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U.S. coach committed to playing it safe

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

CARSON, Calif. – Abraham Lincoln's old maxim about the future "coming one day at a time" doesn't hold true for Bob Bradley and the United States men's national team.

Because of the unique nature of World Cup qualifying – and the way that tournament intrinsically shapes the perceived success of any U.S. coach and era – 2009 will represent both the present and future for Bradley and his players.

Qualification from the final stage of the CONCACAF tournament is nothing less than a must. At the same time, though, the Americans need to keep an eye on South Africa 2010.

Bradley's methods are not to the universal liking of U.S. soccer fans, with a sizeable portion of the fan base lamenting a tactical approach that is often seen as overly defensive. While that ethos of organization should be more than enough to negotiate a comfortable path through qualifying and clinch one of CONCACAF's three guaranteed spots in South Africa, public confidence in the team's ability to make an impact against the world's best in 2010 is low.

Bradley is a principled man and not one to be shifted from his core values. The cries for greater roles for youngsters Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu can reach ear-bursting proportions, but neither player is likely to be considered for major playing time while they remain in such limited roles for their European club teams.

"With younger players you always have a decision to make," Bradley said. "Are they ready to come in and start? Where do they fit in? Are they reserves? That is difficult all by itself.

"And whenever you have any of your players who are not playing regularly, we are faced with the task of whether or not we feel that player can still come into a camp in the right kind of form and the right mentality and help the team.

"Those are one-by-one case decisions. You can't have a hard and fast rule on that. But we continue to impress on all our players that the day-to-day part of their jobs, the ability to win playing time and win the respect of their teammates, is important in their careers."

Stability may not be sexy, but it is the cornerstone of what Bradley has built this team around since replacing Bruce Arena in 2006. Although he won't shout it from the rooftops, there is a growing sense that the squad is molding into something he would be happy to take to South Africa with confidence and optimism.

"We still view the development as a whole," Bradley said. "The idea that we are harder to fight against, the idea that we will improve in terms of creating chances, that pleases me. We can move the ball faster and keep it better.

"We are growing as a team and our mentality is getting stronger. Tactically, the players have a good understanding of how we want to play in order to be successful, so we will continue to build on all those things.

"I think we are on schedule."

The schedule is about to get a bit more interesting. A friendly against Sweden featuring mainly home-based players on Saturday won't have a big impact on how the year pans out, but the next game – the first hexagonal qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio – almost certainly will.

Thoughts of that emotive occasion on February 11 already bring traces of a smile to Bradley's face. Victory over the Mexicans would be a perfect way to build momentum for the campaign while dealing a blow to the U.S.'s rivals from south of the border.

"It is the biggest rivalry in CONCACAF and the biggest games," Bradley said. "We want to beat everyone, but it is clear that these matches have a special feeling about them."

A big start against Mexico could pave the way for a special year for Bradley and the U.S. Yet the next 12 months won't decide his legacy to this job. The months of June and July next year in South Africa will.

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