On USMNT, Michael Bradley, and Managing Expectations

On USMNT, Michael Bradley, and Managing Expectations

USA vs Mexico Highlights

It’s been more than two days since the epic match between the United States and Portugal ended in a 2-2 draw, on the latest equalizer in World Cup history. Now that the shock has worn off and our collective blood pressure has lowered to a normal level, American fans need to take a step back and put the draw in the proper perspective.

Through two games, the USMNT have already exceeded their pre-tournament expectations, and find themselves in a good position to advance. The funny thing about expectations is that they are inherently fickle. During the World Cup especially, they change about as often as a teenage girl’s wardrobe, or Miguel Veloso’s hairstyle.

Modern day sports media is all about creating a narrative, and the American hype machines did just that in the buildup to this World Cup. Ever since the World Cup groups were drawn back in December, the primary narrative involving the USMNT was their inclusion in the Group of Death. If you heard it once, you heard it a thousand times. Facing two European powers along with the team who had knocked them out of the last two World Cups, the United States had only a small chance of advancing past the group stage.

The Group of Death moniker was so easily accepted by football enthusiasts and casual fans alike because of the big names. Germany had advanced to the semi-finals in their past four major tournaments, and were graced with the presence of familiar faces like European club football stars Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Philipp Lahm. Ghana still featured several mainstays from the team that knocked the United States out of consecutive World Cup competitions, and Portugal still had the second best footballer in the world.

While Germany and Ghana breezed through their respective qualifying tournaments, Portugal’s struggle went largely overlooked. The Portuguese finished second in their group to Russia because of three draws, two with Israel and one with Luxembourg, and had to face a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden side for the right to play in the World Cup. Anyone with a television and functioning temporal lobe could see from the side’s 4-2 aggregate victory that Portugal were little more than Ronaldo, the scorer of all four goals, and ten other players who looked utterly hopeless to create much of anything without him. Me, my grandmother, my seven year-old neighbor from down the street and the guy who refills the slushies at the local convenience store (with a little help from Joao Moutinho) perhaps could have more ably assisted Ronaldo in his quest for qualification. All hyperbole aside, Portugal’s shaky standing entering the tournament was ignored in order to fit the narrative.

The sports media’s second storyline for the USMNT portrayed Michael Bradley as the only hope for American soccer. In this case, the media are somewhat correct; Bradley is the best player for the United States, and a strong performance from him usually portends positive results for the team. Due to the media’s desire to sell a United States star before the World Cup along with Landon Donovan’s questionable standing in the national team picture, Bradley was anointed as the national team’s only hope of advancing in Brazil.

It’s not as if Bradley’s ascension to the spotlight was undeserved; since the 2010 World Cup he made a name for himself as a hard-working central midfielder capable of scoring gritty goals and distributing balls all over the park for Serie A sides Chievo and Roma, and recently Toronto FC. Bradley’s strong play for the national team continued during friendlies in the Send-off Series, a three match warmup for the United States in the month leading up to Brazil. His mastery of the midfield in an impressive victory over Nigeria in the final game of that series gave Americans hope and left expectations for Bradley sky-high.

Bradley had a noticeably subpar performance in the United States’ 2-1 victory over Ghana. He didn’t see a lot of the ball and had difficulty linking up with teammates when he did have it. Despite having run 7.9 miles throughout the game, Bradley didn’t make a single tackle. He also made a questionable end-of-game decision by opting to send a cross into Ghana’s box instead of wasting time by dribbling into the corner.

In the match against Portugal, Bradley was much more involved throughout, sending a number of dangerous balls to the corners and creating several chances. Bradley’s participation on two crucial plays, however, has left him as the scapegoat for the draw. The first play was his shot that was saved off the line by Ricardo Costa. The second was this turnover that led to Portugal’s tying goal. While both plays are worthy of some criticism, blaming the loss on Bradley and calling for his replacement in the starting lineup are uninformed and shortsighted. The majority of the criticism thrust upon Bradley has merely been the result of the media’s prophecy of his wonder-boy performance contradicting his less than stellar play on the world’s biggest stage.

The save by Costa can only be blamed slightly on Bradley. It was a tough, bouncing ball coming in, and Bradley did a good job staying on top of the ball and putting it on frame. Though he could have placed it better, he still forced Costa to make a brilliant save. The turnover also should have been handled better. Bradley’s first touch let him down, and as he pondered what to do for his second touch, he tried to draw a foul, which would have effectively ended the game. Instead, he was dispossessed, and the rest is history. But the criticism in the play should not stop there. The United States had several players get caught too far up the field, including Omar Gonzalez who had just been subbed in to help clear dangerous crosses that had been coming for several minutes. Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson both deserve some blame for allowing Varela a free header; while most should go to Cameron, Johnson was another player who was too far up the pitch when Bradley lost the ball.

The bottom line is, things like turnovers, positional and marking errors take place throughout the course of a match. The cruelty of the last second goal certainly stings, but that’s football. The United States are fortunate enough to still be alive, especially considering they gained three points against a Ghanaian squad deserving of the win. Anyone who claims the United States dominated the game against Portugal and were robbed of three points need only look at the match statistics from FIFA.com, in which the Portuguese had fourteen more dangerous attacks than the United States, including an 11-2 advantage in the final fifteen minutes. While stats obviously don’t always tell the whole story of a game, in this case, they properly indicated the even matchup. Both teams had opportunities to win; Portugal just so happened to convert their first and last chances of the match. Again, that’s football.

The media’s most recent narrative may be screaming, “We was robbed!” just like David Starsky after he suffered his own epic loss, but don’t let that fool you. For the first time in what seems like forever, the United States has a dangerous side capable of toppling some of the world’s best teams. Take some advice from the legendary coach Jim Valvano: Don’t give up. Survive and advance.

Bring on Germany.