The fabulous Bradley boys
Once Bruce Arena's near decade in the USA's top job ended following last summer's disappointing campaign in Germany, the powers that be in the US Soccer Federation took their time announcing a successor.
"We want a big name, someone with a track record of proven success at the highest levels of the world game," FA President Sunil Gulati told FIFA.com last October as names like Jurgen Klinsmann, Jose Pekerman and Guus Hiddink tumbled from the rumour mill.
Finally after four months with no national team coach, the name came. It wasn't Klinsmann or any other globally recognisable big name boss. Instead it was Bob Bradley and his title was a temporary one, decidedly interim.
But with a foot in the collegiate program, the Olympic system and with a proven track record as a two-time Coach of the Year in MLS, the former Chicago Fire, MetroStars and Chivas USA coach wasted no time making the position his own. His results, in the end, made federation officials' decision for them.
So it was that, after five months and 11 games unbeaten, US Soccer gave up on their fruitless hunt and rewarded Bradley with a full-time post.
With history in the country's youth system and an easy rapport with many of the younger players, Bradley has not missed a beat at a tricky time for the program. Following the sacking of his old mentor Arena - to whom Bradley acted as assistant at the University of Virginia - and the international retirements of such tried and trusted stalwarts as Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope, the national team is in serious transition.
Bradley's competitive baptism by fire finally came at the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer. A poor performance may have brought the knives out and revived talk of securing the services of a bigger name. However, undaunted by the task, Bradley - a straight-talking and thoughtful man manager - led the side to a perfect run of six wins and a landmark victory over a full-strength Mexico in a pulsating classic final at his old stomping grounds in Chicago.
"I know a lot of the young players coming up personally through my time with the youth program and also in MLS," Bradley told FIFA.com before the Gold Cup. "One of the main things I'll need to do is make sure they know what it means to play for the USA, make sure they respect the shirt."
Bradley's Gold Cup side not only wore the shirt proudly, but
the youth-infused unit with an average age of just 23, gelled in a
remarkable way. Alongside such current and former youth stars at
Benny Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Michael
Parkhurst, one youngster that stood out especially with his
ferocious ball-winning in midfield was one Michael Bradley, none
other than son of head coach Bob.
Having grown up around the game, tagging along on the team coach on road trips when his father was managing Princeton University or sitting on the sidelines when Bradley Snr was in charge of Chicago Fire, the midfielder has a strong background. Powerful, fearless and ambitious, the youngster's dominance in midfield certainly belies his mere 19 years.
Not just the coach's son
Although he was sent off in the Gold Cup semi-final, a tense 2-1 win over Canada, the 19-year-old had a storming campaign in what was his first competitive taste at senior level.
He then missed out on the ill-fated Copa America adventure that saw a wildly experimental US lose three straight matches in Venezuala, heading instead for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. "He's become a star in the space of a few weeks," said U-20 US coach Thomas Rongen of the midfielder, whos is now appearing for Dutch side Heerenveen after two years in MLS. "He's a player who understood all the tactical aspects of the game very quickly, but he's retained an exceptional capacity to sacrifice himself for the team. He's a player who's always been mature for his age."
Bradley's maturity isn't up for debate, but he managed to tap into an unknown scoring prowess in last week's friendly win over Switzerland in Basel. In a team crawling with youth players like Danny Szetela, Freddy Adu and Sal Zizzo - all in Canada for the U-20s - Bradley popped up in the 86th minute to bundle home the game's only goal, end a minor results slide for the team and earn the US their first-ever win over the Swiss and a victory on European soil.
True to form, though, the coach's son is not taking too much time to pat himself on the back after his first senior goal. "It wasn't the prettiest one," he laughed. "I think there are a lot of positive signs for this team though. We know that we have to keep working. We have one more friendly against South Africa in '07, so we'll go there and look to take another step forward and get ready for qualifying next year."
As the echoes of Arena and the previous generation fade out, both Bradley boys look like being a big part of the next chapter of US football, which starts with South Africa 2010 as the primary target.