Aug 13, 2009

Bob Bradley gets outcoached, U.S. lose to Mexico

The U.S. Men's National Team took an early lead, then gave up a quick equalizer before succumbing to the winning goal eight minutes from time in their World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca yesterday. The win by Mexico puts its national team back on track to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The Yanks will probably still qualify anyway, but they would have loved to have managed a victory (or at least a draw) at the Azteca, a place where they have famously never won in 19 attempts. Back north of the border, the blame game is already in full effect, a further sign that the U.S. is finally taking its rightful place among soccer nations. (And about freakin' time too!)

The fingers point in the usual directions: certain prominent players (Landon Donovan, the team's best outfield player and captain Carlos Bocanegra are popular targets), the referee and of course the losing team's head coach, Bob Bradley. We will focus on the latter.

Before we do, a quick explanation is in order: Unlike many U.S.-based soccer writers we are not naive (or American) enough to think the coach has as much influence in the sport of soccer as he does in, say, basketball or (American) football. In those sports (and to an extent also in baseball) the coach can literally diagram every play and defensive formation should he choose to do so, leaving the players with the task of "executing." Obviously, soccer is different; most of the action comes from the flow of play and at the impetus of players on the field ("the pitch"). So the coach's role is more limited: motivating players and staff, choosing the starting lineup and formation and timing and identifying the proper substitutes. (Maybe this is why he is called a "manager" in the U.K. Or maybe that's because the word coach is used for buses. Whatever, off topic).

But it was in the last of these areas, substitutions, where Mexico head coach Javier Aguirre bested Bradley.

Perhaps (over)reacting to criticism of his substitution policy during the Confederations Cup final loss to Brazil, Bradley went to his bench relatively early, in the 58th minute. He did so in dramatic fashion, in one fell swoop bringing in Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden for Ricardo Clark and Brian Ching, respectively.

The Ching move was necessary. The veteran forward had done absolutely nothing in the match until then. You could count on one hand how many times he touched the ball. And Holden, his Houston Dynamo teammate, was a good choice to reinvigorate the U.S. attack, which had been largely dormant since Davies' goal. Holden can collect the ball in midfield and cause havoc on both wings. He was exactly what the U.S. game needed. Sure enough, he found Davies on a cross shortly after coming in but the Sochaux forward missed it. The chance would be the U.S.' best, last effort to score a second goal.

But the Clark move made no sense. Clark (another Houston Dynamo player) had been one of the Yanks' most consistent, active players in the first 57 minutes. He did an excellent job in defensive midfield, where he was repeatedly able to disrupt Mexico’s efforts at buildup. Rather than remove Clark, Bradley should have spelled his son, Michael, who was all but invisible to that point. The streaky Feilhaber promptly did nothing, which is not entirely (Bob) Bradley's fault. But failing to remove his son from the game was.

After Aguirre countered with Nery Castillo in the 72nd minute, the game took on a different tilt. The Mexican side was able to find space, especially on the wings. Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard was able to bail the Yanks out once or twice but you could tell the noose was tightening.

Bradley went to his bench again in the 76th minute, bringing recent Hull City signing Jozy Altidore for Davies. This move was a) premature, b) the wrong one and c) ineffective. Altidore was not able to do anything in his brief time on the pitch, though in fairness he barely got any service either.
Why did Bradley feel the need to go for the win by bringing in another attacker when his team was hanging on for dear life and a draw would have been a great result? Why didn't he bring in Jonathan Spector or Jonathan Bornstein or Jose Francisco Torres (more on him in a minute) to shore up the left side of the defense or midfield? With 12 minutes plus stoppage time left on the clock, the U.S. was stretched to the breaking point with nowhere left to turn.

Aguirre saw his chance and he grabbed it, bringing in Miguel Sabah in minute 78. Three minutes later, Sabah scored the winning goal after the Yanks' left side gave way again. Game, set and match.

A few words on the starting lineups. Carlos Bocanegra is not a left back and should not be starting at that position in a game of this magnitude. We realize Bradley doesn't have many other options at this position (though Spector, a player West Ham United fans may have heard of, is all but begging for a chance) but Boca is simply not up to the task. In fact, the U.S. captain has not played very well at center back either. Both Mexico goals can be traced to mistakes on his part.

Lastly, WHY did Bradley not start Torres? The young Mexican-American has played well in his few national team appearances. He earns his money for a Mexican league club with whom he regularly visits the Azteca. From his position in central midfield, Torres could have been the lynchpin for the U.S. attack. Or, he could have replaced Michael Bradley either in place of Feilhaber or as the final substitute. Either way, leaving him out was a crime.


  1. Good analysis. Perhaps Bradley wasn't willing to play for a draw? That'd be a mistake I think.

    When I saw Bocanegra was starting again in the back line I thought "What then, are we playing a pub team tonight?" Whatever Boca's admirable qualities, Spector is twice the defender where it really counts.

    Like many, I shake my head not able to understand why Torres doesn't get playing time.

    Most insightful in your review, is that the substitutions are like moves in a chess match, both manages having only 3 moves to get checkmate. A little more of chess might have been in order on the part of team USA.

  2. I cannot agree with you more. Jose Francisco Torres is a lot better than Michael Bradley and he would have kept Mexico on their heels which would have helped the U.S. hang on for a win/draw.

  3. Just like the other comment posters said, Bradley needs to work on that line-up, the US team has talent and can win, but if the right lineup is not made, its wasted, players need to play with flow just as you (blogger) said. I dont know, I hope the US team continues to compete as soccer (football) in the US is starting to flourish and im excited for it!