The American manager dishes on his time in Norway, the state of U.S. Soccer, and his roots coaching at Ohio University
In 1981, Bob Bradley was 22 years-old and the newly appointed head coach of Ohio University’s men soccer team. There, a young Bradley took classes in the school’s sports administration program and coached players who in some cases were older than he was. That first coaching job jumpstarted Bradley’s managerial career, taking him to posts with MLS clubs, the U.S. and Egyptian national teams, and currently with Norwegian club Stabæk Fotball. Predicted to be relegation fodder, Bradley’s Stabaek have surprised Norwegian pundits and sit near the top of the Tippeligaen table.
Eight by Eight’s Charlie Hatch caught up with the well-traveled American manager to discuss his unexpected success in Norway, the state of MLS and U.S. Soccer, and his old-stomping grounds, Ohio University.
Starting with the Tippeligaen, you’re almost two-thirds of the way through the season. What is your overall impression with the side so far?
Our team has once again surprised everybody. So last year when I got here, the team had just gone up from the second league and all the experts said we would go down. But we finished mid-table last year and surprised everyone by reaching the semifinal of the [Norweigan] cup.
From the second half of last season to the start of this season, we lost a lot of players. So again, experts said that we would go down. But late in the transfer window we added a couple good players and it gave our team a whole different feel. We’re faster and we’re more athletic. It allows us to press a little bit more and push up higher on the field, and I think people enjoy watching us play.
Thinking of the wide range of teams you’ve coached, how do you approach a new job, with respect to style and philosophy? Do you always implement a certain plan, or do you step back and see what’s best for the side you’re with?
Yeah, it’s both, but the second part of what you’ve said is very important. When I get into a situation, I usually tell the players right from the start that I didn’t come here with all the answers.
I came here to get to know you, to work with you, to try to make you better and for all of us to try to figure out how to build a good team. I always have my standards and my ideas of how things should be done, and how you train and what being a team is all about. But it’s gotta fit that group.
So on one hand, I’m getting to know them; they’re getting to know me. But on the other hand I’m drawing upon all my experiences to have an idea or a vision of what our team can look like.
Looking back at where your coaching philosophy began to take shape, you graduated from Princeton (where you played), and then took a job at 22-years-old at Ohio University (where I attend)…
So I actually had one year where I was working and trying to play professionally. And then I came out to Ohio University in the summer of ‘81. I was there for one season and it was a great experience for me. I had guys on that team that were older than I was. OU also has a good international population, so we drew some international students. I had an Algerian grad student who had played and was my assistant coach. Going right from my playing experience, to working out my ideas on how to run training and what a good training session was all about, it was a chance to try everything. At a young age you sort of test yourself.
When you were taking those classes at Ohio University, did you ever think you’d end up being the first American to coach in the European top flight or that Four Four Two would rank you as one of the top 25 managers in the world?
Obviously that was my first year coaching and so I had a long ways to go. Like any young coach, I knew that I had found what I wanted to do, and so then at that point, coaching is a craft and you dig your way into it and you work at it and you look for every way possible to improve. I probably had big ideas and big dreams, but at that time the NASL was on its last legs. For many young coaches in the United States the idea was to be a college coach, so I spent two years at the University of Virginia with Bruce Arena. He and I became great friends. Then I was at Princeton for 12 years.
Altogether that was 15 years in college soccer. At the end of those 15 years when MLS was starting I needed new challenges. I had travelled more. I had spent more time in Europe. I had seen big teams train.
Clearly soccer has changed in this country from when you first started coaching. In terms of college soccer, do you see it as benefiting the game here?
100 percent, yes! If you take all of the young men and women that have a chance to play college soccer in the United States, very few are headed to professional soccer. Or some are but aren’t ready to go straight out of high school, so the opportunity to play soccer in college is special.
On that that point, here there are arguments between paying to play. Do you think the U.S. lags by developing those who can afford to play at the expense of others who can’t economically?
It’s improved but it’s still an issue. Some of the bigger youth clubs have found ways, through scholarship programs or fundraising to make sure that kids who can’t afford their program can have a place. But there’s certainly more work to do to make sure that all kids in the U.S. have opportunities. For soccer to really get to the level that we want, it’s gotta be a sport for everyone.
As someone who manages in a league with promotion/relegation, can you realistically see it coming here? Is it necessary?
In Europe, where the leagues are so well established, promotion and relegation is a big part of the system. When it’s a part of the system it works great…and it would be great if it were a part of our system in the U.S., but you have to step back. You have to have respect for that group of owners who stood up after the World Cup in 1994 and helped get Major League Soccer off the ground. And when you consider what they contributed, it probably won’t work its way into soccer in the United States anytime soon. Ultimately we need to respect the investors that have managed to get Major League Soccer to this point.
Taking a look at the mens national team, people are upset with the fourth place finish at the Gold Cup. Now that you’re removed a little bit, how would you evaluate U.S. soccer’s international presence?
Yeah, the one thing I’m not gonna do is get into much on the national team. From the moment that I got fired, I showed respect to the people who came in next. Of course I want to see the team do well, and as a result, I made sure I didn’t comment in ways that would get in the way. That’s respect. I’m not sure it’s always been done that way, but that’s how I chose to do it.
The game continues to grow in the U.S., men’s and women’s. But, on the men’s side, to get to the top tier consistently, this is a major challenge all around the world for most federations. There’s normally five or six teams in the top tier…And then at different points there are a host of countries in that second tier trying to get into that top tier. I think we occasionally compete at the top level (like the 2009 Confederations Cup), but that doesn’t mean we’re in the top tier. The challenge is to see if we can compete there more often, but also get there and stay there.