Choke.

Things looked bleak for the U.S. men’s national team after the 2006 World Cup. We finished dead last in our group, 25th place overall, and Coach Bruce Arena, under whom American soccer had made a lot of progress both internationally and domestically, seemed to be out of magic. So U.S. Soccer hired Arena’s buddy, Bob Bradley, to replace him.

Within a year, the men beat Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Two years later we finished second in the Confederations Cup, snapping Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak along the way. The next year we made it to the Round of Sixteen in the 2010 World Cup, kicking off the run with a miracle 1-1 draw against England. And just this past weekend, we finished second in another Gold Cup. On its face, it looks like it’s been a nice recovery from the nightmare of 2006. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that a couple of glaring flaws have kept resurfacing over the last few years. Perhaps that’s the downside of finally having expectations of the men’s team.

I haven’t seen every single game the men’s team has played since Bradley took over, but Glaring Flaw Number One is that he doesn’t seem to make good in-game or in-tournament adjustments. The central defense was a recurring problem throughout the 2010 World Cup and Bradley found no cure. True, the U.S. advanced out of the group as expected, but it should not have come down to a last minute goal against Algeria. We faced Ghana in the knockout round, about as favorable a draw as we could’ve expected, and the woes in central defense resurfaced. Both of Ghana’s two goals came right down the middle. In four matches, spread out over two weeks, he simply couldn’t fix the central defense.

This past weekend in the Gold Cup Final against Mexico, all four of Mexico’s goals developed down our left side. You might be okay shrugging off a single goal from a particular part of the field, but when another one comes from the same side, you have to get at least a little bit concerned. But no successful adjustment was made, and Mexico rang up two more goals from that side. Disgusting.

This leads me to Glaring Flaw Number Two. Under Bob Bradley, we’ve choked away 2-0 leads in cup finals– not once, but twice. In 2009, the men’s team made a miraculous run to the Confederations Cup final by squeaking out of the first round on a tie-breaker and then beating Spain in the semi-final. We were up 2-0 on Brazil at the half, still held the lead with about 15 minutes left in regular time, and lost.

You might say, “But that’s Brazil! Joga bonito! You can’t expect to beat them!” Wrong. I can expect to our team to beat Brazil when I’ve seen us beat top-ranked Spain just a few days earlier, when I’ve seen us play fearlessly in the first half against Brazil, and when I see that we have to defend a two-goal lead for forty-five minutes or a one-goal lead for only fifteen or twenty minutes. Easier said than done, but it’s a reasonable expectation.

Fast forward to this disgusting, disastrous weekend. We had a two-goal lead on Mexico and choked it away. The lead didn’t even last fifteen minutes. True, Mexico had better talent on the field than we did, but– and here’s the crux of the matter– a professionalized national team with decent coaching should not blow a 2-0 lead. Ever. If you have to, you put ten guys behind the ball and just blast it downfield over and over again. At the very least, you figure out what the hell is the problem with the left side of the defense and get it fixed before the bad guys score four goals.

American soccer has developed to the point that we know we can beat Mexico and we can give the major soccer powers a run for their money, if not beat them on occasion. It’s not like victory requires a miracle. Luck? Sure. But in the two matches in question, the problem wasn’t a lack of luck; we had two-goal leads both times. The problem was that the team didn’t seem to know what to do next. A well-coached team would have taken advantage of those leads, closed up shop, and suffocated the Brazilians and Mexicans. It didn’t happen.

Pin that on the coaching. If it had only happened once, say if we’d only blown the lead against Brazil, it might’ve been forgivable if we’d learned from it. After all, blown leads happen, even to superpowers in big games (look at Milan in the ’05 Champions League). But the loss to Mexico this weekend showed we hadn’t learned from the Confederations Cup final, or at least that Bradley didn’t do a good enough job turning it into a teachable moment.

American soccer has grown enough that it should be less forgiving of this sort of failure. Coaches who choke away championships twice need to go. I know he’s already a year into a new four-year contract, and it’d be tough to find someone willing to prepare for a World Cup without four full years to do so, but Bradley needs to go. Throw gobs of money at Klinsmann, dig around in Europe for someone else, dig around MLS, do whatever you have to do to find a replacement. Fire Bradley now.

On further reflection, perhaps the problem is that our players and coaches lack the sort of motivation they would receive in other parts of the world.

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