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Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Unlikely Trailblazers: Bob and Michael Bradley

Robert "Bob" Bradley on
4 July 2009.
Image credit: Wilson Wong. 

Editor's Note: 

This article was originally published on 23 September 2011 at Beyond The Pitch by Steve Amoia
Congratulations to Coach Bob Bradley who on 15 Oct. 2016 became the first American to manage a game in the Barclays Premier League (Arsenal 3 - Swansea City 2.) He is truly a trailblazer who has taken the road less-traveled for his entire coaching career. As a fellow Jersey native, Bruce Springsteen, would say, "Born in the USA."

Most of us inherited our love of sport from our fathers. They were the first ones to throw or kick a ball to us, coach our teams, correct our mistakes and encourage our efforts. Few men share that special bond on a professional level. From recent times in world football, the most celebrated example was Cesare and Paolo Maldini with the Azzurri and AC Milan. Vladimir and Valdimir, Jr. Weiss of Slovakia are another recent example. And here in the United States, there is another father and son soccer duo: Bob and Michael Bradley.

Critical Juncture in Both Men’s Careers

Bob and Michael Bradley in Happier TImes with The US National Team
Courtesy of: Beyond The Pitch.

For the last five years, Bob Bradley managed the US men’s national team. For the last four years, his son, Michael, featured prominently on his team. This past summer has been one of distinct change in both men’s lives: Bob was relieved on his duties in August and Michael was married. Similar to his father, the welcome mat at Borussia Mönchengladbach was suddenly lifted under Michael’s feet. The younger Bradley needed to find a new club before the August transfer market deadline expired.

In a surprise move for an American player, Bradley signed with Chievo Verona of the Italian Serie A. His father, Bob, is reportedly in final negotiations for the Egyptian national team job. Two men with the same DNA. Two men who love the same sport. Two men who are taking roads much less traveled than their peers. Two unlikely trailblazers.

Let’s take a look first at Bob Bradley.

Never Fully Supported By US Soccer Despite Notable Successes

Bob Bradley was hired by US Soccer in 2006 on an interim basis when Bruce Arena’s contract was not renewed. Bradley became the permanent men’s national team head coach in January 2007. The preferred choice after Arena departed was the current US manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, but negotiations with the German legend were not successful. Bradley won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup which qualified the Americans for the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. Bradley guided the Americans to a historic win over a heavily fancied, current European nations champion and unbeaten in nearly three years, Spain. The USA lost to Brazil in the Cup final, 3-2, after being ahead 2-0 at the break.

The USA advanced as group winners at the 2010 FIFA World Cup but were eliminated in the round of 16 by Ghana in extra time. The team had several story-book endings which elevated the sport to previously unseen media heights in the United States. But the fact remained that in four World Cup games, the US team struggled against lesser-talented sides, Algeria and Slovenia, respectively, were gifted a goal by England, and could not close down the Black Stars.

Jurgen Klinsmann did television commentary for ESPN from South Africa. For many American fans, it was the first time that the German had been seen or heard at great length. After the American exit and Klinsmann’s provocative commentary the next day on ESPN, many believed that Bradley’s reign was over. But once again, US Soccer openly courted Klinsmann only to be rebuffed in the end. Bradley remained the manager until Klinsmann was hired in August 2011 after the US was beaten in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final by its eternal rivals, Mexico. The third time was the charm, and Bob Bradley was fired two weeks before a key friendly rematch with Mexico.

A Cerebral, No-Nonsense Man Not Given to Emotional Displays

Bob Bradley had a record of 43W-25L-12D (53.75% wins) making him arguably the most successful manager in US men’s national team history. (1) A man of few words who avoids publicity or self-promotion, American fans never learned a great deal about him. In stark contrast, Jurgen Klinsmann, in his brief tenure, has been seen and heard frequently in various forums. He also developed his own website for fans to learn more about him.

But questions remained about Coach Bradley. Did he ever want the seeming complete control that Jurgen Klinsmann was granted from Day One? What was his vision or plan for the future of US youth soccer development? Did he have a similar view as Klinsmann with regards to reaching out to underrepresented groups and the cultural aspect of soccer? Where did he see US Soccer ten or twenty years from now?

Bradley rarely shows emotion on the touch line or in interviews. He projects a calm, taciturn and controlled presence. Here was an interesting quote by Bradley himself on his blunt communication style during a June 2010 interview with ESPNSoccernet:

"I can be very tough. And there are times when if a guy can't quite handle it, there are times where I feel a bit bad about that. I don't like myself in those moments. I wish I had a better way sometimes. But that's the way it is." (2)

Nick DiBenedetto, a writer with Stats LLC, worked with Bradley as the public relations director for the Chicago Fire and Metrostars in Major League Soccer. He described the coach’s no-nonsense approach:

"He cares about winning games and he cares about his players. That's it. There's no style points. As long as his team scores one more goal than the other team, that's what he cares about. Not winning a popularity contest." (2)

“Like a force of nature.”

A religion professor at Princeton, Jeffrey Stout, described Bradley in a way that few may have seen:

"He strikes people like a force of nature. There are other people who care about the truth, who are intense, who understand what it means to be a man and build a team. There are other people who care about their players and their families and the communities in which they live. But I can't think of anybody who cares as relentlessly and passionately as he does. There just aren't many people like him." (2)

Bradley began as a 22-year old head coach at the University of Ohio and ascended the US ranks to lead a national team program for five eventful years. Unfortunately, he was not the first choice of US Soccer President Sunil Gulati and knew it. The image of Jurgen Klinsmann was held over Bradley’s head like a sword of Damocles. Yet to this date and to his credit, Bradley never complained publicly or asked for a vote of support. Few of us would want to work for an organization who publicly admitted on two occasions that we were not their first choice.

Egypt as a Message

For a Princeton University graduate, a man by all accounts who is a serious student of international football, Bradley’s decision to pursue the Egyptian national team opening should not be a surprise. In fact, it may be seen as a direct response to his indifferent treatment by US Soccer. Bradley was never their man and rarely received plaudits for his success. Bradley carried the piano for five years and now Klinsmann will orchestrate the music.

According to Brian Straus of Sporting News, only two Americans, Steve Sampson with Costa Rica and Bill Moravek of the US Virgin Islands, respectively, have managed foreign national teams. (3) For Bradley to return to the US college ranks or Major League Soccer would be the expected decision. Surely, a man who was smart enough to beat Spain and give Brazil a ride of their lives in a Cup final learned something marketable abroad along the way. It would be convenient to state that foreign interest in Bradley reflects well on the rising influence and respect accorded to US Soccer. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that foreign interest in Bradley reflects solely upon him. Despite his shortcomings, despite the inconsistent nature of his US team, despite never playing professionally himself, Bradley’s record and feats were impressive. The Egyptians, along with Santos Laguna in Mexico where he was recently linked with a coaching job, took notice. Egypt or another foreign post may be Bradley’s way of distancing himself, both physically and mentally, from the US Soccer apparatus to take the road less traveled. Bob Bradley is a trailblazer.

The Volatile Landscape in Egypt
Currently ranked 34th by Elo Ratings (3a), seven-time African Cup of Nation champions Egypt represent a unique challenge for Bradley on and perhaps more importantly, off the pitch. The country has undergone rapid societal changes that have rippled throughout the Mideast region. Football enjoys a much-higher profile than in the United States and also affects Egyptian society in unique ways.

The influence of football in Egypt extends far beyond the playing fields. According to James Dorsey, a respected journalist, Mideast expert at the Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and founder of The Turbulent World of Mideast Soccer, football fan groups who patterned themselves after Italian “ultras” played a key role in the Egyptian uprisings that early this year ousted President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power and since then have sought to hold his military successors to their promise to lead Egypt to free and fair elections. I asked Mr. Dorsey what would be Bob Bradley's greatest challenges in his new position with Egypt:

“Bradley’s major challenge is one that any coach irrespective of nationality would encounter. How he deals with that challenge is what will dictate media and other perceptions of him. To be sure, there are cultural sensitivities and to ignore those would be to do so at his own peril. But the real challenge for Bradley is in a sense a political one that has to do with the legacy of 30 years of autocratic rule and the fallout of the revolt that toppled early this year President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power.

The Egyptian Football Association’s management is a holdover from the Mubarak-era, largely viewed as corrupt. Players by and large stood on the side lines as their supporters stood in the front lines of the battles with security forces and Mubarak loyalists. The fan base is highly politicized with at its core militant, violence-prone supporters who play a key role in the mass pro-democracy, anti-Mubarak demonstrations. To many of them, the team is not a national team, but Mubarak’s team.

The militants’ political engagement has not stopped with Mubarak’s downfall. On the contrary, it has moved on to demand a clean-up of Egyptian soccer and continued pressure on the military that now rules the country to stick to its pledge to lead the nation to free and fair elections.

Despite all this, there is light at the end of the tunnel that works in Bradley’s favour. After years of weekly battles between the fans and security forces who were largely viewed as Mubarak’s henchmen, militants and security forces earlier this month worked together for the first time to keep the peace during an African championships match. That is an important step in terms of rebuilding confidence between the team and the fans and that is likely to be a major element of Bradley’s job.” (4)

The Role of the Interpreter and Translator
When Sir Bobby Robson went to Portugal, he hired a young man named Jose Mourinho to ease his linguistic and cultural transition. Former Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti, described how his AC Milan teammate, Ray Wilkins, assisted him in unique ways when he first arrived in London to deal with the language and cultural barriers. "One of the reasons that I fit into the locker room was thanks to the fundamental role played by Ray Wilkins, my number two and friend, because it's one thing to translate words, plenty of people can do that, but translating feelings is the gift of only a select few." (5)

The interpreter/translator role may be one of the most important appointments that Bradley makes for a potential new staff should he accept the Egyptian job. Mr. Dorsey weighed in on this component:

“The role of the translator is key. Not only will he have to accurately translate words, he will have to accurately translate and explain to all parties cultural concepts. In many ways, the translator can make or break. His ability to communicate and translate not only between languages but also between cultures will determine to a significant degree Bradley’s success or failure.” (4)

Now let’s turn to his son, Michael.

Strangely More in Common with Giuseppe Rossi than his US Teammates
In an ironic twist, the career trajectory of Michael Bradley closely mirrors that of fellow New Jersey native and Italian international, Giuseppe Rossi. Bradley did not play college soccer. He cut his teeth from 2004 to 2005 in Major League Soccer with the Metrostars before departing at the age of 19 to develop his game in the Netherlands. The biggest irony of all might be that the son of an experienced collegiate and US men’s national team coach, along with a Princeton University graduate, has played most of his professional career abroad. Michael also never went the usual college route. The younger Bradley received his degree from the school of hard soccer knocks. He exposed himself to new cultures and languages first in the Netherlands at Heerenveen, later in Germany with Borussia Mönchengladbach, and most recently on a loan spell earlier this year with Aston Villa in England.

The Landscape in Italy: A Desert for American Players
Alexi Lalas broke the American Serie A barrier of the modern era in 1994 with Padova. Since then, the number of native-born Americans to play in the Italian top-flight can be counted on one hand: Giuseppe Rossi in 2007 for Parma; Gabriel Ferrari in 2007 for Sampdoria; Oguchi Onyewu in 2009 for AC Milan. Only Rossi appeared in official Serie A matches. Ferrari played in an Italian Cup game and Onyewu, due to injury, did not make a competitive appearance with Milan in the Serie A.

Alexi Lalas was capped 96 times for the USA and is a current ESPN soccer analyst. Lalas discussed his Italian football experience in a August 2006 interview with AC Cugini Scuola Calcio in Reston, VA:

On learning Italian: “Learning Italian was about respecting the culture and wanting to assimilate as quickly as possible. I didn’t speak perfectly, but Italians appreciated the fact that I took the time to learn.”

On the role of football in Italy: “I am a better player and person because of my experience in Italy. To live in the fishbowl that is Italian soccer is not easy and I learned perspective and how to handle myself, on and off the field. The passion for the game is something that is difficult to explain to the American sports fans. I always said that it’s no coincidence that only two things happen on Sunday in Italy, soccer and church. It is a form of religion and it is taken just as seriously.”

On the Italian game: “Tactics, tactics, tactics. Padova was a small team and we know that our success rested in our ability to be tactically better than the big teams. We were drilled every day as to where we should be on the field in any given situation. If you’re a small team, you hedge your bets with this approach; if everyone is in a good position then it will take a feat of individual skill to really beat you.”

On Americans in Italy: “I think that many Americans could have success in Italy, but it takes a team taking a public risk. We still don’t have enough international credibility, which is a shame.” (6)

Michael Bradley: “From the time that I was little, I’ve watched the Serie A on TV.”

Michael was acquainted with the Serie A from his youth. According to Anto at Beyond The Pitch, Bradley has worn the number four shirt in tribute to former Italian international and AC Milan midfielder, Demetrio Albertini. (Bradley will don number six with Chievo Verona.) (7)

Bradley’s knowledge and appreciation of the Serie A places him ahead of most American soccer pundits, coaches, players and fans. The Serie A is vastly misunderstood in American soccer circles as defensive, ultraconservative, slow and lacking competitive balance. In essence, the Italian soccer mindset is not easily embraced in ways that most Americans can fathom. Defending well does not equate with defensive football. The Italian tactical nous runs afoul of the American penchant and mantra of, “Athletic and physical.” The Italians play a thinking-man’s game full of craft, passion, precision, slyness and guile. As former Italian international, Gianluca Vialli, said in “The Italian Job,” “The Italians play with their heads and the English with their hearts.” (7a)

Some might add cheating and diving to the calcio equation, but the Italians call those dark arts, “furbita’ ”. That term translates as taking advantage of a situation in a Machiavellian fashion. Or when the match officials aren’t looking...

A young but experienced player such as Bradley, the son of a very disciplined and strategically-minded coach, seems to be a natural fit for Italian calcio. Bradley is a great student of the game which has dominated his life since childhood. He should be credited to recognize the need to further develop another facet of his game that might not be addressed in the USA or other parts of Europe. Like his father, Michael is a trailblazer. As the Italans would say, “Un figlio d’arte,” which means someone who follows in his father’s footsteps.

Match Statistics for Michael Bradley’s First Two Matches in Italy
Michael Bradley versus Parma on 18 September. He came on as a substitute in the 73’: He had a 75% pass completion rate from 16 passes, 1/1 successful crosses, 1 contrasts won and no fouls or bookings. (8)

Michael Bradley versus Napoli on 21 September. He started and played the entire game: Passes: 37 (70% completion rate). Shots: 1 (header). Contrasts won: 7. Fouls: 2. Cards: 0. Minutes 90'. (9)

In my opinion, Bradley has looked very confident in his first two Serie A appearances. He demonstrated crisp passing, confidence, no reluctance to tackle or challenge opponents in or outside of the box, and very good movement off the ball.

1. “Bradley’s Tenure as Head Coach of US Men’s National Team Ends”; US Soccer.com; 28 July 2011.
2. “There’s No Fluff to Bob Bradley”; ESPNSoccernet; 9 June 2010; Wayne Drehs.
3. “Bob Bradley Finally En Route to Egypt”; Sporting News; 20 September 2011; Brian Straus.
3a. Rating of Egypt; ELO Ratings; 21 September 2011.
4. Interview with James Michael Dorsey of The Turbulent World of Mideast Soccer; 21 September 2011; Steve Amoia.
5. “The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius”; Rizzoli; 2010; Carlo Ancelotti and Alessandro Alciato
6. “Interview with Alexi Lalas of the LA Galaxy”; AC Cugini Scuola Calcio; August 2006; Steve Amoia.
7. “Conversation with Grant Wahl”; Beyond The Pitch; 7 September 2011.
7a. “The Italian Job”; Bantom Press; 2006; Gabriele Marcotti and Gianluca Vialli.
8. Live Match Tracker: Parma v. Chievo Verona; La Gazzetta dello Sport; 18 September 2011; Alessandro Ruta.
9. Live Match Tracker: Chievo Verona v. Napoli: La Gazzetta dello Sport: 21 September 2011; Pier Luigi Todisco.

A special thanks to Brian Straus and James Michael Dorsey for their kind contributions to this article.

Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and published The Soccer Translator from 2008 to 2015. 

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