In more than four years as coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, a spell that ended with his firing Thursday, Bob Bradley always seemed like the interim choice.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati was constantly flirting with more glamorous candidates, stringing Bradley along as the temporary boss before naming him the permanent coach in May 2007 and looking elsewhere last year before re-signing him.
Bradley went about the job in his low-key, cerebral way, and the results were mostly positive: first place ahead of England in the 2010 World Cup group stage in South Africa, a stunning upset of Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinals and the CONCACAF Gold Cup championship in 2007.
But Gulati’s wandering eye didn’t exactly exude confidence in Bradley. Twice, Gulati failed to persuade Juergen Klinsmann, the former star striker from Germany and that nation’s 2006 World Cup coach, to accept the job on the USSF’s terms. He also had conversations with Argentina’s Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa, the quirky leader of Chile’s World Cup effort last year who now coaches Spanish club Athletic Bilbao.
So when Bradley failed to win the Gold Cup last month, losing to arch nemesis Mexico in the final after relinquishing a two-goal lead, Gulati had an opening to make a move.
“We felt now was the right time for us to make a change,” Gulati said in a written statement. “It is always hard to make these decisions, especially when it involves someone we respect as much as Bob.”
Gulati declined an interview request. Amid speculation that Gulati had finally landed Klinsmann or someone of similar name recognition, the USSF said it would make another announcement Friday. No details were provided.
Aside from Klinsmann, some other big names are available: Argentina’s Jose Pekerman as well as Louis van Gaal, a former Barcelona, Ajax and Dutch national team coach who was fired by Bayern Munich.
In a statement released by his representative, Bradley said: “It has been an incredible honor to serve as head coach of the U.S. national team. I am proud of everything that we have accomplished during the last five years, and I appreciate all of the hard work of the players, coaches and staff.”
Bradley, a former University of Virginia and D.C. United assistant who coached three MLS teams before joining the U.S. staff, wasn’t available for further comment. He signed a long-term contract last year with a base salary estimated at $700,000. Terms of such USSF deals typically include a clause for a single payout in case of termination.
The timing of the move made sense in many ways: With the Gold Cup over, the most important stretch of the year had passed and only a series of friendlies remained on the calendar, starting with an Aug. 10 rematch against Mexico in Philadelphia. Hence, the objective over the next nine months was to build the player pool and prepare for the start of 2014 World Cup qualifying next summer.
In Gulati’s eyes, the team had peaked under Bradley’s guidance. From another view, the move raises questions about the USSF’s decision-making last year.
After the World Cup, Gulati was torn whether to rehire Bradley. Had the Americans defeated Ghana in the round of 16, it would’ve been an easy decision. Had they failed to advance from group play, the choice also would’ve been clear. Losing to Ghana dropped Bradley into a gray area.
The situation was further complicated by the manner in which the Americans were eliminated: poor starts in regulation and extra time against Ghana, resulting in a 2-1 loss. Bradley’s odd lineup choices, specifically the use of midfielder Ricardo Clark and forward Robbie Findley, also fueled criticism.
For his part, Bradley explored opportunities with English clubs. While praising Bradley’s overall work, Gulati expressed concern about the program turning stale under the same coach over another four-year cycle.
Globally, it’s uncommon for national team leadership to remain in place after the World Cup, and Gulati said he had witnessed a malaise set into the squad toward the end of Bruce Arena’s two terms in 2006.
Perhaps fearing a repeat, and sensing a new opportunity to secure Klinsmann’s services, Gulati approached the charismatic German last summer. Again, they failed to reach terms – and again Gulati turned to Bradley.
The 2011 schedule began with respectable ties against Chile and Argentina, but three days before the Gold Cup started, the Americans lost to World Cup champion Spain, 4-0. The margin could’ve been much worse.
The USSF, however, had put Bradley into a difficult situation by scheduling the high-profile, lucrative friendly so close to the tournament. With more at stake in the Gold Cup, Bradley fielded a secondary squad, and his team paid the price.
Facing weaker competition in the CONCACAF event, the Americans sputtered through the first round, suffering their first-ever loss in the group stage of the 20-year-old tournament.
They rebounded to reach the final at the Rose Bowl but were outclassed by the best Mexican team in recent memory, losing 4-2.
When days passed without a peep from Gulati, the consensus was that Bradley would keep his job. The abrupt announcement Thursday — and hints of a replacement being named Friday — seemed to suggest that the USSF boss had initiated talks with replacement candidates in recent weeks.
Gulati and USSF chief executive Dan Flynn informed Bradley of the decision Thursday during a meeting at U.S. team training headquarters in Carson, Calif.
Bradley, 53, finished with a 43-25-12 record.