RUSTENBURG, South Africa – Win or lose, good or bad, Bob Bradley has classically maintained the same stoic persona in postgame press conferences.
But not on Saturday.
As pleased and relaxed as Bradley seemed following the US’ dramatic group-clinching win over Algeria on Wednesday, he has rarely looked as downtrodden, exhausted and empty as he did following his team’s 2-1 loss to Ghana that sent the Americans out of the World Cup.
“I think the first thoughts for all of us are simple,” he said. “We felt that the first round, we showed a lot of good qualities. You get through the first round and give yourself a chance to go far. We felt that we had that ability, and we’re disappointed that we didn’t get past this game and continue to test ourselves.”
One decision that is likely to haunt Bradley – either in his own mind, or in the many recountings of this match over the next four years – is his call to start Ricardo Clark in the central midfield. The former Houston Dynamo man has the most chemistry with Michael Bradley in the middle of the park, but Clark hadn’t played a game since the Americans’ opening 1-1 draw with England two weeks ago.
“We felt that fresh legs in the center of the field would be good,” Bradley said of the decision. “We felt that Ricardo had, against England, been disciplined in the way he had plugged certain holes, and thought that would be important against Ghana.”
But Clark’s bad giveaway in the fifth minute Saturday night led to Ghana’s first goal, and he was clearly deflated after that mistake. Two minutes later, he took out his frustrations with an ill-timed tackle that earned him a yellow card. From then on, he seemed to lose his composure so badly that Bradley was forced to remove him and use his first substitution in only the 31st minute.
“We took him off in the first half, which is something we almost never do, but I was concerned about the card,” Bradley added. “And when we were already down 1-0, and now you’re trying to push the game, in that part of the field, when you play that role, playing with a card is incredibly dangerous.”
And in the end, the US’ undoing was just giving up a first goal one too many times. It’s something that has plagued the team too often under Bradley’s tenure. In the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, the Americans conceded first six times in 10 games.
They then repeated the trend three times in four World Cup games – and were a crossbar-smack away vs. Algeria from making it four for four. At a certain point, Bradley said, it’s just not possible to keep fighting back.
“We recognize it, but just talking about it doesn’t always change it,” he said. “It’s a hard lesson and hopefully one that we’ll be able to improve upon.”
Another issue Bradley seemed to take ownership of is the fact that, for a second straight World Cup, no US striker scored a goal. Jozy Altidore has blossomed under Bradley’s tutelage, but couldn’t finish in South Africa – nor could Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle.
“When you get to the World Cup level and everything gets challenged at that ultimate level, then I think we still know that we need to get better,” Bradley explained, “and forward would certainly be one of those areas.”
But the ultimate question, it seems, will have to wait. Bradley has taken the US as far as any coach in the modern era except for Bruce Arena – and not even Arena led the Americans on a run like the one they experienced at last summer’s Confederations Cup. US Soccer officials have echoed Bradley’s goal all along of getting out of the group stage in South Africa.
Still, with the US pool expanding and more players playing the game in the world’s top leagues, expectations for the national team have grown with each successive World Cup. And still, the USMNT have yet to progress past the quarterfinals.
So will Bradley be back for the next World Cup cycle?
“I don’t think it’s the time to talk about my situation,” he said. “This has been a four-year cycle where we worked hard and it culminated with being here in South Africa. At the moment, [it’s] a disappointed feeling in not having won tonight.”
Bradley certainly seemed a man defeated on Saturday night. Whether it’s for good with the national team could be sorted out in the coming days.