Bob Bradley looks back on his first year at the helm of the U.S. national team, the challenges going into World Cup 2010 qualifying, and the state of the U.S. game in general.
SOCCER AMERICA: What did you come away with after your first year in charge of the U.S. national team?
BOB BRADLEY: There's more of a comfort level. There's the experience of dealing with clubs in Europe and trying to find the right balance with keeping track of all the players.
The camps were pretty positive. We try to challenge the key players who have been around, who have been in World Cups, to take bigger roles.
And we try to test young players who we think are capable and get them experience and try to lay a foundation for the future.
SA: What was the highlight of your first year?
BB: Winning the Gold Cup was exciting. The environment at Soldier Field [in the 2-1 win over Mexico before 60,000 fans] was terrific and taking the title was a goal. We were defending champs. That was a tournament where we had an opportunity to bring what we thought was our strongest group together.
The Copa America [three losses in Venezuela] was a great experience with a different group of players.
I think the year finished in challenging way. We had two games in Europe against Sweden [1-0 loss] and Switzerland [1-0 win]. We played Brazil [4-2 loss] in Chicago. And we finished with a great opportunity to play in South Africa [1-0 win].
SA: The first stage of World Cup qualifying starts in June, with a home-and-away series against Dominica or Barbados. How do you prepare for that?
BB: January starts with a camp that is MLS-based. It will include some Scandinavian-based players because they're off. That camp leads to a game, which is Jan. 19 against Sweden.
Then we let players go for a few days, bring them back, and when we play Mexico on Feb. 6. It's a FIFA date, but obviously the players from Europe travel after the weekend games.
That game probably leans more toward MLS players because of the challenge of bringing players in from Europe for a single game.
SA: Will you have enough time to work with both MLS players and foreign-based players leading into qualifying?
BB: That is a big part of the challenge. All of the foreign-based players have shown a tremendous commitment to the national team. But it's very important that our players in Europe are playing first-team soccer.
They want to come in, but there are games when their position with their teams is such that they also need to be there. That's part of the discussion we have with the clubs.
SA: Jozy Altidore, at age 18, looks like the most promising American forward in a long time. He's even been linked to Real Madrid. How did you judge his performance in his first call-up, for the game against South Africa?
BB: I think we made a statement all year that it's very important to know our young players. To pick the right times to bring players into camp and get them experience.
We felt at the end of the MLS season - Jozy had a very busy year - that it was a good moment to start the process with him. I obviously watched him closely, especially during the U-20 World Cup, and certainly feel that he is one of these important young players who we want to continue to try to move along.
He was in a camp, so he begins the process of establishing himself as a player, as a person.
SA: What do you look for when you bring young players in?
BB: We have gone to great lengths this year to try and make sure that that much or all of what is said or has been written about them gets left at the door.
It's important that the only thing that matters when they come is that they can show people they are a good player and a good person.
The older players are very important in that process in the example they must set.
SA: Deciding which players to call in means you're judging players in a variety of leagues. How hard is it to gauge whether their performances demonstrate an ability to contribute to the national team?
BB: As a starting point, wherever a player plays, you want that player to show that he is earning playing time in his team, that he's earning respect in his team, that he's establishing himself as a player in that team.
Of course, there are different levels - but again it's important that a player in his regular environment can earn his way. Then you want to see what the player is in the national team group. See how they handle themselves. See how they play in the games. There's no one answer to it. You just have to work through the process.
SA: The growth and success of MLS is obviously important to the national team. How do you see the current state of the league, which expands to 14 teams in 2008 and will expand again in 2009?
BB: The league continues to get better. The league continues to provide key opportunities for young American players.
Without MLS, I don't think we would have had some of the success we've seen in the past eight years.
Expansion can work both ways. Expansion can provide opportunities for players to play key roles in teams. But sometimes we've seen expansion teams in the first year or first two years not be that strong, so that can mean a couple of the games during that schedule are in some ways not that difficult.
But that happens in all leagues, where in a given year the talent at the bottom of the league isn't always competitive enough against the talent at the top. And I think we see that throughout Europe.
Equally important [to MLS's role] is that we have players who choose Europe and face the challenges that clubs in Europe provide in terms growing on the job, becoming better players. So I think it's a combination.
SA: In 2008, the U.S. U-23 national team will aim to qualify and play in the Olympic Games. Are there pros and cons to that, because some of your players will have double-duty?
BB: Mostly pros, but pros and cons. It's a busy year. The Olympics in general are important for the United States.
I think that we do have some talent in our under-23 age group and therefore it's important for those players. It does mean that at times the camps are split. Potentially there's a conflict, depending on how far the Olympic team goes, with the FIFA dates next August [for World Cup qualifying].
SA: How much was the appointment of John Hackworth, who is also the Development Academy Director, as your assistant about linking the full national team to the youth programs?
BB: That's a key part of that. The kind of discussions that go on regularly about players in the national team pool, about the league, need to then be applied to everything that filters down.
SA: How much should the youth national teams' playing styles resemble your team?
BB: I think we need to share ideas on how our players need to be developed. I don't think we want to be too structured from top to bottom, but I do think there are aspects of the way all our teams play that must be similar.
SA: New U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera has a background unlike previous U.S. youth national team coaches ...
BB: Wilmer, with his background as a player in Colombia, with the fact that he came to the United States, that he was involved with [New York youth club] Gottschee, that he's been involved with the ODP, and in programs with some good people, like Bob Jenkins, Manny Schellscheidt, Jimmy Barlow -- I think those are all indications that, not only did he have a background that was unique, but he had the commitment to be part of our system, and that's a great combination.
SA: Cabrera is also in charge of the Bradenton Residency Program, now in its 10th year ...
BB: If you looked at the rosters we had throughout 2007 and counted the number of players we had in that camp who had been through Bradenton, those numbers were very high. That doesn't mean the work can't improve. We understand all that.
SA: Your thoughts on the state of U.S. coaching ...
BB: There have been strong efforts to help players who have the interest and the passion and the talent make the transition to coaching. To make sure they play roles in soccer in the United States.
If you look around the country, former players from high levels of the game are taking many different roles. There's guys in youth clubs. They are guys who have gotten involved in MLS.
SA: How do you see the state of youth development in general?
BB: We have two great challenges. The size of our country and the many different communities that exist, some of which had been part of the process for many years and some of which have been more on the outside than any of us would want.
There's been individual efforts to bridge these communities. If you go to any club, you talk to the key people and you hear of the efforts they've made to make sure their club has a system to provide scholarships for kids who can't afford to be there.
They're constantly working on how to get those players top training, rides, that kind of thing. There's been a lot of individual efforts in all of those areas, but if we can do it better collectively, if U.S. Soccer can play in a bigger role to ensure that those efforts that have been going on can improve across the board, then that's good.
(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)