There are two types of U.S. national team fans – those who don't like Bob Bradley and those who like him sometimes.
Saturday night's 3-2 road victory over Honduras provided Bradley with ultimate justification of his character and methodology, as his side ventured into hostile territory to produce the result that clinched a place in next year's World Cup.
The game was a microcosm of his existence since taking over for Bruce Arena following the 2006 World Cup, as Bradley tread that finest of lines between glory and failure for much of a tense night in San Pedro Sula.
The life of a national team head coach is one fraught with fluctuation, the ultimate hero-to-zero rollercoaster of emotion and favor. If it hadn't been for the roar of delight cascading down from the stands at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, you might have been able to hear the unmistakable sound of knives being plunged into Bradley's back the moment Julio Cesar De Leon opened the scoring for Honduras early in the second half.
It happens all too often. Every time the USA loses, or even looks like it‘s going to, the blame is laid squarely on Bradley. It’s a trend borne of soccer ignorance, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.
But it’s scandalous and wrong and desperately unfair.
Bradley has gone about his business amid conjecture and doubt, and he has never once wavered in the face of it. This is a man with a steely gaze and conviction to match. He panders to no one, not the media nor the public, despite having critics second guess like some participation sport.
Such resilience is often seen as stubbornness, and Bradley certainly has a streak of that in him. But the USA is lucky to have a man as stubborn as the former Chivas USA coach. Without him, qualification for South Africa may still be up in the air instead of happily locked away.
Much credit is due to Bradley for the way he has handled the entire qualifying campaign, amid the distractions of the Confederations Cup, Gold Cup and regular sniping at his ideas and tactics. Yet the kudos won't be sent his way in great volume anytime soon, and that's just the way it is. Perhaps a European coach like Jurgen Klinsmann would have been afforded more recognition if he had led the U.S. to this kind of success. Bradley isn't lauded that way and, thankfully, he doesn't seem to care too much.
When things go wrong, there is rarely another scapegoat. When they go right, the players normally claim the spoils and Bradley is happy to allow them to do so.
On this occasion, though, the victory was directly down to him.
Bradley chose Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey to start up front in Honduras, a decision derided as lunacy by many when the team sheets came out. However, Bradley saw what we didn't – that the big man had the physique and the temperament for this critical occasion, and that he would only get stronger as the night wore on.
Bradley saw how Casey could torment and trouble the Honduras backline. And he saw how, in this situation, Casey could link effectively with the outstanding Landon Donovan.
There are no guarantees that Casey is now his man, his first choice moving forward. While that may seem contrary to some, it’s a reflection of Bradley's methods.
He appreciates the fact that the USA has only a couple of truly elite players who demand inclusion in any situation. The rest are good, solid, strong and consistent performers with good all-round games and only subtle differences between them.
Instead of blindly sticking to one format, one formula and one lineup, Bradley inserts and removes players dependent on the scenario. He understands his squad as well as any international manager and realizes what makes each player tick. Just like Fabio Capello with England, Bradley works with his pieces to solve the final riddle.
Bradley has never sought to silence the doubters, but he has done so with his carefully crafted thoughts and actions. Can he lead the team to a glorious World Cup? Who knows? But we do know this: He’s absolutely the right man for the job.
- Bob Bradley