Before he had the tag of interim national team coach removed in May, U.S. coach Bob Bradley plunged into his latest job as he does everything else: meticulously and relentlessly, even a bit zealously. Bradley's appointment as men's national team coach set the stage for the busiest summer for the men's programs in more than a decade.
Someday, somehow, some way, Bob Bradley may supersede the stigma that he's not Juergen Klinsmann. The former German international dropped out of the U.S. national team coaching picture in December, yet upon the official announcement May 16 that the "interim" tag is being dropped from Bradley's title, still there were lingering questions about U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati's quest for Klinsmann as well as a few other foreign candidates.
"The two or three people that we wanted to speak or continue conversations with, all still expressed interest in the position," said Gulati of what had transpired since Bradley was named interim national team coach and under-23 head coach.
"None of the people that we had talked to originally that were part of the mix withdrew from the process at any point, but we made the decision that we announced today. It certainly never got to the stage that they we were at with Juergen."
Finally, U.S. Soccer can close the door on its coaching controversy and get on with the busiest summer for its men's programs in more than a decade: CONCACAF Gold Cup (June 6-24), FIFA U-20 World Cup (June 30-July 22), and Copa America (June 27-July 15). There's also a friendly in Sweden slated for August, a valuable test against a solid European foe and the type of game the Americans must play as often as possible to toughen themselves against resilient, tactically sound opposition.
Gulati bristles at the notion that time has been wasted since the 2006 World Cup as the process of replacing former head coach Bruce Arena dragged on. And on. And on. (Bradley has signed a contract through 2010.)
"In the last five months, nothing has been missed," says Gulati. "Bob has had the chance to look at any number of players, we've played a number of games, we've scheduled games for the future. By the end of July, we will have played more games than we've played, other than maybe one other year, in the last decade."
At the end of July, Gulati will meet with Bradley, assistant coach Peter Nowak and other U.S. staff coaches to assess the three summer competitions and plan out the next phase, which includes preparations for the under-23 team as it readies for Olympic qualifying.
Amid the furor and confusion, Bradley simply plunged into his latest job as he does everything else: meticulously and relentlessly, even a bit zealously. Wins over Denmark, Mexico and Ecuador and a goalless tie with Guatemala were recorded, yet the results didn't reveal as much about the man as did the crisp training sessions he ran.
"That's a testament to Bob as a person," says U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was in the nets for the Mexico and Ecuador victories. "He never once wavered in the fact he was coach of the national team. Whatever prefix you want to put before it, he's the coach of the national team. It wasn't, 'We're going to do this for now' or 'Maybe this will be irrelevant later.' It was never like that.
"He made sure right away the national team is a big priority for everyone involved, which of course it has to be. It's a testament to his character and ability to bring the players along and buy into the system, and I think everyone's done that, y'know?"
Certainly the players have. Fans and reporters, in some cases, not so much, but for Bradley -- unlike a few of his predecessors -- those classifications rank low on his list of people to be mollified. He prefers a closed shop, one in which nothing interferes with refining and improving the group and its components.
"The national team is special," says Bradley, who served as an assistant to Bruce Arena at the college, club and national team levels. "It's an honor for players. We've tried in every camp to make the point that one should never expect to be in the camp. There's no sense of entitlement. It's something that is certainly earned."
Howard believes he and most American players appreciate a straightforward coaching approach, rather than a secretive manner some coaches prefer as a way to keep players uneasy and thus motivated.
"There's no secrets, there's no wondering, it's all laid out for me," says Howard of the Bradley style, which some perceive to be terse if not testy. "I think that's the best way for it to be. When all's said and done, whether you like what he said or not, at least you know where you stand. You leave it out there, so if there's an issue, the door's open, and you deal with it."
The federation has wavered the past few months on whether some players will be asked to play in both the Gold Cup and Copa America. The answer seemed to be no when Bradley took on the interim tag shortly before Christmas, yet now it seems at least a few will be asked to perform double duty. Landon Donovan has already stated he doesn't want to play in both competitions, and a mostly MLS squad has been projected for the trip to Venezuela.
"Our hope is to have a handful of players play in both events," says Bradley, perhaps because the tight turnaround time between competitions won't allow for any real Copa preparation if the U.S. reaches the Gold Cup final in Chicago, which is just four days before the U.S. plays its Copa opener against Argentina in Maracaibo.
"That would include some MLS-based players and that would also include some European-based players. So, we are hopeful that the discussions that have taken place in the past month have paved the way for us to put two very, very good rosters together for both events this summer."
By winning the Gold Cup, the U.S. would reestablish its dominance in CONCACAF and earns a spot in the Confederations Cup, a tournament of regional champions that is staged in the World Cup host country one year prior to the finals. The U.S. last played in the Copa America 12 years ago, and with a strong squad of European-based players reached the semifinals. This time around, the U.S. faces Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia.
"We all know that the greatest success that the U.S. had at the Copa America was in 1995 and that was spearheaded by a great 3-0 victory against Argentina," says Bradley. "So, the opportunity to play those kind of games is very special. I think our players understand that. In any event, and we all know this is true right on to the World Cup, the starting point is advancing out of the first round so that you have a chance going forward."
Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann has been given the summer off and the fractured jaw of defender Jimmy Conrad muddies the situation on the back line. Kasey Keller, injured playing for Borussia Moenchengladbach, which will be relegated from the German Bundesliga, has been rebuffed in its efforts to stay with the club. He returned to training in the middle of May and onto his outstanding play in the last three Gold Cups could be added a fourth edition.
"I saw him when I was in Europe," says Bradley of Keller. "As always he has worked hard to rehab and is excited about the events this summer. We also expect that we'll look at a couple of goalkeepers from MLS. I think it's an opportunity to both use goalkeepers that have been there in the past, and also include some others that we haven't seen as much of."
In addition to picking Nowak, who ended his playing career with Bradley at the Fire, and former U.S. international midfielder Mike Sorber as his assistants, Bradley has forged ties with under-20 coach Thomas Rongen and under-17 coach John Hackworth. One day before his appointment was announced at a press conference in New York City, Bradley attended the U.S. under-20 friendly against Argentina in Rochester.
In talking about dedication and hard work and unity, Bradley can come off as incessantly corny and clichéd. He isn't. He's successful, as his all-time MLS record of 149 victories shows.
"My philosophy is very simple: we are all working together," says Bradley. "I have known Thomas Rongen and John Hackworth a long time. The idea that we communicate and work together at times, that we establish a vision of what's expected in our national team programs, starting with the U-17s is very important so that our players realize what we think is important."
One of the most important tasks for Bradley this summer will be to incorporate replacements for retired veterans who represented the U.S. for more than a decade. He has perhaps a dozen more matches this year to speed that process along.
"Without a doubt, some of the players like Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Brian McBride have set the bar high," says Bradley. "There have been great successes with those players during Bruce [Arena]'s tenure as coach and we understand that the challenge for all of us is to continue to be successful, and that's what it's all about."
(This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)