- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bob Bradley’s tenure in charge of the U.S. national team has been defined by his balancing the notable highs with some dispiriting lows.

On its best day, the U.S. team plays a disciplined style sparked by moments of attacking inspiration. On its worst, the team lacks organization and focus, struggling to even string together even a handful of passes.

With questions about Bradley’s future resurfacing amid a stretch of lackluster results, his job may be on the line Sunday when the Americans meet a red-hot Jamaica side in the Gold Cup quarterfinals at RFK Stadium.

“In an ideal world, you’d like to play on a team and have everything go your way,” said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, the 53-year-old coach’s son. “But it’s not reality.”

The U.S. has made the biennial championship for North America, Central America and the Caribbean its top priority since last summer’s World Cup. The grand prize is one the national team covets: a berth at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.

But after recording a 2-0 triumph over the Canada to open the first round, the U.S. suffered an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Panama. The U.S. then squeaked out a 1-0 win over lowly Guadeloupe on Tuesday to avoid elimination.

“We got tested. The games were all competitive games, and I think we needed that,” Bob Bradley said. “The first round, especially if there’s a little blip, it means you have to fight as a team to get through.”

Combine those less-than-encouraging results with the 4-0 shellacking a reserve-heavy U.S. side suffered against Spain earlier this month, and one can understand why national team fans are concerned with the current state of the program.

At this point, anything short of advancing to the final, where the U.S. likely would battle archrival Mexico for regional bragging rights, would largely be considered a failure and cause for U.S. Soccer to reevaluate Bradley’s status.

Much of the anxiety surrounding the national team stems from fear it already is growing stagnant one year into Bradley’s second World Cup cycle as coach. Upon taking over in 2006, the New Jersey native was widely considered the safe but bland choice for the job.

When he received a four-year extension after the World Cup in South Africa last year, the move was chastised by supporters as a missed opportunity to liven the program with a more colorful, attack-minded personality. Although the Yanks won their World Cup group for the first time in 80 years, Bradley’s critics point to the U.S.’s failure to advance past the round of 16 as a telltale sign of his limitations.

Bradley’s perceived flaws as a tactician have been topic for discussion thus far in the Gold Cup. Most notably, he remains married to a true 4-4-2 formation that produces mixed results, despite the team’s tendency to perk up when midfielder Clint Dempsey shifts to a more advanced position in a hybrid 4-5-1 alignment.

Some of the U.S.’s troubles, though, can simply be attributed to talent gaps in the player pool. Uncertainty at center back and striker has been an issue since October 2009, when Charlie Davies suffered major injuries in a car accident on the George Washington Parkway in Virginia and defender Oguchi Onyewu tore a knee tendon in a World Cup qualifying match.

Onyewu still hasn’t reached his pre-injury form despite being healthy for more than a year, causing Bradley to experiment in the back with youngsters such as Tim Ream, a 23-year-old who struggled mightily against Panama.

As Davies’ comeback with D.C. United after a 17-month layoff continues, so does Bradley’s search for a suitable partner to join Jozy Altidore up top. Bradley spent the U.S.’s first three Gold Cup matches auditioning 2010 MLS scoring champion Chris Wondolowski and 18-year-old Juan Agudelo, but neither player found the back of net.

“I don’t think our finishing has been as sharp as it can be,” Bradley said. “But hopefully that’s coming.”

In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the U.S. dropped its first two contests by a combined 6-1 margin. The disparaged Americans, however, staved off elimination via a 3-0 win over Egypt before pulling off an upset for the ages, toppling top-ranked Spain in the semifinals with a 2-0 victory. Such abrupt reversals of fortune have been a trademark of the Bradley era.

“That’s the process of building a team and coming together when things don’t go your way,” Michael Bradley said. “I think over the years, we’ve had a team that’s shown we can handle adversity. And we’re a team that when our backs are against the wall a little bit, we are able to respond.”

Going up against an athletic Jamaica squad that went 3-0 in the group stage and features marquee MLS players such as Los Angeles goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, New York midfielder Dane Richards and San Jose striker Ryan Johnson, Bob Bradley can only hope his team is more Jekyll than Hyde as it tries to book a trip to Wednesday’s semifinals in Houston.

“There’s a lot more pressure now,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “There’s a finality to it. After that 90 minutes or extra time, you’re either going home or going to Houston. Simple.”