Bob Bradley has been named coach of the U.S. national team by default, not the best introduction to the position. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati did not make Juergen Klinsmann an offer he couldn't refuse. Now it is up to Bradley to make himself into a coach Gulati can't refuse.
That is what transpired in 1995, when Steve Sampson took the team on an interim basis and reached the Copa America semifinals. Sampson left the federation with no choice, and actually proved to be the right person for the job -- up until the months before the approach of the World Cup finals in France; then, it started to become clear Sampson was unprepared for the next level. Sampson received his toughest lessons in on-the-job training at the World Cup, just as Bob Gansler had in 1990, and that is not the time or place for it.
Bradley's situation is not that much different than Sampson's was when Sampson succeeded Bora Milutinovic. Bradley, though, has proved himself on the professional level, winning the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup with Chicago in 1998, directing some of the game's most ego-driven characters and some of its most naive beginning pros. Bradley will be in position to succeed, his enthusiasm alone should carry him through the first months of his tenure. Things will become complicated with the Gold Cup and Copa America next summer. But, unless Gulati can come up with a Javier Aguirre, Gerard Houllier or Luiz Felipe Scolari in May, Bradley could well extend his tenure should the U.S. do anything in those tournaments.
Bradley, like Sampson in 1995, will have earned the job. The worry, then, is that Bradley will have passed all the courses except World Cup 101 -- the most critical one. Bradley might well be able to deliver in the 2010 World Cup but Gulati simply must be willing to pull the plug if Bradley looks like he is floundering.
It will not likely come to that, though. Gulati has more funds available than he would have had, and the U.S. has a more attractive soccer landscape than 10 years ago. Bradley will be occupied with the Olympic team in 2008, just when World Cup qualifying starts getting serious. By then, Klinsmann could come back into the picture.
But Gulati's search has reflected poorly on the coaching situation in the U.S. Bruce Arena proved to be exceptional, succeeding well beyond any expectations. Bradley could also prove to be an exception, but another exception to the rule that U.S. coaches are limited in the international arena. Coaching in the U.S., or even in the CONCACAF region, simply does not prepare one for the European shark tank.
Probably, the next generation of successful U.S. coaches will emerge from the pool of ex-players.
Other countries have recently retired former players they can plug into the position of national team coach: Brazil (Dunga), Bulgaria (Hristo Stoitchkov, who performed for Bradley in Chicago), Holland (Marco Van Basten), Italy (Roberto Donadoni); and in this region, Canada (Frank Yallop before he returned to the MLS), Costa Rica (Hernan Medford), Mexico (Hugo Sanchez).
This is not a shining moment for the U.S., and Gulati is going to be subjected to criticism. But Germany, too, struggled to find a coach for the 2006 World Cup, settling on Klinsmann, despite the fact he was residing in California.
Gulati was right to go the distance for Klinsmann. The process might yet produce dividends. Klinsmann could get back in the running. All sorts of options could open in upcoming months. Bradley, who is certain to figure in future U.S. plans whatever occurs, will get some of the experience he needs at the international level. The U.S. national team is in transition at every level, but at least it has evolved well past the post-Bora era.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.