Just minutes after the U.S. national team's convincing 2-0 victory over a full-strength Mexican squad, Sunil Gulati was seen walking in the bowels of the University of Phoenix Stadium with a serious and almost somber look on his face.
Why would the U.S. Soccer president not be overjoyed at Wednesday's display versus Mexico, a shocking yet thorough win against this country's fiercest rival? It could be the fact that the result has made Gulati's most important job just a little bit more difficult.
Bob Bradley wasn't supposed to really make a strong play to become the U.S. national team coach on a permanent basis; at least, that's not what Gulati was thinking when he turned to Bradley in the wake of the Juergen Klinsmann courtship disaster. Bradley was supposed to play the good soldier, taking the reigns to keep the national team from dealing with the embarrassment of going coachless any longer. He was supposed to keep the coaching seat warm until Gulati could lure a high-profile coach to take over.
The only problem was that nobody told Bradley he wasn't supposed to take a young team in transition and make them believe they could win. The United States went into Wednesday night's match as a clear underdog that faced the possibility of getting run off the field by a Mexican team at full strength.
The scenario might have been enough to unsettle a young team and make it susceptible to Mexico's experience, but Bradley reminded his squad that it was the Mexicans under the pressure. The visitors were the ones fielding all their stars. They were the ones who had to deal with the U.S. team's dominance over Mexico in recent years.
The start of the match went as many expected, as Mexico poured on the pressure with its usual display of skillful soccer. The Americans struggled but eventually the Mexican onslaught subsided with no goals on the scoreboard. As soon as Mexico showed some vulnerability, the Americans pounced with the type of confidence you wouldn't have expected from a team so young.
Credit Bradley, who has instilled an air of confidence in his team by sticking to his own mandate of developing the national team's next generation of players. He treated the Mexico game the way it should have been treated, as an opportunity to expose the U.S. team's up-and-coming talent to a high-pressure match. He didn't fall into some trap of calling in veterans who don't have a realistic chance of being on the next World Cup team in 2010 in some desperate attempt to help his chances to be hired as head coach on a permanent basis. Instead, Bradley has acted as if the job is already his.
"I think Bob is taking it as if he's going to be here," Landon Donovan said. "In the long term it's not going to do us a whole lot of good bringing in some 34- or 35-year-olds for this game if they're not going to be here in 2010."
Even though it has been just two games, Wednesday's result raised the question that needs to be asked. What is Gulati waiting for? If he really had confidence in Bradley when he hired him on an interim basis, what more does he need to see in order to erase that interim label? If defeating a full-strength Mexico team in front of a pro-Mexico crowd -- with a shorthanded team fielding a decent number of U.S. newcomers -- isn't enough to convince Gulati, then nothing is.
There's just that pesky desire by Gulati to try to land the type of big-name coach he practically promised when he fired Bruce Arena. Gulati talked about wanting a coach with some international cachet, with a reputation as a winner, someone pretty much like Klinsmann and someone like Mexican coach Hugo Sanchez, the very man Bradley defeated on Wednesday.
That matchup may have been the most intriguing aspect of the U.S.-Mexico match. In one corner was Sanchez, a Mexican legend and former Real Madrid star whose reputation alone was enough to have every club he asked to release players comply without much resistance. In the other corner was Bradley, an interim coach relatively unknown to many of the clubs he had to approach about releasing U.S. national team players. Bradley dealt with the resistance he felt from clubs such as Manchester City and Newcastle, and instead of being selfish and demanding that players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu be released, he decided that it wasn't worth harming relationships with these clubs in order to win a friendly.
Why would a coach whose future is in so much doubt care whether U.S. Soccer's working relationships with European clubs remain intact? Why would Bradley jeopardize a match so important to his chances of being hired on a full-time basis? He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do and because it was what any coach without an interim label would have done.
So rather than spend pre-match interviews cultivating excuses by talking about what players he didn't have, Bradley stuck to talking about the players he did have. Even after he was surprised with the news that Mexico had in fact secured its strongest possible team, Bradley didn't waver. It was simply a chance for his team to test itself against a strong squad -- nothing more, nothing less.
Yes, it was just one game, but Bradley did everything possible Wednesday night to prove to Gulati that he is the man to lead the U.S. national team as it moves toward 2010. Gulati can keep having daydreams of European and South American coaches with bigger reputations, but he can no longer deny that Bradley is more than capable of doing the job just as well, if not better, than anyone Gulati might find this summer.
Gulati should probably thank Bradley, because Bradley didn't make Gulati's job tougher. He just made it much easier.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.