United States coach Bob Bradley speaks to United States' Ricardo Clark

If you’ve followed my posts and comments, you know that I’ve become a huge fan of Bob Bradley’s. The thing I love about Bradley is that if you paid enough attention you could find the logic in nearly every decision that he made. That doesn’t mean it was always the right logic or that the results turned out well. And his goals were rarely the goals of US fans, but watching Bob coach was like watching a poker player who always knew the odds and never strayed from playing it straight.

I recently had a comment war (well, more of a peaceable debate) with Steven Stoehr in which I stated that Bob Bradley’s reign as manager had cut four years off the timeline for us to be true competitors at the World Cup. In actuality, I think it’s probably more like two years, but since the World Cup is a four year event, I rounded up. But, the primary subject of that debate, Ricardo Clark, is the perfect example of how Bob’s managerial style has knocked time off of the US becoming competitors.

Let’s reimagine Clark’s development if Bob Bradley had been managing the USMNT from 2002-2010. As much as I am able, I’ll use Clark’s actual runs of form and examples from the last four years of Bradley to show the plausibility of this exercise. I'll assume that Clark's time with New York looks about the same under a different manager than it did with Bob at the helm.

2003 – Clark is selected second in the Superdraft by the Metrostars, plays a substantial number of minutes, and is nominated as a finalist for MLS rookie of the year.

2004 – Bradley calls Clark in to the 2004 January camp as he has similarly done with Omar Gonzalez, Chris Pontius, Sean Franklin, and Geoff Cameron the camp after their rookie years. Clark doesn’t make the roster for the January friendly and struggles for playing time with the Metrostars not making a national team roster through the summer.

Clark regains his starting position near the end of the season and caps that performance by scoring a goal against LA in the playoffs. In the midst of this, Clark is called up for the October matches in the semifinal round of qualifying and makes a substitute appearance in the 6-0 thrashing on Panama that seals advancement to the hexagonal. This parallels Bradley’s substitution pattern in the 2008 6-1 Cuba thrashing when three of the youngest members of US talent pool Adu, Altidore, and Torres are subbed in. Clark starts the now meaningless semifinal round match against Jamaica as Adu, Altidore, and Torres did at T&T.

2005 – Bradley holds a January camp (as he’s done every year) Clark gets called in and sees a half in a friendly against some Scandinavian team. Clark gets called in for three of the first five hex matches, but sees little to no time on the field and two of the three friendlies where he sees a total of 60 minutes on the field. Clark is named to the 2005 Gold Cup where he has the same run of form that earned him MLS player of the month for July 2005, playing well in several substitution situations. Clark becomes a mainstay of the US bench, providing the occasional start, but regularly coming in as a substitute to ice games the same way Bradley later uses him in 2007.

San Jose/Houston offer to renegotiate Clark’s contract with one year left on it. Clark is advised that his national team appearance have made a potential move to Europe after the 2006 season a possibility. Clark does not renegotiate his contract with MLS.

2006 – Clark continues to be a bench player for the USMNT making several appearance in the warmup games, and is named to the World Cup Squad where he is never used because the US never holds a lead late in a match. Clark returns to MLS where he is added to the All-Star team after several players withdraw with injuries. Clark helps the Dynamo to the MLS Cup Title in their first year in Houston and is named to MLS’ Best XI for 2006.

2007 – During the winter transfer window, the 23 year old Clark who now has between 10 and 15 caps and has been named MLS All-Star, MLS Best XI, and finalist for MLS rookie of the year, gets offers from several clubs and winds up signing a three and a half year contract with a midtable team from Scotland, Belgium, or Denmark or a bottom table team from Netherlands, Germany, or England. Clark struggles to find playing time during the second half of the league season, but by April is contributing minutes to his new club.

Clark is the first choice defensive midfielder for the US having surpassed the 30 year old Pablo Mastroeni. He starts five of six matches (missing one for suspension) for the US in the 2007 Gold Cup and is left out of the more experimental Copa America roster.

2007/08 – 2008/09 Clark returns to his club after a successful Gold Cup and gradually improves his tactical sense and technical ability while becoming a mainstay in the lineup for both club and country.

2009 – The USMNT have a breakout performance in the Confederations Cup with Clark playing a major role in his defensive midfielder role. The discipline he's learned in Europe reduces his propensity for cards and he plays every game. In the summer transfer window, with one year left on his contract, Clark is sold to Eintracht Frankfurt where he enjoys a stable first season with his new club.

2010 – The now 50 cap Clark with three years experience in Europe, better defensive positioning, tactical awareness, discipline, and technical ability, pairs with Michael Bradley in the central midfield and stabilizes a shaky backline as the US wins its group and makes a run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

Admittedly, this is fantasy. But nothing in this scenario is a stretch. By the end of 2005, at the age of 22, Clark already had to his MLS credit, a rookie of the year finalist, a player of the month, and 90 appearances in MLS regular season and playoff games. Yet, his first cap wasn’t until October of 2005. During 2005 Kerry Zavagnin, Steve Ralston, and Chris Armas logged a total of over 1900 minutes of game time. None of these games was so important that three players over thirty needed to be played over finding a few hundred minutes for a promising young player.

Clark is no world beater, but he is a solid player. In a league that called its fouls tighter, in a league that requires greater tactical awareness, in a league where Clark needed to learn to play smarter, Clark would have either gotten better or failed. Expanding the talent pool analogy further, you don’t have to sink or swim when the pool is shallow enough that you can stand on the bottom. Any player being looked at for the national team can currently stand on the bottom of the MLS pool.

Instigating player movement has been one of Bradley’s achievements over the last four years. While that will have a direct impact on the players themselves and be very evident for the next cycle. It’s also beneficial for the US long term. Teams and managers that have success with players of any nationality tend to look to bring others on. This can definitely be seen with US players. Fulham, Everton, and Aston Villa are obvious examples, but Aalborg, Mochengladbach, Pachuca, 1860 Munich, and Rangers are others. I have even read somewhere though I can no longer find it, that the person that brought Onyewu in at Standard is the same person that brought Kljestan in at Anderlecht.

Getting players to Europe matters for the current development of these players. Getting players to new clubs in Europe means easier opportunities to move players to Europe in the future. Places like Bolton, Sochaux, Frankfurt, Milan, and Aris will probably be more likely to take a look at Americans now. Rumors about Dempsey to Milan only strengthen that argument.

If his term as manager is done, Bob Bradley’s legacy will likely be a subtle one; punctuated by a couple of great team performances and last minute wins and a general feeling that he did nothing more than meet expectations. To me that’s folly, to me he moved the US from being a regional power, capable of crashing or sneaking out in group stages, beating a regional rival in the World Cup, and winning Gold Cups (the US team in a nutshell from 1998-2006) to the cusp of an international power helping scatter players throughout the world while forming a cohesive team that was capable of winning a World Cup group and defeating teams like Spain on occasion.

If Clark would have taken this alternative path, would his former midtable, second tier team fill a hole in their roster with the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin, or Chris Pontius? I don’t know, but they’d probably take a look. And US soccer would be in much better shape because of it.
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