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Dec 8, 2006

Bradley deserving of the chance to lead U.S. team

We will never know if Juergen Klinsmann would have been the right man to lead the U.S. national team toward the 2010 World Cup, but in the coming months the American soccer-loving public is going to find out just how ready Bob Bradley is to handle the job few thought he had a realistic chance of getting.

Sunil Gulati's failure to reach a deal with Klinsmann, and subsequent decision to hire Bradley as the new U.S. national team coach, is going to trigger a tidal wave of criticism, but the reality is Gulati has hired a man who just might make him look like a genius.

No, Bradley is not some big-named foreign coach with World Cups and European glory on his resume. Bradley is simply an American with the track record of a winner, a developer of talent and a builder of teams that play attractive and effective soccer.

Bradley's appointment is being met with considerable skepticism, but much of that is a product of Bradley's one unsuccessful coaching stint, a three-year term with the MetroStars that ended with him being fired. That stint transformed his standing in the public eye from being Bruce Arena's logical successor to just another member of the MLS coaching scrap heap.

Bradley did his part to restore his reputation last year, rebuilding a terrible Chivas USA team using his keen eye for young talent as well as his ability to get the most from players he knows well. He earned MLS Coach of the Year honors for his efforts, but the response to his appointment as the new U.S. coach clearly shows that he has yet to remove all the MetroStars tarnish from his reputation.

The doubts about Bradley's ability to lead also stem from a long-held belief that he is simply a Bruce Arena knockoff, which makes his hiring a nightmare to the critics who blame Arena for the U.S. team's poor showing in this summer's World Cup. Bradley did work for Arena, spending two years as his assistant at the University of Virginia and two as Arena's assistant with D.C. United, winning MLS titles in 1996 and 1997.

That is four years out of a 25-year coaching career. Four years that have earned Bradley the label of "Arena Light," despite having established his own successful career, a career that has included three trophies won at Chicago, two MLS Coach of the Year honors and the most wins in MLS history.

That success has not come by accident. Bradley has been the hardest-working man in American soccer for years, devoting countless hours to the study of the game. He has earned the unyielding loyalty of his players because they see his hard work, they see the sacrifice and they believe in his message.

None of that is enough for the fans who had their hearts broken the moment Klinsmann walked away from the bargaining table. For some, Klinsmann was the only answer and there was no doubting his appeal. The memories of Germany's success in the World Cup won't fade anytime soon, and neither will the way Klinsmann captivated his home country. That made it easy to fantasize about what Klinsmann could do here. To those with their hearts set on Klinsmann, Gulati's hiring of Bradley feels like they waited five months to settle for a second choice.

What is easy to forget about Klinsmann is that he was hardly the first choice for Germany. In fact, the German Soccer Federation struggled mightily to fill its position more than two years ago, with the likes of Guus Hiddink, Otto Rehhagel and Ottmar Hitzfeld turning down the chance to coach the World Cup's host country. In what many Germans regarded as an act of desperation, the federation hired Klinsmann despite the fact that he had never been a head coach before.

In fact, it was less than a year ago when Klinsmann looked like he would be fired, as public sentiment in Germany turned against him following an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Italy in March. Klinsmann fought off the criticism, and eventually won the public over with the help of a 4-1 thrashing of the U.S. national team just three weeks after the Italy loss.

So nine months ago Klinsmann is in danger of losing his job and now he is the only man who can save U.S. Soccer? That's a bit much. It would have been interesting to see a foreign coach approach the job, but the notion that only Klinsmann, or a foreign coach with a prestigious resume, could help the U.S. national team reach new heights has no basis in fact.

Yes, hiring Klinsmann or Argentine Jose Pekerman would have led to more international headlines, but assuming they can get more out of the current pool of Americans than Bradley is extremely presumptuous. There is no magic dust foreign coaches were going to sprinkle on U.S. national team players to transform them into superstars. Are there foreign coaches with the experience and tactical acumen to take the national team far? Of course there are, but it is wrong to assume that an American coach is incapable of taking the U.S. team any further than Arena did.

Let us consider Bradley's qualifications. Is he tactically astute? Considering how highly international stars such as Hristo Stoitchkov and Youri Djorkaeff regarded Bradley, you would imagine that they believed he knew what he was doing. Is he capable of identifying and cultivating young talent? No coach in MLS history has the track record he has had in this category. From his time in Chicago, where he pulled Chris Armas and Ante Razov off the scrap heap and turned them into all-stars, to his year with Chivas USA, when he mentored young standouts such as MLS Rookie of the Year Jonathan Bornstein and midfielder Sacha Kljestan, his ability to find and develop talent was unquestioned.

Do all these things mean that Bradley will turn the United States into a world soccer power? No. What it all does mean is that he is completely deserving of this chance and he is more than capable of turning the interim appointment into a permanent one and transforming what some consider an embarrassing chapter in American soccer history into a landmark moment.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.