After the United States missed qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there’s been plenty of talk regarding who to blame, who should resign, and who should take over at key areas in management of the organization.
What there hasn’t been as much of is responsibility given to – or taken by – players who were on the field at the time of the disaster. There has been little from players, aside from their postgame media responsibilities, which admittedly couldn’t have been easy.
And there’s been little in terms of deserved criticism for failing to deliver on so many occasions.
Jozy Altidore posted an apology on social media, saying “I’m so sorry we let you down.” Omar Gonzalez told media it was “one of the worst days of my life.” Tim Howard spoke about how teams sit back and defend against an ever-frustrated Stars & Stripes.
One player who has received plenty of criticism in the years since the 2014 World Cup is Michael Bradley. The United States captain has persevered through it all, but has been since unable to recapture his form leading up to that tournament, instead becoming a polarizing figure in the USMNT midfield. Ever-present, fans have never been able to agree on his best position, his most useful skill, or the merits of his place in the team. Yet he has continued to wear the captain’s armband as one of the most experienced players in the squad.
The time has come for him to relinquish that duty.
Following the debacle in Trinidad & Tobago, Michael Bradley’s ability to perform the duties befitting of a captain have waned to the point of deprivation. The U.S. performance in Couva was so devoid of inspiration, so lacking in effort, so bankrupt of industry that it can no longer be assumed that anyone in a position of leadership in US Soccer has the ability to motivate in any sense of the concept.
The primary duties of a captain involve being a leader for the rest of the squad. Being a leader includes providing the team with the inspiration to succeed and having a mastery of soccer comprehension to marshall the troops on the field at times when the manager is either unable to or incapable of, such as when time is short and the players need to take it upon themselves to push forward and put the opponent under pressure.
While Bradley has a resume stuffed with successes as national team captain, judging by the performance not only across the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying landcsape, but even just focused solely on the game Tuesday night. The shocking, stunning, and infuriating lack of effort as the clock ticked towards impending doom was so unbelievable, so outrageously mind-boggling that it can only be concluded that Bradley is no longer capable of rallying the troops in times of need. Because if he can’t get himself and his team to play at 110% with the World Cup on the line, what other motivation could one possibly conjure up to provide a spark?
But don’t take my word for it…
Even Peter Vermes, new (slight) favorite to take over as USMNT manager, conceded starkly that the team “didn’t have the intensity, didn’t have the desire, the hunger, the fight” required to earn an admittedly straightforward result.
Sure, some of that – no, much of that – lies at the feet of the national team manager Bruce Arena, who failed to motivate his players enough to even earn a point against an inferior opponent. But Bruce has (rightfully) received plenty of criticism from the media and fans, to the point where it’s generally assumed his short second stint as USMNT boss is all but over.
No, the players are just as culpable for the debacle sustained over the last two years, and Michael Bradley, as the man charged as the clubhouse leader by way of the little velcro wrap over his arm, should take the most symbolic fall. It’s just part of the job.
This is not to say Bradley’s role on the team is over, not by a longshot. He is still an important player to this group, and has a few years more in the tank as an international-caliber player. But only one player showed the desire, the hunger, the fight befitting of a national team captain the other night. Shockingly, that player is just 19 years old.
Christian Pulisic, the boy wonder from Borussia Dortmund, left his heart on the Ato Boldon Stadium field Tuesday night. He tried time and time again to not just do the work himself, but to rally the troops to join him in his one-man charge to the World Cup. Nobody joined him in the cause, but that didn’t stop the attacker from giving the game his all. While Bradley was distributing square passes and barely jogging to retrieve the ball for a corner with seconds left, Pulisic ran circles around the Soca Warriors midfield and charged at the opposing back line, leaving his emotions on his sleeve.
I know it’s wild, I know it’s unprecedented, and I know it’s radical, but there’s only one man who walked the walk of a captain on Tuesday night, and that was Christian Pulisic. And that’s why the 19-year-old should be given the armband with immediate effect. The FIFA Golden Boy candidate isn’t just the best player on the team, he’s the biggest leader by example. It would probably cause a ripple or two in the locker room, at the least, but worldwide respect for his game has already been expressed, and with years until the next World Cup qualifying campaign, Pulisic would have time to not only grow into the role but earn the respect and understanding of his peers. Why not give it straight to him?
The aftermath of the 2018 World Cup failures in the United States will likely claim many scalps, and Michael Bradley should be one of them.
“That’s just reality. That’s on us.” Bradley’s own words from immediately after the United States missed its first World Cup since 1986.