Monday, May 17, 2010

Bob Bradley: A Closer Look at the Man in Charge of the U.S. team

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Arguably the most successful and storied coach in United States Soccer history is Bruce Arena.

He’s won championships at the college level with the University of Virginia and the professional level with MLS club D.C. United and taken the Los Angeles Galaxy to the finals as well. He also enjoyed an eight-year stint as the leader of the United States national team, a team he brought to new great heights, including reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup and raising overall expectations of the team, fostering a winning attitude.

Another feat is that he has mentored the next great American coach: Bob Bradley.

Bradley will lead the United States in next month’s World Cup in South Africa. He was Arena’s protégée and since succeeding him as the Head Coach of the United States he has enjoyed a great deal of success.

Not that success is new to Bradley.

After playing at Princeton, Bradley began his coaching career at the extremely young age of 22, heading the Ohio University men’s program. He stayed there for three seasons until Arena picked him to be one of his assistants at the University of Virginia.

In 1984 Bradley was hired to be the head coach of Princeton where in 12 seasons he won two Ivy League titles and took the Tigers to the Final Four in 1993.

Again in 1996 Arena took him away from a head coaching position to be his assistant with D.C. United of the new soccer league, MLS.

Bradley became a star coach in MLS. The expansion-Chicago Fire tabbed him as the team’s first coach in 1998. He guided the team in its inaugural season to win both the MLS Cup and United States Open Cup.

He coached the MetroStars for three seasons and brought them to their first U.S. Open Cup final, and took over for Chivas USA and brought them to their first playoff appearance.

Over his MLS career, Bradley won two U.S. Open Cup finals and one MLS Cup final. He made the playoffs in each of his nine seasons in the league and was the first coach in the league to post 100 career victories and to win two Coach of the Year awards. Also, at the time of taking the head coaching position with the United States National Team he was the winningest coach in MLS history.

What he did with Chicago in the club’s first ever season is a testament to his ability as a coach. While the league invites parity, expansion clubs do struggle. Putting together a team from scratch proves to be a difficult task. Getting an entire new team to gel and play well together is a challenge. Bradley was able to put all the new faces together and not only be competitive but win the double. He got the players to believe in him, his system, and each other.

Originally given the head coaching position of the National Team on an interim basis, Bradley quickly proved that he was the man for the job permanently. The team went undefeated in its first 10 games with Bradley at the helm, and he guided them to a 12-5-1 record in his first year as head coach.

Since Bradley took over in 2006 the team has won one Gold Cup and was the runner-up in the second, finished second in the FIFA Confederations Cup which included a 2-0 victory over then-No.1 ranked Spain, and, most importantly, qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Bradley has helped establish the United States as the team to beat in the CONCACAF region. While some would argue that the teams in the region are not the best competition, that isn’t the team’s or Bradley’s fault and it is important to win no matter who the opponent is.

That being said, under Bradley the team has also challenged itself against some of the best counties in the world. In the summer of 2008 they played friendlies at England and Spain and home against Argentina, and played Italy, Spain, and Brazil twice in the Confederations Cup the following summer.

Bradley has his detractors. The biggest criticism is that he plays favorites and gives some players opportunities that they don’t deserve. Many cry foul when Conor Casey or Sacha Kljestan get continuous chances or when Jonathan Bornstein, Brian Ching, or Ricardo Clark are included in the starting eleven. Some even dare to say the only reason midfielder Michael Bradley is on the team is because his dad is the coach.

First of all, the younger Bradley is absolutely one of the best players the nation has produced and has been rumored to be making the jump to the English Premier League. He is on the team because of his own merits.

As for the others, can Bradley be faulted for wanting to work with people he is familiar with, players that he knows what to expect from them and they know Bradley’s system? All those players have provided moments of brilliance for the national team. They’ve all produced at one time or another.

One of Bradley’s strengths is his familiarity with American players and MLS. He knows the league and its players better than any foreign coach could and with his mentor Arena back in the league you can be sure the two are in constant communication.

Bradley may be a quiet man who doesn’t really entertain the media, but he has an extremely high knowledge of the game and is good at identifying talent. Another thing he has done a good job of during his tenure has been to integrate and develop young talent onto the national team, a unique challenge as the team has lost many veterans in recent years but seen prospects such as the younger Bradley, 20-year-old Jozy Altidore, 24-year-old Stuart Holden, and 23-year-old Charlie Davies emerge.

Now Bradley faces his biggest challenge. A successful World Cup run (the team must absolutely make it out of the group stage) would not only vastly improve Bradley’s resume but would also keep pushing soccer to the forefront of the American sporting landscape.

There’s a lot at stake for him, his players, and the sport’s status in this country, and expectations are high, but expect Bradley to be calm go about things with a business-as-usual attitude.

And business as usual for Bradley and the United States has been winning.

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