It would seem to many that the hardest part is now done. Two games into his tenure with the national team, Bob Bradley is completing what he terms the hardest part of his job, a job he hopes to make permanent.
"It is tricky with the national team; the biggest challenge is right now, the time when we as a team are not together," Bradley said about the scheduling challenges with the national team. "Earlier this year in camp is the same as with a club team, with players who've been off a bit ... the work is to get them fit, to get them to play a match quickly. The work in this month [with the national team] has been very similar. Down the road, with the national team when you're apart, that is when it is different."
For the players, it was a different and new perspective from Bruce Arena, who guided the team the past eight years.
"Camp with Bob was a positive experience for me as a player in particular," said Chris Rolfe, the Chicago Fire forward who started the first two games of the Bradley era but withdrew from the Ecuador training camp with a knee injury. "[Bradley] forced me to open my mind to new styles and strategies and helped me to get my feet wet in a new position. In the short time we spent together, one of the things that I noticed the most was that he was extremely dedicated to his task and that he was completely focused on implementing his style and ideas to our group of players."
It is a delicate balancing act for Bradley. While the tag of "interim" still very much remains on his job title, the man charged with preparing the national team for its most crucial summer in nearly a decade has not wavered in his convictions for this team long-term.
"I think Piotr [Nowak] and I are in total agreement that we're going to make decisions for the program as we go forward," said Bradley on his goals from the first camp. "We believe in our work. We understand the importance in the beginning of the World Cup cycle of establishing the right foundation on how we're going to do things. We're both confident on how to go about things."
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Ecuador,
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
12 p.m. ET, ESPN2
U.S. vs. Guatemala,
Bradley started off with a small core leftover from Arena's tenure and pointed to two players who embodied the essence of what he is seeking in his team as the squad gears up for a busy summer: Jimmy Conrad and Pablo Mastroeni (also out against Ecuador with injury). These two players, both of whom performed in the last World Cup, are "veterans who I thought set great examples in camp," Bradley said. "In terms of work ethic every day, their attitude toward doing things is right. Obviously, I think you saw Jimmy was captain in the first game versus Denmark, and Pablo against Mexico." Bradley stops for a moment, then continues, "Players across the board had great respect for how these two set the tone."
Despite the positives from his first two games, Bradley found time to cast a critical eye, with an eye toward this camp. "Technically, our ability to play a little faster and execute a little better, especially in tight situations, needs to improve from January," he said. Citing the first half versus Mexico, Bradley noted that "if we see things better, execute a little faster ... we could be much, much sharper in the final third of the field. We need to work on this."
Delving into specifics is not the norm for Bradley, oft-criticized by fans and the media for his privacy and tight-lipped approach about his team. "The thing for me is that I constantly talk about the work that goes in on the 'inside,' the trust," he remarked. "I feel strongly that when things on the inside need to be said, they're dealt with directly. Those things need to be kept on the inside."
It is a change from the man whom Bradley replaced. Arena was sometimes notoriously free in providing information and comments to the media about players, morale and tactics. "Sometimes, fans want to know more," Bradley acknowledged. "You can easily say, 'This is good to let them hear,' but if you feel that ... it's not the best way to get messages across, even if it is for the fans, sometimes you keep it on the inside."
Differences in persona aside, the players noticed some subtleties between Arena and Bradley.
"The 2006 camp seemed to give players more freedom to interact with each other in natural situations," Rolfe said. "In 2007, our interaction was more synthetic because we were eating the same meals in the same rooms three times a day. Both approaches integrated team building, and I'm sure that some players favored one or the other. On the field, both had their objectives, although their approaches may have been somewhat different at times, they both seemed focused on the big picture."
"To be honest, the January camp was the most difficult month of soccer I've ever endured in my career, and this includes preseason college days," said goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "Bob was very clear in what he was trying to accomplish. The demands were not only physical, but very mental, as well. To be honest, I respected this approach, and with the big picture in mind, I felt most of the players came around to see this as a positive first step."
"Most of us were reserved during the beginning of camp," said Rolfe on the first couple days under the new coach. "Soon, everyone got to know each other, and Bob began to unfold his plans for us. From that point on, I think most everyone loosened up and people were excited about what we were becoming a part of."
For Watford defender Jay Demerit, it is a chance to impress in his first call-up to the national team. "First off, I'm just excited to see the sun down in Florida," said Demerit, referencing the notoriously overcast English weather. "I'm just happy to get involved and ready to start trying to make the best of this new challenge. Bob seems like a good guy, and I knew of him when I was in Chicago [when Demerit was a part of the reserves] so I am looking forward to working with him."
The eagerness to play for Bradley is a sentiment that is not shared by Demerit alone. Cannon, for one, is a believer in the interim coach: "His resumé speaks for itself, and I felt the entire group had no problem respecting him. Hopefully, it's the first step of many great ones for this new team."
Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.