Anyone who’s been following the U.S. national team for the past four years knows this simple fact to be true: It’s impossible to know what Bob Bradley is thinking.
The veteran coach is famously guarded about his personnel decisions, is enormously protective of his players and is extremely careful about what he communicates to the media. He’s taken a huge amount of flak from fans and pundits over all of this, as does any coach of a major sporting program.
I’m not in Bradley’s inner circle, I don’t have an inordinate amount of insider knowledge and I don’t envy the sort of criticism he has to sidestep on a daily basis. In fact, I’m glad I’m not the one getting paid to do an outrageously grueling job. While it’s certainly the fan’s right to second-guess his decisions, just be glad you’re not the one on an awfully hot seat.
But when a team has a particular need and there’s a player out there who is doing things that could fill that need, the screams from outside the camp grow louder and louder. And right now, every time Edson Buddle or Herculez Gomez scores a goal, the I-know-better-than-Bob chorus gains more and more strength.
So here we go: With the U.S. so wispy-thin at the forward position due to injuries, will Bradley take a chance on one (or both) of two guys who, now both 28 years old, have a combined three caps, and who haven’t seen national-team action in years?
Hot streaks are sexy, and they grab headlines like nothing else in sports. About this time four years ago, we were championing a red-hot Taylor Twellman as the guy who could help Bruce Arena’s team in Germany. And we all know where Twellman wasn’t in June 2006.
Still, it’s simple math: With both Charlie Davies and Brian Ching perhaps out, the U.S. may be down at least two regular forwards in South Africa.
Buddle is destroying MLS defenses, with five goals in three games. And it’s not just the quantity, it’s the quality. He’s scored with his head, he’s scored with acrobatic finishes and he’s scored from impossible angles. Even Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan, who probably has a little sway in the U.S. set-up, thinks Buddle deserves a shot.
Meanwhile, Gomez, five months removed from his final game with Kansas City, is vying to become the first American ever to win the scoring title in the Mexican Primera División. He has seven goals in 13 matches for Puebla (four of those strikes off the bench) and is finishing at a clinical rate, much as he did early in his MLS career during his Galaxy days.
So where’s Bob’s head? Predictably, you won’t get any answers on those topics. Bradley keeps his cards close to his chest, probably mostly so hype doesn’t affect his own players. But he’s allowed a few clues to us over the years.
He values defense over everything, and wants every player on that pitch to be able to get back. He generally tends to go with players who are seeing regular club action. And more than anything else, he loves consistency over hot streaks.
Where does that leave Buddle and Gomez? I had a phone conversation the other day with U.S. assistant coach Mike Sorber. Truth be told, I wanted to talk to him about his years in the Mexican league with Pumas (read about that in a future column).
But naturally, we started talking about the quality of the Mexican league and how it’s changed—which took us to the topic of the Americans playing there now. And none is higher-profile at this moment than Gomez.
I assumed, as we rightly should, that it’s a tough sell to introduce players into the U.S. set-up who haven’t been there in a long time, especially those riding hot streaks. It’s impossible to build a team around that, and even more impossible considering there are no more friendlies for which Bradley can call in experimental squads before World Cup names are due to FIFA.
Sorber shed a little light on the coaching staff’s thinking.
“If you haven’t been in for awhile, it’s a question of how quickly could you fit in and how quickly we could get a look at you,” said Sorber, himself a World Cup veteran with the U.S. “Is it more challenging to make the team at this point? Absolutely.”
Consider: Buddle has only one cap for the senior U.S. team and that was in 2003. The twice-capped Gomez has seen action more recently, but it sure seems like ancient history: He was on the 2007 Copa América roster and appeared as a sub in the opener against Argentina, then started in the third game against Colombia.
But then Sorber said something that surprised me. It wasn’t the revelation that both guys are on the U.S. radar—you’d have to be a fool not to be paying attention—but was something that left me thinking they may well get a chance.
“The door is open for everyone,” Sorbs said. “Nothing is set at all. We’ve had so many injuries and certain guys are in great form. [Gomez] has shown throughout his career that if he’s given chances, he can finish. Buddle is riding a hot hand. All options are open.”
Bradley has to submit a provisional 30-man roster for South Africa by May 11. The final 23-man roster for the World Cup is due June 1. That gives Bradley three weeks to tinker with the final squad, and the U.S. plays two final friendlies on American soil during that period: May 25 vs. the Czech Republic in Hartford, Conn., and May 29 vs. Turkey in Philadelphia.
That means that with an extra seven spots to play with, Bradley has nothing to lose by calling in Buddle or Gomez before making his final decisions. I’m starting to believe that one—or maybe even both—could get a look.
That might be as close as we’ll get to knowing the truth.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. His “Throw-In” column appears every Thursday.