Five years is a pretty long time for a manager these days. In 2010-2011 the English Premier League saw 50% of its teams fire a manager before, during, or after the regular season. Talk about job security. International football is nearly as bad –14 of the 32 managers in the 2010 World Cup were either fired or resigned immediately after their team was eliminated from the tournament. Seems a little ridiculous, seeing as there can only be one winner. But nevertheless, for a manager like Bob Bradley, five years is nearly an eternity.
So what is it that kept him in the job for so long? And what was the final straw for the manager of a national team that nobody expected to get as far as they did under his guidance? Is a 43-25-12 record really that bad for a United States manager?
Something of a management ‘prodigy’, Bob Bradley began managing at the college level in the USA at age 22. While working towards a degree in sports management at Ohio University, he was hired to manage the university’s Division 1 NCAA team. Not long after he got the job, Bradley was hired by the University of Virginia where he had his first experience working under Bruce Arena. After only a year at this position, Bradley was lured back to his alma mater, Princeton University, as head coach of the men’s team. Bradley had a long tenure at this position, the highlights being two Ivy League titles and one NCAA Final Four showing in 1993. With the advent of Major League Soccer following the 1994 World Cup, Bradley reunited with Bruce Arena at DC United as his assistant for two years until 1998, when he became the manager of newly formed MLS team, Chicago Fire. It is here where Bob Bradley first started to turn heads.
As manager of a brand new MLS team, Bradley won the MLS Cup and US Open Cup “double”, making the Chicago Fire the first team to break DC United’s (and Bruce Arena’s) stranglehold on the league since its inception. He stayed there until 2003, where he joined the club of his home state, the MetroStars. Under Bradley’s guidance, the team made it to its first US Open Cup final in the club’s history, though they were defeated by none other than the Chicago Fire. But Bradley’s tenure at MetroStars was largely unsuccessful, and he was fired near the end of the 2005 season after the team had suffered a series of consecutive losses in the league.
After being let go by the MetroStars, Bradley was hired for the 2006 season by Chivas USA, where he led the underachieving team to a third place finish in the Western Conference, followed by a playoff defeat to Houston Dynamo. But 2006 would become a key year in Bradley’s life for another reason–he was hired as interim manager of the United States national team after a poor showing by Bruce Arena’s team in the 2006 World Cup.
Some saw Jurgen Klinsmann as the obvious candidate for the vacant manager’s role, especially because Bradley had been working as Arena’s assistant, but for various reasons a contract was never negotiated between the German and the US Soccer Federation. As interim manager, Bradley understand that his job was anything but permanent, and diligently set out to build a strong foundation for his US squad.
A string of solid friendly results put Bradley in the spotlight, especially a memorable 2-0 win over Mexico. Further endearing himself to the fans and players, Bradley’s USA cruised through the 2007 Gold Cup, once again beating Mexico, this time 2-1 in the Final. In the same year (not long after the Gold Cup), CONMEBOL invited the USA (and Mexico) to participate in the Copa America. Due to the proximity of the two tournaments, Bradley fielded a second-string squad and subsequently lost all three group matches–including a 4-1 demolition by Argentina. Despite the circumstances, fans and pundits criticized Bradley for putting out a team that had no chance of winning–especially because the USA were under no real obligation to compete in the tournament.
2008 started fairly quietly; Bradley’s US team went 2-2-2 in international friendlies, including a 2-2 draw with Mexico. Luckily for Bradley, the second round of World Cup qualifying served as an intense morale booster; his team won 8-0 in the first leg against Barbados, and 1-0 in the return leg. The group stages of World Cup qualifying turned out quite well for the USA: five wins and one loss helped them to win the group by four points.
It could legitimately be said that 2008-2009 was when Bob Bradley’s tenure at the helm of the USA peaked, where a few surprising upsets gave US fans reason to believe in their national team. The fourth round of World Cup qualifying went quite well, with the USA leading the CONCACAF group by only a point, cementing their place the following year in South Africa. What happened in the summer of 2009 was what will forever confirm Bob Bradley’s position in US Soccer lore.
Due to the 2007 Gold Cup win, the US was invited to play in the Confederations Cup in South Africa–a meaningless tournament to some, usually those that have never made it there. After a very poor start that included a 3-1 loss to Italy and 3-0 loss to Brazil, the US managed to slip into the semifinals on one of the lesser known rules in international tournaments. After a 3-0 win over Egypt in the final group stage match, the US tied Italy on points (6) and on goal difference (-2), but managed to edge out the Italians in the ‘goals for’ category–by a single goal. This took the USA to a semifinal meeting with Spain, the reigning European champions; needless to say, everyone (literally, everyone) was sure that there was no way the US could win. Therefore nobody predicted the astonishing result: 2-0 to the US, with goals from Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. This was no second-string squad from Spain either–the lineup that was defeated in June 2009 was nearly identical to those in both the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup final. The US felt nearly unstoppable. The semifinal win took the team to another meeting with Brazil, who had brutally defeated them 3-0 in the group stages of the tournament. The first 45 minutes of the match were breathtaking for US Soccer fans–goals from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey put the United States 2-0 up at halftime. Another upset had been unthinkable, but the momentum that the Americans were carrying from the semifinal held strong in those first 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the US defense crumbled in the face of a vastly superior Brazil team. Luis Fabiano tied it up with his quintessential finesse, followed by a late Lucio header that helped reveal some of the many weaknesses in Bob Bradley’s squad.
Not long after that, Bob Bradley fielded a weakened team for the 2009 Gold Cup; the team squeaked through to the final, but were rightly defeated 5-0 by the old enemy, Mexico. Not a single player from the Confederations Cup final lineup was called into the squad, again calling into question Bradley’s ambition for the team; what many pundits pointed out, however, is that this Gold Cup had just as much bearing on the future as the 2007 Copa America did. The previous squad had been exhausted and deserved a break before their respective clubs started preseason training.
The first part of 2010 was spent preparing for the 2010 World Cup. The US had finished at the top of the CONCACAF group, and their Confederations Cup run allowed them to experience South Africa’s training facilities, stadiums, and climate. Bradley spent much of this time tweaking his team selection, having a look at new players, and helping the team gel together before boarding the plane to South Africa.
The hype surrounding the US national team blew up in the months leading up to South Africa; ESPN and other major media outlets were devoting millions in ads and specials about the players and the sport itself, hoping to profit from the momentum that US Soccer had been gaining in recent years. When the draw was made, the US found out that its first match would be against England; pundits all over the world wrote the match off, with one English newspaper even headlining with an acronym: England Algeria Slovenia Yanks (spelled out EASY) to exhibit their confidence in their national team. But once that match rolled around in June, England had all but an easy time–an early Steven Gerrard goal put the Three Lions up, but a horror mishap by England goalkeeper Robert Green allowed Clint Dempsey’s weak effort to dribble into the goal. The game finished 1-1, a result that nobody saw coming. A draw with Slovenia that included a very controversial offside call against Maurice Edu meant that the US had to win the next match against Algeria in order to progress–no exceptions. A late, extra time goal by Landon Donovan meant that the Americans were through to the Round of 16–a result that set American soccer on fire, for once making it the most talked about sport in the country. The rush of glory would not last long, unfortunately, as Bradley’s squad lost to Ghana during extra time in the Round of 16.
Bob Bradley entered 2011 hoping to reinvigorate his jaded squad–out of four friendlies during the first half of the year, the US drew two and lost two, the worst being a 4-0 loss to Spain. Peculiar team selection and tactics were cited by pundits and fans, and the country was less than optimistic about the team’s chances in the summer’s Gold Cup. After a strong start of two wins and one loss in the group stages, the USA breezed past Jamaica 2-0 in the quarterfinals and earned a place in the final by beating Panama 1-0. Fans would be forgiven for having a sense of deja vu during the final: the US surrendered an early 2-0 lead to eventually lose 4-2 to who else–Mexico.
And with the end of the Gold Cup came the end to Bob Bradley’s reign as manager of the United States national team. So what went wrong? After so many moments of jubilee, what could Bob Bradley have done better? He put US Soccer on the map for the first time in years, proving that they could run with the big dogs internationally. Unfortunately for him, Bob Bradley’s overall tactics, team selection, and man management contributed to his downfall. In part 2 of this series, we will look at some of Bradley’s best and worst choices, analyze key parts of his term, and illustrate the sequence of events mentioned here that led to his demise.