How Bob Bradley explains soccer
U.S. national-team coach Bob Bradley explains his approach to the game of soccer
Bradley breaks down his approach to biggest U.S. games of '09 vs. Spain, Mexico
Coach stresses defense, what his team should do when it doesn't possess the ball
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- There are times, when you sit and talk for more than hour with U.S. coach Bob Bradley, that you wonder if he's a sort of soccer version of Rain Man.
In our mind's eye, most of us can remember the images of big goals that have been scored in important games. But usually we only recall the spectacular finishes, not the entire sequences of small plays that led up to those strikes. Bradley does. Out of nowhere, four months after the fact, he can lead you through the little moments in last May's Champions League final that led up to Samuel Eto'o's game-changing goal against Manchester United.
It's in those little moments, those tiny details, that Bradley lives and works. I have no doubt that he can do the same thing on thousands of other goals, too. I have no doubt that when it comes to watching soccer Bradley has exceeded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule" many times over. Of course, there is far more to coaching than the photographic recall of goal sequences. And so, last Thursday in Park City, Utah, I sat down with Bradley to get a sense of how his soccer mind works.
If you're hoping that I jabbed a finger in his chest and put him on the defensive -- Why doesn't José Torres play more? Where's Freddy Adu? Why are you asking Landon Donovan to play defense? -- then you might come away disappointed. Or you might not. Those questions may come on another day, but I think Bradley's answers actually appear in the interview below when you hear him explain how he views the game, how he wants his teams to play and which priorities are important to him.
On the eve of Wednesday's important World Cup qualifier for the U.S. against Trinidad and Tobago (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Galavisión), I can tell you that I learned more about the specifics of Bradley's priorities, including:
Playing hard games matters. "As players move from one level to another, they have to grow," Bradley says. As you'll see below, there is a clear awareness on Bradley's part that what works in CONCACAF may not work against the world's best teams at the World Cup. That's why the U.S. has played tougher games outside of CONCACAF than in the previous World Cup cycle, whether they were friendlies (Spain, England, Argentina, etc.) or tournaments (Confederations Cup, Copa América). That's why you can be certain that the U.S.' last three games before the 2010 World Cup will be against harder teams than the '06 pre-World Cup friendlies (Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia).
Defense has to be a priority, even (and especially) for the world's best teams. Even if you have a ton of skill, Bradley says, the great teams do more when they lose the ball. If you ask Bradley to discuss his strategies for hard games -- as I do below for the U.S.' 2-0 upset of Spain and recent 2-1 loss to Mexico -- he will always begin by talking defense.
With Bradley, sometimes you have to connect the dots. If you spend much time at all covering Bradley, you realize that he doesn't like getting into many specifics on U.S. players. But you can learn a lot about how he approaches coaching the U.S. from listening to the way he talks about the teams, players and coaches he respects. I decided to present this interview as a lengthy Q&A because I think it gives you a window into the way Bradley thinks. You may not agree with everything Bradley does, but I do think you'll learn more about the man in charge of the U.S. national team.
SI.com: Where would you begin to explain how your world view of soccer works, how you view the game?
Bradley: Like most coaches, I follow the game around the world. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to coach on different levels. Those experiences help. The experience of coaching some really top players along the way is important, because your ability then to get across ideas and know that they've been at the top and make sure that the things you see in the game fit with things that they see in the game. Those are all important. I think like most coaches you have this combination of experiences, some of which come from your own work and then when you watch other teams in training, when you watch teams play, when you see what the game is like on the higher levels, you're constantly trying to move things further along. But it's the combination of all those experiences that get you to the point where now on the one hand you have your own ideas, but the game is always challenging you to stay fresh.
SI.com: Which teams, players and coaches over time have had the biggest influence on you? When I first met you back in the early 1990s, I recall the AC Milan teams of those years had a big influence.
Bradley: Those teams influenced a lot of people. It's like anything else: As you dig into how those teams came about, then you would read about how Arrigo Sacchi was a huge fan of the Liverpool teams in the '70s, the Liverpool teams that had very good players but really knew how to play as a team. So those were good teams. When you pay attention to soccer over the last how many years, you see someone like Sir Alex Ferguson and the way that his ideas, his way of putting teams together, has stood the test of time. Sacchi was so successful at Milan, then you see a guy like Carlo Ancelotti -- who worked with Sacchi in '94 as his assistant with the national team but eventually coached at Parma and some different places but ended up at Milan and kept some of the same ideas but tweaked things -- come up with using Andrea Pirlo in a role that up until that point was little bit unique. So you see the way teams play, you get a sense of how different managers run their teams.
SI.com: In what ways, specifically?
Bradley: Ancelotti, from the time he got to Milan, has been such a professional, steady presence in his teams. The expectations at Milan, with an owner like Silvio Berlusconi, with all the things that could go around, such a professionalism, such a calmness, it's no surprise now he's at Chelsea and already you hear players talking about the way things get done. That speaks for itself. I've been fortunate over the years to see Man. United train at different times, spend a little time with Sir Alex. And if you're ever at Man. United, everything that goes on inside that club, it has his personality stamped on everything. He's very bright. He's got a great way of being on top of everything.
There would be stories of guys he would ask ... I think it was Ryan Giggs in an interview said how Sir Alex had said, 'I heard you were out late the other night...' Just his overall sense of what was going on with all his guys, what was going on in Manchester, and Man. United has a very down-to-earth feel at the club. There's a cafeteria. You see them sitting in there, youth players, first-team players, that group of guys that have been there over the years, like Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Giggs. All these guys just in terms of the way they train, the way they carry themselves, and I think this all stems from just the overall way that Sir Alex has for understanding what's important, how to deal with people, when to be hard, when to joke. So that I think is why in the world of soccer it's such a special situation that somebody has been there that long and has had that much success.
I've seen José Mourinho work. He's a got a great way with his team. His teams seem to have a real team spirit. They compete, but he's got a good feel for dealing with different kinds of players, getting the most out of guys. You always get a sense that the guys that have played for him along the way appreciated what it was like to play for him. So that's important. You put all these things together, you combine them with your own experiences. When you've coached players like Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Hristo Stoitchkov and Youri Djorkaeff, and now on top of it, players that have strong ideas. I think it's always been something that you appreciate. Within the teams that I've worked with, I always appreciate people who come in and aren't afraid to say what they're thinking and have ideas. And then that challenge you and you challenge them. That type of working environment, I think, is pretty important.