“There’s always that chance we don’t qualify; there’s always that risk,” he said in an interview a month ago at the training grounds of his club team, AS Roma (ASR), outside the Italian capital. “It’s impossible for anybody on the outside to understand what it’s really like, the unpredictability.”
The American squad plays in Denver tomorrow and Mexico City on March 26 as it tries to avoid being shut out of the World Cup tournament for the first time since 1986. If coach Juergen Klinsmann’s team loses to Costa Rica before heading to Mexico, where the U.S. has never won a World Cup contest, it would have no points after two games in the six-nation final qualifying round for North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Klinsmann, who was a striker on West Germany’s 1990 World Cup winning team, took over from Bradley’s father, Bob Bradley, in July 2011. After four losses in his first seven matches, the team won nine times last year, lost twice and tied three. The U.S. also won exhibition matches in Italy and at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, its first victory in the 105,000-seat home of Mexico’s national team.
Bradley said the team is attempting to gel around Klinsmann’s vision for the squad.
“We’re trying to understand how he wants to work, we’re trying to understand the things he values, the things he wants to focus on,” Bradley said Feb. 22 in Trigoria, where Roma trains. “It’s a process and it takes time.”
The Sporting News reported this week that players and U.S. national team officials it didn’t identify said the German coach is a good motivator, but needs to spend more time giving specific tactical instruction rather than on off-field things like nutrition and yoga.
Captain Carlos Bocanegra, who has played 110 times for the team, was left out of the lineup in the Feb. 6 Honduras game, where the U.S. lost a 1-0 first-half lead.
Bocanegra, 33, who wasn’t in the squad for the next two matches, came to Klinsmann’s defense yesterday, saying in a statement on his Facebook page that the coach “has a vision of how he wants to grow the program.” The Real Santander defender praised Klinsmann for telling players “to your face where you stand,” which is “the best thing you could ask for.”
“Over the past two years, we’ve grown as a team,” said the 25-year-old Bradley, whose late tying goal against Slovenia helped the Americans to advance to the second round of the 2010 World Cup. Teams evolve as core players “start to take on bigger leadership roles and really take the team in their hands, and I think that has happened.”
Bradley, who’s played at clubs in Germany, England and the Netherlands, said there’s always a big team or two that doesn’t qualify for the World Cup.
“It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” he said. “There’s no point in feeling sorry for ourselves and the most important thing at this point is to respond in a really strong way.”
The U.S., which has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, is facing the next few matches without injured goalkeeper Tim Howard, fullbacks Timothy Chandler, Edgar Castillo and Fabian Johnson. Midfielders Jose Torres and Danny Williams and defender Steve Cherundolo are also out.
Landon Donovan, 31, the all-time leading scorer for the U.S., has yet to return to training with his club team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, after taking a leave of absence to consider his professional future.
“It’s always a question when the next generation takes over from the older, more experienced generation,” Klinsmann said in a video posted on the website of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “I’m not choosing the players because they’re younger, I’m choosing them because they’re good and maybe better than someone else.”
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