SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- When Sunil Gulati made the somewhat surprising decision to name Bob Bradley as the U.S. national team head coach almost three years ago, he hired Bradley believing he was the best man to help lead the United States through a period of transition and past the disappointments of the 2006 World Cup. Three years later, Gulati sounds like a man happy with his decision.
Bradley guided the U.S. to qualification for the 2010 World Cup, and did so amid criticism for everything from his lineup selections to the perception of some that he is too conservative a coach. On Saturday, Bradley once again showed a willingness to make decisions that might be unpopular to some, such as starting Conor Casey ahead of fan favorite Jozy Altidore on Saturday, and added yet another victory to a résumé that is far more impressive than he gets credit for.
"I'm sure somebody out there will criticize him because Conor didn't get a hat trick and Jozy might have or something," Gulati said sarcastically when asked about the criticism Bradley faces. "He's got the winningest percentage of any coach we've ever had, we've gotten to the final of a major FIFA competition, we've qualified and are top of the group. We've won the Gold Cup that was critical to us and have gotten to the final of the other one with a relatively young team. I'm not sure how much more we can ask."
What Bradley completed Saturday was the task of helping guide the U.S. team through a transition period after the retirement of a generation of longtime national team standouts and into a new generation. He has broadened the search for talent and increased the quality of opponents the U.S. team faces. He has also instilled confidence in a team that has grown as a group in 2009.
"Bob is one of the most prepared coaches I've ever met and been around," Landon Donovan said. "He makes sure we're never not ready for a game. It doesn't mean we always have our best days, but this game was a culmination of what Bob has been talking to us about for a long time.
"It came together a little bit in the Confederations Cup. We know that if we play this way, we have enough talented players to play with the big teams in the world."
That belief has been instilled by Bradley, who has built a team capable of beating a team like Spain, as well as winning in Honduras, something no team had done in World Cup qualifying before Saturday.
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"A lot of 'big-name' teams would struggle to come in places like this, and Costa Rica and obviously Mexico City, to get results," Gulati said. "So we've grinded some of those out. Winning here, when they've been 8-0 here is a pretty damn good result with how much this game meant to not just the team and the federation and the players, but the country."
Gulati believes that part of the criticism of Bradley he considers unfair stems from unrealistic expectations about the U.S. team.
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"We don't have a lot of players playing at Man U and Barcelona," Gulati said. "We're getting there. Those are some of the best clubs in the world, and it's not like we have a lot of players playing there, so for people's expectations to be that we're going to go out and play like that, or have a high-level performance every time, it's not the case."
What Bradley deserves credit for is looking at a wide variety of American players in his search for the best team possible, a process that has led to the inclusion of young national team standouts like Charlie Davies and Jonathan Spector, as well as the involvement of veterans such as Frankie Hejduk and Conor Casey, who were unpopular selections among some U.S. fans but provided vital performances in the U.S. team's World Cup qualifying process.
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"I think [Bradley] has the best players in America here," Howard said. "You can search high and low. Jermaine Jones may be coming, and that'd be great for us, but for the most part we've got the best players we can find. I think [Bradley] has done a good job of giving everyone a chance."
On Saturday, Bradley wasn't talking too much about his own accomplishments. He was busy celebrating his team's qualification for the 2010 World Cup, the latest in a series of accomplishments by Bradley that have reinforced Gulati's belief that three years ago he hired the right man for the job.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.