With seven points from three 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, USA are leading the pack in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone. The stars and stripes' dominance in the region of late is something coach Bob Bradley refuses to comment on, but his side's improvement overall, the strong blend of youth and experience and his high hopes for the upcoming FIFA Confederations Cup were all on the table in a recent exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: With three games gone, you're out in front of the pack in CONCACAF qualifying for South Africa 2010. How would you assess the team's performance so far?
Bob Bradley: Our team continues to improve. We understood going into the final round how competitive it would be. We know how tough the other teams in the group are. We made sure we were focussed on what was on the line. For the most part I think we've handled the challenges and the pressure laid down for us very well.
You had a scare down in El Salvador, rescuing a point late after going down 2-0. How important was it to see your squad grind it out the way they did?
It was hugely important, there's no question about it. We showed very good team spirit and mentality to fight back away from home and get two goals and come away with a point. After the game, we had a mixed sense of the situation, though. In one sense we knew we needed to work on a few things, but on the other hand we couldn't ignore the fact that we showed the kind of mental toughness we needed to have on a tough day.
It was a day when 35-year-old veteran Frankie Hejduk shined, setting up the first goal and scoring the equaliser.
Those are the kind of days when you need your old timers and their experience. When the chips are down you need to be able to count on the guys who are never going to give up, the ones who never say die. We have a few guys like that and Frankie is one that we can always rely on.
You have a good number of young players coming through, with Jozy Altidore recently hit a rich vein of scoring form. Can you comment on the blend of youth and experience in the side?
This is one of the areas where we're pretty satisfied as a team. We have a strong and complimentary blend of young and experienced players. We, as coaches, have challenged some of the guys that have been around for a while to take more responsibility and take up bigger roles in leading the team. We've also brought some younger guys in and we've seen them grow. It's nice to see some of the new guys move up a step and join the group that takes on more responsibility. The balance is always evolving in the team.
Up next you have two tough games in the space of three days, first in Costa Rica and then hosting in-form Honduras. How do you approach these two games in light of the tight schedule?
The double fixtures are a big challenge and added to that is the fact that our schedule needed to be changed to take into account the Confederations Cup. As a result, we will play a rested Honduras team who won't have played three days before. Anyway, the focus has to be the same as always. We need the get the details right for the first game, and that won't be easy because it's always tough to play in Costa Rica. The ability to get the players quickly recovered and make decisions about fitness of certain players is something we've handled pretty well in the past. After the first game we'll take a good, hard look and make the calls we need to make sure we're ready.
Right after that it's off the Confederations Cup, where you'll represent CONCACAF. How do you view the tournament?
It's a tremendous opportunity to play in South Africa before the World Cup and experience the conditions and see what the stadiums are like. We set winning the 2007 Gold Cup as a priority to make sure we would get the chance to be there. Also, we'll be playing against the top teams in the world and we'll challenge ourselves and assess where we are as a team that way.
You've been placed in a very tough group, facing off with Brazil, Italy and Egypt.
We've played a lot of top teams in the last few years and they always help us improve. This time, though, they aren't friendly games and you can't underestimate how much competition like that can mean.
With relatively few games compared to a tournament like the FIFA World Cup, do you see the Confederations cup as a realistic shot at an international trophy for the USA?
It's just like with any other kind of an event. We go in focussing on steps. First we look at the first game and the first round and try and figure on what we need to do to get past that first step, and then the next one and then hopefully with a little luck we'll still be there competing at the end.
Finally, there's always talk about who the best team in CONCACAF is: Mexico or the USA. You've started the stronger in qualifying - do you have an opinion on the debate?
Not really. We understand the responsibility we have to the country and the fans, but we'd prefer to leave it to others to talk and think about that kind of thing. We have to focus on improving as a team, and then we can let the results speak for themselves.