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Soccer Nation

On Wednesday, coach Bob Bradley's Team USA made history by beating the Algerian squad and advancing to the playoff round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A look back at writer David Davis' 2009 column proves things are simply going according to plan

Los Angeles magazine, March 2009

Havana’s Estadio Pedro Marrero is a handsome relic of a time when America’s baseball stars met with their Cuban counterparts in winter leagues that drew glamorous, celebrity-studded crowds. Now its crumbling roof and intermittent electricity suggest decades-long neglect. The boot-high grass also looks like an injury waiting to happen. The U.S. soccer team is in Cuba for the first time in 61 years to compete in a World Cup qualifying match. As the players loosen up, a figure in shorts separates himself from the group and paces off the length of the pitch and the penalty boxes. Double-checking a field’s dimensions might seem beyond the purview of an international head coach, but Bob Bradley leaves nothing to chance. He’s a fútbol-aholic, a cerebral grinder who watches upwards of 50 matches weekly to keep tabs on as many players as possible. It’s his first visit to Havana, but he hasn’t toured the city. “My day was preparation,” he says. “I’m working today.”

The next evening, amid sheets of rain and a power outage, the United States prevails, 1-0. The victory gives its qualifying effort a significant boost, yet it’s a cautious performance. Only goalkeeper Tim Howard’s diving stop of an errant clearing-ball prevents a draw.

Afterward Bradley is defiantly satisfied. He’s a fit 51-year-old with icy blue eyes that dominate an angular, clean-shaven skull; he looks like he could still play 90 minutes. He tends to chew over innocuous questions for agonizing seconds. Seldom does he reveal his hand to the media, especially when he senses that an opponent might gain something from his quotes. “I thought we dealt well with some difficult conditions and came away with a good result,” he deadpans.

Bradley’s single-mindedness defines the U.S. quest for the World Cup, to be held in South Africa in 2010. Once again the country is at a soccer crossroads. Unprecedented progress has been made since 1990, when we competed in the tourney for the first time in 40 years. Today soccer is the nation’s third-most-popular youth sport; high schools, clubs, and colleges churn out more quality players than ever. With 15 teams (including the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA) and ambitious expansion plans, 13-year-old Major League Soccer is a respected professional organization. But the United States has never produced a player with bend-it-like-Beckham skills. In five consecutive World Cup appearances, the United States hasn’t advanced past the quarter-
finals. Many youngsters abandon the sport in their teens, and the domestic pool of Latino talent is largely untapped. MLS has built intimate stadiums, but its summer schedule is out of sync with the rest of the planet. Our soccer identity verges on cliché: earnest and spunky, without much flair, and unable to handle the likes of Germany and England, much less Spain and Brazil.

Entering his third year as the national team coach, Bradley is in the last phase of the march to South Africa. The United States is competing with 35 North and Central American and Caribbean nations for three regional slots in a series of final qualifying matches that began in February. He’s also packed this year’s schedule with matches against the world’s best, including Italy and Brazil, to help him assemble the team he thinks can stage a miracle.

His job description, however, extends beyond the Cup as he and others reinvent the development of youth soccer in this country. The effort to better train the next generation of players may well be Bradley’s legacy. That his son, Michael, is a 21-year-old rising star might prove the embodiment of his vision for the sport. When he discusses the future of U.S. soccer, Bradley opens up—for him. “It’s a unique challenge here,” he says, “because this country is so big and has so many different levels of soccer. We’re at the start of trying to put something into place that will emulate programs that are going on around the world.”

*****

Bradley grew up in New Jersey. His father, a former Marine and minor league baseball player, adjusted his work schedule to support the sports interests of his three sons. Bob was a James Cagney-size dynamo who pondered the game whenever he wasn’t outside kicking a ball. Younger brother Scott played catcher for nine seasons, mostly with the Seattle Mariners. The youngest, Jeff, is a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine. Back then Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants handed down their passion for soccer in ethnic pockets across the country. The Bradleys’ connection to soccer was organic: Bob and Jeff didn’t “learn” the sport on weekend travel teams. They absorbed it in club matches against neighboring towns and after school in the park.

Bradley was a teenager when soccer registered its first breakthrough in this country, in 1975, after Pelé joined the New York Cosmos. The North American Soccer League raised the sport’s profile and allowed a younger generation of American kids to dream about playing soccer professionally. But the NASL’s dependence on high salaries and foreign stars (including party boy George Best of the L.A. Aztecs) was its undoing. Bradley played college ball at nearby Princeton, but with no clear path to the pros after graduation he took a job “selling cake mix to supermarkets” for Procter & Gamble. That proved a poor fit. After a stint coaching at Ohio University, he was hired as Bruce Arena’s assistant at the University of Virginia.

Arena is the most successful coach in U.S. soccer history and now leads the Galaxy. He is charismatic and controversial, goading the press and continually criticizing his bosses. While he didn’t model his style on Arena, Bradley saw how he built outstanding programs, getting an undermanned U.S. team to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. Bradley soaked up the other great coaching he encountered. He witnessed the élan that Jim Valvano brought to his North Carolina State basketball teams and saw how Dean Smith’s focus matched the talent on the court. When Bradley left to coach his alma mater in 1984, he took in the unorthodox stratagems of its basketball coach, Pete Carril. He practically memorized Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, embracing the golf instructor’s “take dead aim” mantra.

Bradley fell into an important friendship with Manny Schellscheidt, a former German pro who now coaches Seton Hall. Schell-
scheidt cultivates in his players a “love affair with the ball,” the kind of relationship that few Americans have achieved. He and Bradley joined forces to lead Jersey youth teams. They carpooled in Schellscheidt’s VW Rabbit so they could analyze how, say, the impenetrable defense of A.C. Milan throttled the opposition in the 1990s.

Bradley believes in a code of professionalism: Players should stay in shape, maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits, identify and improve weak facets of their game, respect the sport and their opponents. He also invokes the intensity of Jersey hero Bruce Springsteen, whom he’s seen in concert scores of times. Bradley cajoles his players to, in effect, “bring it like Bruce” during every moment of every contest. A crucial element involves team building, the belief that what happens “on the inside”—where players and coaches can honestly communicate with one another—is sacrosanct. This excludes the media and even U.S. soccer officials. “There’s a process to become a good team where you break down walls,” Bradley says slowly, “where you make sure there’s trust and respect, where there’s a real partnership. It’s important that people believe they’re part of something so that they’re not afraid to put themselves on the line.”

Sometimes that involves nudging players to elevate their game. Recently Bradley supported Galaxy star Landon Donovan in his decision to leave MLS for Europe, where he is on loan to FC Bayern Munich. The German team competes in the vaunted Bundesliga, forcing the longtime Southern Californian to raise his game. At other times, notes former player Jim Barlow, Bradley would “have blunt face-to-face conversations and say exactly what was on his mind. You could tell that his interest was in helping you get better, not belittling you or making you feel like you didn’t belong. It was, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing, and you need to hear this.’?”

Bradley’s success at Princeton—his team made the Final Four in 1993 (only to fall to Arena’s University of Virginia)—coincided with soccer’s surging popularity. The crowds that packed U.S. stadiums during the 1994 World Cup proved there was renewed interest in the game and helped jump-start Major League Soccer. Bradley left college for the new pro league, serving as Arena’s assistant before taking over the Chicago Fire in 1998. He shunned the upstairs coach’s office, dressing with the players in the locker room. The team immediately won the MLS Cup, beating Arena’s D.C. United, and Bradley received coach-of-the-year honors.

In 2006, he moved to Southern California to coach Chivas USA, which shares the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy. He led the expansion team to the play-offs, then was offered the national team spot after Arena was fired; that year the United States had flamed out in the first round of the World Cup despite being ranked among the globe’s top ten.

Bradley began his tenure by experimenting with personnel: Sixty-one players made at least one appearance for him. The United States went undefeated in his first 11 matches and captured the Gold Cup, an important regional tourney, en route to a 12-5-1 mark in 2007. Last year, as he continued to tinker with the rotation, Bradley went 9-3-2, with losses against Spain and England.

At times Bradley’s offense seems stagnant and unimaginative. But he prefers wins to style points, and it’s obvious that he’s persuaded the team to buy into his system: Focus on ball control, manage the pace to your advantage, and capitalize on opponents’ mistakes. “This is Bob Bradley’s team,” striker-midfielder Clint Dempsey says. “He’s a guy that knows what he wants, and the players know what he wants.”

*****

The hub of American soccer these days is the Home Depot Center in Carson, where Bradley spends the bulk of his time in a spare, cramped office. During summer months he stays to watch Galaxy and Chivas games, sitting anonymously in the stands. He lives in nearby Manhattan Beach with his wife, Lindsay, a former All-American in lacrosse and field hockey, and their two daughters.

Their son, Michael, grew up trailing Bob to practices and absorbed the sport much like his father: in pickup situations that encouraged ball handling and passing. Unlike his dad, Michael had myriad opportunities to go further as a player. He enrolled in the U.S. Soccer Residency Program in Florida, designed for youths, then skipped college to turn pro. He’s taller than his father, with the same penchant for lengthy pauses when he speaks to reporters. He currently plays midfield for Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany.

Michael validates Bradley’s vision for elite youth soccer. It rejects much of the prevailing model of countless (and meaningless) games and tournaments that foster burnout and limit imagination. In 2007, U.S. Soccer created a national development academy that supports 148 teams. This shifts the environment from “an overburdened game-emphasis model to a meaningful training-and-competition model,” says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.

“Players in Europe are exposed to a professional environment from the time they’re 13, 14 years old,” Michael Bradley says. “The more guys we can get into professional environments at a younger age will help the quality of American soccer and add to our team.”

Critics believe the academy’s presence will encourage youngsters to abandon long-established high school and college programs. That may happen, Bob Bradley and others concede, but they insist the new system will produce more elite players. Last summer Bradley met with academy players at Home Depot and had them write down their strengths and weaknesses. “To help your team win its toughest games, you have to do more than just the things that come easy,” he said. He went on to cite the Lakers-Celtics play-off showdown and how he “saw something in Garnett’s and Pierce’s eyes…they were willing to do whatever it took to win.”

As the World Cup looms, Bradley will be the subject of increasing and, for him, unwelcome scrutiny. Every decision will be dissected and judged. Should Landon Donovan be positioned at forward or midfield? Are youngsters Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore mature enough for the international game? And who will emerge to fill the left back position?

Bradley appears to be channeling another great coaching mind. His extended, under-the-radar process of preparing the national squad recalls the methodical way that Herb Brooks molded the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team before its miracle-on-ice victory over the Soviet Union. When he was a student at Princeton, Bradley and his roommates took a road trip to Lake Placid to watch those Olympics. He marvels at the job Brooks did in coaxing an inexperienced, overlooked team to the gold medal. Ever the realist, Bradley won’t make rash predictions. But the competitor in him refuses to accept that success means “just” reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Indeed, with a fortunate draw in the schedule, Bradley insists that the United States could be a serious contender. “Are we as talented as Spain and Argentina?” he asks. “No. But we’ve shown that when we build momentum, when we get a break, when the focus and the mentality are right, we’re capable of great things.”

 

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

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