sense–when you consider that 1. Clark has barely played this calendar year while Edu has gotten regular 90-minute performances at Rangers 2. Edu hadn’t played at all against England, only entered at the half against Slovenia, and got subbed off against Algeria after an hour–meaning that Clark had played all of 15 fewer minutes than Edu in the group stage. Sometimes there’s nothing to type but: W … T … F.

So maybe you can make an argument that Bradley wasn’t primarily responsible for the loss to Ghana, that the principal culprits were simply the injuries and a lack of quality in the back, a lack of quality and up top**. But there’s no way to say that Bradley made the right choices for getting the most out of his team at this World Cup … and the entire point of being the coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team is to get the most out of them at the World Cup. Bradley has managed a lot of impressive things during his run at the U.S. helm. But if he couldn’t manage that, and he didn’t, then he doesn’t deserve to be the U.S. coach. I hope, and hope fervently, he’s let go***.

But his failure and the team’s ouster don’t mean that this campaign was a disappointment. Maybe if we’d gone though without this:

But we had that. We had the fightback against Slovenia. We had Tim Howard standing tall against England. We had a lot. We had so, so much more than what so many more talented sides got. The impotence and decline of 2006 is behind us, and if not for a truly phenomenal strike from Asomah Gyan, it might be far, far behind us. We got the improvement we wanted, the magic we wanted, the memories we wanted. I wish things had ended differently. But I’ve got no complaints.

Other thoughts on the Ghana game and the rest of the Cup:

— Honestly, if you’d told any U.S. fan ahead of time that Tim Howard would be badly outplayed by Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson–as he was–I don’t think they’d have had a whole lot of hope for that match. We knew Howard would have to bail out some dodgy defending from time-to-time, and he started the game doing the exact opposite, making a bad defending situation even worse by leaving the near post completely, totally open. The U.S. needed better from him. (The same goes, a little more mildly, for Donovan. He wasn’t bad. But he didn’t play like the best U.S. field player he is.)

— I’ve been stunned by how much stick Jozy Altidore has gotten in the wake of the U.S.’s departure. No, Altidore didn’t score. All he did was hit the post against England, terrorize the Slovenian defenders and make the single biggest play of that game by knocking down the header for Bradley, make the run to the endline and pass to Dempsey that resulted in the Algeria goal, make the pass to Feilhaber that could have easily resulted in the first goal against Ghana, nearly score one-on-one in that game as he was falling over, and generally work tirelessly across all four games despite playing nearly every damn minute. Also, he’s all of 20 and he was saddled with some combination of Findley or Gomez for a strike partner for a good chunk of his time on the pitch. Maybe he wasn’t a match-winner the way Gyan proved to be for Ghana, but the U.S. had so, so many bigger issues than Altidore.

— I’m kicking myself for not getting this post done before Michael at Braves and Birds finished his, because I was going to suggest a new major tournament for the Western hempisphere. Call it the Tournament of the Americas: 16 teams, mostly South American, some North American, held every four years, some qualifying ahead of time. Four years is just too damn long between games that cause these kind of heart problems. (Though the Hex had some pretty terrific moments this time around, I have to admit.)

— Is there any doubt any more how big a disaster the Jabulani has been? Goals by each round of game:

2010 WORLD CUP GOALS PER GAME as of 6/28 2pm PST
Overall: 2.24 goals per game*. 121 goals, 54 games thusfar.

Round 1: 1.50 goals per game. 24 goals, 16 games.

Round 2: 2.63 goals per game. 42 goals, 16 games.

Round 3: 2.13 goals per game. 34 goals, 16 games.

Knockout stage: 3.50 goals per game. 21 goals, 6 matches thusfar.

Nice work, FIFA. Nothing like making your most valuable commodity substantially less exciting for the relative chump change earned by unveiling a “special” ball just a few months ahead of the tournament.

— Updating the TWER World Cup pool, “Auburn F.C.” by C. Fuhrmeister is on top. Yours truly might be able to make a push if my Netherlands team can top Brazil in the quarters; I think Brazil are actually legitimate tournament favorites at this stage, but I couldn’t bring myself to both the U.S. and the Dutch out before the semis. But if Robben can work some early magic and force Brazil to chase just a bit, and the Dutch coach will get his head out of his behind long enough to get Eljero Elia on the field for more than 20 minutes …

— Lastly, there’s been a lot of general griping about this Cup, what with the dull early round of games and the collapse of the officiating later on, but 1. we’ve still seen a ton of fascinating matches, haven’t we? The drama of U.S.-Slovenia, Nigeria-South Korea, Cameroon-Denmark, Slovakia-Italy, Serbia-Australia, the shocks of Switzerland-Spain and New Zealand-Italy, the stylishness of Germany against the Aussies and English, of Argentina against Korea. And now we’ve got Netherlands-Brazil, Argentina-Germany, and an almost certain semifinal between the Spanish and whoever emerges from the ARG-GER match. Honestly, what more do the pundits want?

*This aspect has been overplayed if you ask me; whatever the perennially unreliable FIFA rankings might tell you, Uruguay was always the heavy favorite in the U.S. quadrant. They’ve got an airtight, athletic defense and arguably the best pair of strikers in the tournament in Forlan and Suarez. They play so infuriatingly consersative they might suckered into a 1-0 or 1-1 penalties match vs. Ghana, but the way the U.S. backline was playing all tournament, there wasn’t that much of a chance they were going to keep Suarez and Forlan off the scoresheet. Is it an opportunity missed? Yeah, since as good as they are, Uruguay still aren’t Brazil or Germany or Spain or Argentina. But it’s not quite as good an opportunity as it’s been portrayed in some outlets.

**If Bradley was fully, stupidly committed to leaving Dempsey in the midfield, there weren’t any particularly appetizing options. Herculez Gomez wasn’t built to start, as he showed against Algeria, and Edson Buddle has never accomplished anything for the Nats. They were still both better options than Findley by light years, but Bradley didn’t have any easy option here, to be fair.

***Yet another Yes, but: it’s worth remembering that even the Confed Cup run started with two hideous losses to Italy and Brazil, the second with Bradley choosing to start both the woefully out of form Damarcus Beasley and Sacha Klejstan in midfield. Both were beyond terrible, and I finished watching the Brazil game convinced Bradley needed to be fired immediately. If the Egypt and Spain wins proved how much potential the team had, the start of that tournament showed how much potential Bradley possessed for crippling the team via poor lineup decisions. My assumption was that he could/would get away with a couple of iffy choices vs. England and Slovenia and then correct them in time for Algeria. This was terribly, terribly wrong.

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