Among the new heroes of this World Cup one must now count Bob Bradley, the grim, predestinarian U.S. coach—on the silent sideline his presence seems more foreboding than forbearing—much maligned by American fans in the qualifying campaign for his tactical inflexibility and cautious squad selections.
Like those other steadfast skippers pilloried for poor performance in early games, Bradley has remained loyal, through the group stage, to a cautious 4-4-2, deploying creative flair in the central midfield, when forced to, only behind his quantum destroyer son, Michael Bradley—his head shaved bald like his father in a show of grim emulation. But Bradley père’s central defense suffocated Wayne Rooney in game one, and his bold halftime substitutions saved the Americans in game two, stockpiling on the field all the technical skill the middling U.S. team could muster, heedless of the tactical consequences.
Today his foresight and patient tinkering paid off again—adjustments made at halftime and throughout the final forty-five minutes—producing a steady stream of American chances which our virtuosity in bungling them proved we hardly deserved. And in the panicked ninety-first minute, Bradley’s alignment produced, at the very end of a half thoroughly dominated by U.S. possession, an improbable opportunity to counterattack—the open field being the only soccer habitat, it seems, in which American strikers can actually thrive. Now, pending results this afternoon, it seems the U.S. path forward will take them first through Serbia and then, given a result there, into a quarterfinal against either overperforming Uruguay, or the pinball side from South Korea. Winning those winnable contests means a place in a World Cup semifinal. And these two miraculous end-game assaults—an unrelenting second half against Slovenia, comical incompetence in front of goal against Algeria preceding a single surgical strike—look now a lot less like the anarchic energy of tactical desperation. They look like providence.