PRETORIA, South Africa -- If the United States Men's National Team loses to Algeria on Friday, the 2010 World Cup will be an abject failure. The goal in Africa is simple: advance to the Round of 16, and then see what happened. Slip up against the Desert Foxes, and the Yanks will find themselves bounced from Group E.A.S.Y. with nothing to blame except their poor starts and an inability to win when it mattered. (After all, Koman Coulibaly didn't referee all three matches.)
In all likelihood, a defeat on Wednesday means the end of Bob Bradley's tenure as coach of the United States Men's National Team.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati hinted as much when he spoke at halftime of the American warm-up match with the Czech Republic in May.
"A lot of measurement comes down to the three games we play in the first round and hopefully some we play in the second round," the Columbia economics professor said. "[Bradley] knows that. He accepts that. He understands that. He agrees with that."
In short, make the knockout phase or don't let the door hit you on the way out.
"We need to get through the first round. If we don't get through the first round, we're going to be disappointed," Gulati said. "I'm going to be disappointed. Bob Bradley's going to be disappointed. The players are going to be disappointed."
But is quickly condemning the former Princeton standout the correct move?
Leaving South Africa early would be a blow to the U.S. program, but soccer success in the country can't begin and end with the national team's performance during a trio of games once every four years. That line of thinking is both unfair and shortsighted. The World Cup is the most visible tournament on the planet, which magnifies success and failure, but there are many other factors in the growth of American soccer.
Even if the Red, White, and Blue fail to reach the knockout round, Bradley's first four years as a manager are impressive. He's currently 37-19-8 all-time, far better then any of his predecessors. Under his watch, the Americans advanced to the final of the Confederations Cup, won their CONCACAF qualifying group, snapped Spain's record-breaking winning streak, and played Argentina to an inspired draw in New Jersey. He used 92 players during the qualification cycle and demonstrated he's not afraid to hand important minutes to young players or bring back older talent on a hot streak. Those are important strides for a program that's still in its development phase.
Bradley raises awareness that America is a growing soccer power and draws praise from across the Pond. (Don't be surprised if he goes to Europe after the World Cup, no matter the result of the final group stage match.) Ottmar Hitzfeld praised the U.S. team and their manager's strategy against La Roja Furia, credited it with helping Hitzfeld's Swiss side defeat Spain in their match during the World Cup.
"We saw how the Americans played against Spain with a lot of interest," the two-time World Coach of the Year said. "You know that if you are going to have a chance against [the Spanish] you need to do certain things very well. The USA did not try to do everything. They accepted the fact that Spain has pace and width and simply made sure they kept the center of defense as tight as they could. It is not a perfect system, but it was a very interesting tactic and it worked."
If the Stars and Stripes prevail in two days time, their country and the world will see their time in South Africa as an acceptable accomplishment.
If they don't, however, the American soccer community should think twice before they run Bob Bradley out of town in a hail of spiked Jabulanis. He's done more than they realize.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com and is reporting from the World Cup in South Africa
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