The tale of two Bob Bradleys
In his four-year, eight-month term as interim then head coach of the U.S. men's national team, Bob Bradley was a highly divisive figure. On Thursday, he was sacked by U.S. Soccer, ending his tenure that had been at once successful and widely unpopular.
Since 2007, Bradley compiled a record of 43 wins, 25 losses and 12 ties for a 53.75 winning percentage. That gives him the second-highest number of wins and winning percentage of any U.S. head coach who was in charge for more than five games. Only Bruce Arena's 65.8 percent mark bests Bradley, who stood at 62.9 percent through 2010. (He went 4-4-2 in 2011.) In those games, Bradley led the U.S. to the top spot in the 2010 World Cup fourth qualifying stage, a first-ever group win during the 2010 World Cup group stage, three consecutive Gold Cup finals and a 2009 Confederations Cup final.
But he probably won't be remembered for all that. He'll be remembered for losing to an underappreciated Ghana side in extra time in the second round of the 2010 World Cup when the bracket was widely believed to have parted for the U.S. He'll be remembered for giving up a 2-0 lead in the Confederations Cup final to Brazil. And he'll be remembered for squandering that same lead against Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final in which he allegedly pushed for more goals, rather than focusing on maintaining a lead.
Bradley's departure was a long time coming, longer by far than most would have liked, or imagined it would be. Not terribly long after his appointment, public discourse on Bob Bradley and his ways turned vitriolic, and sometimes vile. If you were going off the blogs and comment sections, his was the sort of unpopularity saved especially for the most unworthy of men, like politicians who started misguided and evil wars, abused their power or blatantly lied through their capped and whitened teeth.
Bradley did none of those things. He is, by most accounts -- including my own -- a rather nice man, who once took pity on a cub reporter (me again) whom he bumped into in a parking lot who needed a story, and whom he talked to at length.
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But Bradley didn't care about his image. Or didn't seem to, anyway. He was a man so hopelessly devoted to the job itself, putting in reportedly savage hours, that he ignored its periphery, the sort of schmoozing and pandering and politicking that allow you to stay in the public's good graces. He lacked the populism gene and felt no urge to dip his toe in the public-opinion pool to see what temperature it might hold and what possible personal benefit could be drawn from it. In his entirely hollow and often unintelligible statements to the press, in his stoic stance in front of the team dugout, he betrayed all the charm of a low-level Soviet county administrator. He wasn't a showman. And professional sports, especially at the international level, are a show.
Bradley never got that memo. Or if he did, he sent it straight through his industrial shredder and lit the ashes, which didn't endear him to the public or the press -- which, it must be said, was always very lenient with him, present company included.
Further undermining his public standing was a loyalty that was incomprehensible to the outside world. If ever there was a player's manager, it was Bradley. While not thought to be a master motivator, or often mistaken for a father figure -- even if his son played on the team -- Bradley showed an unwavering attachment to the players he found worthy by some unpublished standard. Never once did he criticize anybody publicly -- or even single out anybody for constructive criticism.
Instead, he would drone on about process and moving forward and options and ball movement. The players who had been let into his heart had to work very hard to fall from grace. Unless a player criticized Bradley publicly, it would take many months of subpar performances to fall out of the first-team picture, and even then, call-ups as a backup were customary. That undermined Bradley's credibility to the outside world. It might well have fostered an environment in which players were so secure in their national team bubble that breakout performances were almost discouraged -- and definitely rare. Bradley certainly did experiment with new players, calling up more than 100 during his tenure. But the men he counted on when it mattered most were always the same.
Paired with his unimaginative -- though probably realistic -- tactics, the perception of selecting only "his guys," as they were popularly referred to, further sunk his reputation. As did his consistent selection of his son, Michael, a bullish, unspectacular but effective midfielder. Although the younger Bradley showed over the years that he was deserving of his spot twice over, Bradley was never forgiven for this perceived nepotism.
Being publicly acknowledged as the second choice for a job always makes for a losing race against appearances. There's an expression in Dutch that says a man who landed a job he was never qualified for has "fallen up." This was forever the perception of Bradley, even if it was unjust. He had come by the job fair and square, paying his dues in the college game and winning consistently in MLS, in which he won the 1998 MLS Cup in his first year as head coach of the Chicago Fire.
But all the good he did -- and he did some good -- won't be long for memory. He'll be remembered as the man who didn't pander, the man the fans never wanted, who stuck it out for almost five years, as the most unpopular coach in memory.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.