KENYA BROWN - Monday, June 2, 2014
If there is anyone that knows what current United States national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is going through to prepare a competitive 23-man roster for a World Cup is his predecessor Bob Bradley.
It was four years ago in Princeton, New Jersey, where the 56-year-old brought together 30 men for training camp prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Having spent nearly a decade of his life at the helms of the U.S. and Egyptian national teams, Bradley knows there is much pressure for a national team coach to produce results, especially when it is the goal of qualifying for a World Cup.
"The starting point for any national team is to qualify for the World Cup," he told Yanks Abroad in an email interview. "Despite what many people think, qualification is never a guarantee because every country is motivated to get to the World Cup, and the timing, travel and conditions, especially for away matches, provides different challenges. Just look at Mexico in the most recent campaign."
After guiding the U.S. national team through qualification, the former Chicago Fire coach had to go through the grueling task of putting together a 23-man roster capable of competing against the world's best. Within that process, one of the most difficult things to do is to inform some players that they are not in the coach's plans. According to Bradley, letting a player know that he will not be in the team is not the easiest thing to do for a coach.
"There's no easy way to let a player know that he won't be in the team," he said. "In a perfect world the 23 would be selected before the training camp, but form and fitness make that almost impossible. All players deserve honest, direct communication. That means phone calls for players not invited to the camp, and face to face meetings for the final decisions."
One of the most anticipated games for the U.S. national team during the 2010 World Cup was the first group game against England, a team U.S. soccer was very familiar with thanks in part to the shocking 1-0 upset victory at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. That game is a lasting memory in U.S. soccer history and was talked about a great deal in the months leading up to rematch on June 12, 2010.
According to Bradley, while the 1950 game was brought up, the reality at that time was getting off to a good start in the competition.
"We talked about the 1950 win because it's a great piece of U.S. soccer history. But the concentration was the importance of the first match in the group," he said.
While the England game, which ended in a 1-1 tie, was a highly awaited game, the most important, and exciting games would come along afterwards.
The first came on June 18, 2010 in Johannesburg when the United States took on Slovenia. Having been outplayed and down 2-0 at the end of the first half, one would not be surprised if the coach laid into his team ala the well-known "hair dryer treatment" used by Sir Alex Ferguson during his days at Manchester United. However, Bradley explained that it was the opposite as he went on to make a few tactical changes to get the team back into the game in the second half.
"Halftime was strong and positive telling the players that we weren't going down," he said. "We brought on Mo [Maurice] Edu knowing that we needed to push the game and his athleticism would allow us to take more chances. Landon [Donovan] scored a great goal early and we kept the pressure on with Michael [Bradley] finally equalizing in the 81st minute."
Despite leveling the score at 2-2 late in the second half, one of more controversial decisions in the game would come near the end as referee Koman Coulibaly disallowed the game-winning goal scored by Edu. The phantom call is still something that burns the former Chivas USA coach to this day.
"No reason was ever given for disallowing Mo's winner! We couldn't believe it but the mentality of the group was so strong," he said.
With two points from two games and still fighting with England and Slovenia to claim one of the two spots to come out of Group C, the final game against Algeria was crucial.
Nearly falling behind early in the first half after a shot by the Desert Foxes hit the crossbar, the United States would press ahead against a stingy Algerian defense that had only allowed one goal from their first two games. After 90 minutes of a scoreless game, it was a play started by goalkeeper Tim Howard and finished by forward Landon Donovan that would give the team a 1-0 win, placing them atop of Group C.
Again, like with the game against Slovenia, it was the tactical changes by Bradley that led to United States making the late surge to score one of the most memorable goals in the team's World Cup history.
"Our mentality was again so important especially after Clint's goal was incorrectly disallowed on an offside decision," Bradley explained. "Tactically we made changes finishing with a 3-4-1-2. Stevie [Cherundolo], Jay [DeMerit] and Carlos [Bocanegra] in the back. Michael and Benny [Feilhaber] in the middle of midfield with DaMarcus [Beasley] left and Landon right. Clint [Dempsey] underneath Jozy [Altidore] and Edson [Buddle]. Timmy's great distribution to Landon started the counter! And everyone knows the rest."
Despite the celebrations and euphoria coming from the players and fans in South Africa and back at home, the next goal was to get prepared for a team that has now become the U.S. national team's kryptonite.
A date with Ghana on June 26, 2010 in Rustenberg awaited them.
After going behind 1-0 on a goal by Kevin Prince Boateng and then equalizing on a penalty converted by Donovan, the U.S. once again pressed for a second goal but were denied at every chance. The United States' World Cup would end on an extra time goal by Asamoah Gyan.
This was the second time the team would be eliminated from the World Cup at the hands of the Black Stars after the two played against each other in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, with the U.S. falling to Ghana by the same score line 2-1.
While Bradley admits that Ghana is "a talented team with many players from so many top club teams," there is still a feeling of disappointment that comes out from the coach when talking about how close the team was to progressing to the quarterfinals.
"We were so confident at 1-1 in South Africa but couldn't finish them off in regulation. Falling behind early in extra time was another test of our mentality. The disappointment of that match will never go away because to a man we all felt there was more there for us," he said.
Bradley's coaching prowess at the national team level has not gone unnoticed as he has gone to test his skills in Europe.
As head coach of Stabaek in the Norwegian Tippeligaen, the New Jersey native is taking on his next challenge as he hopes his success with the team known as the Blue Ones can help open doors to other American coaches.
"It's never been easy for American players and coaches to earn respect in Europe. Whenever our national team played well it helped. Maybe my work can also show the talent in the U.S.," he said.
Another challenge the coach is facing is trying to overcome the odds with a team that achieved promotion from Norway's second division last season and survives on a shoestring budget.
While many would have advised Bradley to seek coaching opportunities with other teams, he is a man that relishes the chance to prove the critics wrong. So far, Stabaek are exceeding expectations as they are in sixth place in the league, well out of range of the relegation zone.
"Many people told me that the challenge at Stabaek was too much. A very young team just up from the 2nd league," said Bradley. "But I loved the philosophy and spirit of the club and felt we could build an exciting team that could compete in the Tippelaegan. All the experts picked Stabaek to go down but we have surprised everyone so far!"