I'm a pretty big soccer fan. I follow the US National team through qualifying, I support DC United, and from my time living in England, I support Leeds United (promotion, baby!). So, on the one hand, I'm extremely pleased not just by the US winning their group, but the way that soccer forced itself into the national consciousness for a little while. On the other hand, losing sucks and the US had the easiest possible path to the semifinals it will ever, ever get. And they blew it.
Which means I'm somewhat torn whether this was a great leap forward or just another horrible setback. Maybe it's both. I think for non-soccer fans (or more accurately, non-US soccer fans), this will be viewed as an extremely successful World Cup for the USMNT. The accomplishments are substantial: winning the group for the first time since 1930, several fabulous comebacks, and of course, The Goal.
For those of us who have lived and died with the US team for decades, this was a bitter disappointment. The team squandered an easy draw, suffered elimination at the hands of Ghana for the second straight World Cup, and most importantly, continually dug themselves big holes to get out of. Good teams just don't keep conceding early goals.
This brings me to Coach Bob Bradley. Bradley has been roundly criticized by the soccer intelligentsia ever since he took the job. His tactics are poor (yay, long ball!), he rides his favorites despite an astonishing lack of production (Ricardo Clark, anyone?), and he just lacks any sort of creative solutions to problems. During the England game, for instance, Bradley simply played for a draw and seemed to forget that he even had a bench. A draw was nice, but the fact he didn't even try to grab the win was terribly frustrating.
That said, Bob Bradley is the most successful coach in US Soccer history, and it's not all that close. The US won its group at the World Cup, a first since 1930. The US made the finals of the Confederations Cup, the furthest the US has ever advanced in a FIFA sponsored international tournament. Oh yeah, on the way, the team handed Spain its only loss in four years.
Sure, some of his decisions are baffling and he will never be confused with the geniuses of strategy, but his teams simply win. His players play hard for him, and they are incredibly loyal to him. He gets the most out of his players. Did any soccer fan expect to see Bornstein be an effective left back at the World Cup? Yeah, me neither. Donovan has blossomed into a star under his watch, which may not be Bradley's doing, but he has to get some credit for it.
He developed young talent like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley (his son), while also relying on career renaissances from veterans like Cherundolo and Bocanegra. Dolo quietly went from a liability to one of our most valuable players. Bradley deserves credit for that.
I think by now you know where I'm going with this. Bob Bradley is not a perfect coach, he does stuff the drives me absolutely insane, but the name of the game is winning. And Bradley won. Criticizing Bradley has become a cottage industry, just like our very own Les Miles.
You can't go to an LSU website without reading about the things Miles does wrong: he favors upperclassmen over his stud recruits, he makes baffling in game decisions, and he has no genius for play calling. Yet Miles is the most successful coach in LSU history. He has two BCS bowl appearances (both wins), a national and an SEC title, and the best winning percentage of any head football coach. He's accomplished things that no LSU coach has ever accomplished, particularly in the sheer number of good teams he has beaten.
It doesn't mean he doesn't have flaws. The criticisms of Miles are valid, but the criticisms need to be tempered by the fact he does the thing coaches are paid to do: he wins. He, like Bradley, excels in the area of coaching that gets the least amount of credit: he inspires loyalty and gets the very best out of his players. We concentrate so much on the flaws, we miss the attributes.
Coaching is hard. And no coach is perfect. But, at the end of the day, we can only judge them by how the team has performed. It's a bottom line business, and the bottom line is wins. My hat is off to Bob Bradley, who despite the constant criticism, has guided the US to new heights. The question is, can he guide us to the next heights?
The same goes for Miles.