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Feb 5, 2007

Bradley continues his audition against Mexico

Mastering difficult tasks gains one respect. While few would downplay defeating Denmark as a facile accomplishment, fewer still would shower interim coach Bob Bradley with accolades for the feat.

Now comes the true test. Against another rookie national coach eager to prove himself, Bradley and his players have a chance to demonstrate their true quality.

"It's a step up, playing in Arizona against Mexico," said midfielder Justin Mapp, who was a revelation in the match against the Danes. "It's always a battle, because there's a long history. We're going to have to be better."

That's evident, considering that Hugo Sanchez is bringing the strongest Mexican squad he possibly can. The new coach of El Tri has expressed more than once the desire to start his tenure off on a winning note.

The fan support for the Mexican squad at the University of Phoenix Stadium is expected to be formidable and raucous.

As for Bradley, his place at the helm of the U.S. team has been tenuous from the beginning. The interim tag adds more weight to an already pressure-packed situation.

"Mexico on February 7th is probably a more important friendly than others," said Sunil Gulati, the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Gulati's reasoning for holding back from appointing Bradley permanently was somewhat vague.

"We wanted to complete a process that we started and there were some things that we couldn't reach a resolution on in terms of some coaches that we were talking to and we wanted to take our time to do that."

What was clear, though, is that Gulati has indeed stayed in touch with his top candidates.

"As maybe the most successful U-20 coach in the world recently pointed out to me -- I'll let you figure out who that is, he lives in Buenos Aires -- Argentina has never won a U-17 World Cup," said Gulati in response to a youth soccer question on the day of Bradley's first match as coach.

The reference to former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman and the mention of recent conversation indicates that Gulati is still keeping other options available. For that matter, Juergen Klinsmann, who was Gulati's admitted first choice for the post, stated in a recent interview that he did not rule out taking the U.S. position in the future, so that possibility may again exist. Other rumored original finalists like Carlos Queiroz and Gerard Houllier are likely alternatives.

None of this means that Gulati was insincere when he stated that Bradley would be given the opportunity to win the U.S. post permanently. Nor does it mean that Bradley's fate rests on the outcome of the Mexico match. However, it does point to the idea that this next game counts significantly towards the scorecard on which Bradley will be judged.

"As a coach, I always want to win and I try to separate the normal pressure that exists all the time, especially in such big games, from any extra pressure that people are looking at with regards to this interim tag," said Bradley of the situation. "You're playing against one of your biggest rivals and it's important for our fans and so that brings on a lot of excitement and a certain amount of pressure. That's OK."

It's not the first time that Bradley has faced such a tough challenge early on as coach. When he started his Major League Soccer coaching career with the Chicago Fire in 1996, the team wasn't that impressive in the early going, losing five of its first seven matches. A less tolerant administration could have canned Bradley as coach, but the Fire turned things around and won two domestic championships (the MLS Cup and the Open Cup) that year.

Yet the conditions for a national team coach are always going to be different and in many ways, far more difficult than those for a club coach. A national team coach must be able to motivate players quickly and on a short-term basis at times. The test Bradley faces against Mexico is a small snapshot of the sort of pressures the number one job entails. How he meets the challenge will provide clues about whether Bradley is truly ready to separate himself from the level of a good MLS club coach and show the vision that is needed to progress on the international stage.

The evidence of leadership that needs to be seen against Mexico cannot be distilled into as simple a formula as a win. If the U.S. squad appears directionless and tentative (as it did against Denmark at times), but scores due to a lucky penalty call (arguably, this also happened with the Danes) and hangs on desperately for the win against a dominant Mexican team that just can't quite find the equalizer, that might not aid Bradley's cause much.

What would make an emphatic impact is if, against an opponent like Mexico, the U.S. squad is able to demonstrate a combination of new blood and experience that plays purposefully and energetically. These are traits Bradley has preached to his teams, but they have to show up on the field to convince everyone watching that he is the man to continue setting the course for the team.

No one could reasonably expect to see at this stage a finished version of what a Bradley-led squad will do in games, but there has to be some demonstrated proof that the team is going in a certain direction. With the retirement of several key players, Bradley has inherited a team in transition, one that can be molded into the shape of things to come.

The heat is on Bradley to prove, versus Mexico, that he is the right sculptor. Otherwise, Gulati could very well hand the tools to someone else.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.