Eleven days ago Panama beat the US men’s soccer team in the group stage of the Gold Cup, and I was critical of coach Bob Bradley for a sort of lingering inability to get the club – perhaps the most talented group the US has ever seen – performing up to its ability. At that point I did something I have done before: implore the US Soccer Federation to see if it could lure Jurgen Klinsmann into taking the head coaching job.
Tonight, in the tournament semi-finals, the US won the rematch, beating Panama 1-0. And in the spirit of fairness and giving credit where it is due, I’d like to acknowledge that Bradley has done a masterful job over the past week and a half. 1-0 doesn’t sound like a thumping by any stretch, but the US always seemed likely to put one in and Panama had almost no real scoring opportunities. Over the last couple of games (including their 2-0 defeat of Jamaica on Sunday) Bradley has had the team executing in ways that are actually worthy of their skill.
Tonight’s game provided me with all kinds of things to be happy about:
- I’ve been complaining since what seems like the dawn of time that his defensive 4-4-2 formation affords too few chances to score. Tonight he deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Sacha Klestan spear-heading a midfield that attacked down the middle of the field. The switch didn’t result in a glut of goals, but it’s a positive change that will make the US more consistently dangerous over time.
- I admired the guts it took to hold Landon Donovan out of the starting 11 (for the second game in a row). Despite conventional wisdom which says LD is the best player the US has (he isn’t – that distinction goes to Clint Dempsey, a guy who has challenged himself in the best league in the world, and I’m about to conclude that Michael Bradley is better, too), Donovan simply hasn’t been terribly effective lately. He’s been a good jolt of energy coming on as a second-half sub, though.
- Like probably everyone in the nation who pays attention to the game, I was stunned when Bradley brought Freddy “Much Adu About Nothing” on as a sub. For the past few years Adu has had a hard time getting on the pitch in fourth-tier leagues like Greece, ferchrissakes, and if you thought he was dead, you can be forgiven. But Bradley pulled the right string. Adu’s precision outlet pass to a streaking Donovan, who then threaded the needle to Dempsey on the back post, resulted in the winning goal. In the 87th minute he tore off a rampaging run down the right side that was damned near Ronaldo-esque, and it might easily have led to another goal had Bradley the Younger been a little more resolute with the perfect ball Adu fed him.
- Meanwhile, the new formation seems to have emphasized tighter marking and better communication in the back. The US defense yielded so few dangerous chances that Tim Howard must have been the most bored guy in the stadium, and a bored goalie is the best kind.
In sum, I have been pretty rough on Bob Bradley since before last year’s World Cup began, and while I try and stay out of the business of wishing unemployment on people (especially people that I think are doing their good-faith best), I have nonetheless felt like he may have hit his ceiling with this team.
But in the last few days he’s demonstrated an ability to adapt and take chances, and he’s gotten results in the process. Jamaica and Panama aren’t Spain and Brazil, but they’re not the Sunday Afternoon Beer Rovers either, and what we’ve seen since that ugly defeat on the 11th is encouraging, to say the least.
So congrats to the team and kudos to Coach Bradley. We’ll be looking forward to Sunday’s final, which we expect will be an exciting challenge against a very good Mexico side.