A year plus change to go until the World Cup and the stars are aligning for the USA.
Despite its often tortuous stagger to the halfway point of the 10-game Hexagonal pool that will decide CONCACAF’s representatives in South Africa next year, there is something inevitable about Bob Bradley’s team’s qualification for soccer’s biggest show.
Bradley can reflect on a campaign that has produced plenty of mediocrity after a flying start and the five matches so far have offered little in the way of real perspective as to the team’s chances of making a splash at the World Cup.
This week marks 12 months remaining before the tournament’s big kickoff yet USA fans are no nearer to getting answers from the side than they were a year ago.
Even so, other results – namely the current woefulness of traditional CONCACAF power Mexico – have ensured there is precious little chance of Bradley’s men failing to secure a finals spot, however badly it plays.
To be fair, Saturday’s 2-1 victory over a courageous Honduras outfit at Chicago’s Soldier Field was a commendable performance and some positives could be found in a strong fight back after going a goal down.
There was none of the attitude of surrender which permeated through the players during last Wednesday’s 3-1 capitulation in Costa Rica.
However, only the most blinkered member of Sam’s Army would dare suggest that a home win against Honduras is an appropriate barometer for when the big names at the World Cup must be faced.
A better one will be the Confederations Cup later this month, with fixtures against Brazil, Italy and Egypt in Pool B on the eight-team tournament, to be held in South Africa.
Bradley’s future as head coach would have been plunged into severe doubt with a defeat by Honduras and he is still under some pressure.
Yet the nearer we get to the World Cup the less likely U,S Soccer is to opt for a change of personnel, unless qualification comes under direct threat. The most popular choice for a replacement would be Juergen Klinsmann, the former German boss who was sacked by Bayern Munich towards the end of the European season.
Much of the discontent surrounding Bradley revolves around his unorthodox 4-2-2-2 tactical system. When it works, it is highly effective, though unspectacular. However, there is little evidence to show that it is a formula that would pose any real problems to the cultured and confident line-ups that will lie in wait at the World Cup.
Unusual systems are nothing new in U.S soccer. Soccer historian Kartik Krishnaiyer penned an excellent article last week highlighting that while the tactics employed by the national team over the past 20 years have rarely been consistent, they have never been conventional.
Indeed, the 4-3-3 used to ill effect in Costa Rica may have been the closest Bradley has come to toeing the European or South American line. And that was ditched summarily after the shellacking at Saprissa Stadium.
Bradley’s critics will insist that his preferred system does a reasonable job of containing good teams but has attacking limitations that make an upset result of an established power unlikely.
The Confederations Cup will go some way to testing that theory one way or another. If the game plan starts to unravel, Bradley’s hot seat will get a little warmer.
- Bob Bradley