Bob Bradley led the U.S. men to an upset of World Cup champion Spain, their first appearance in a final at a major FIFA tournament and the top spot in their group in South Africa.
Now he has to find a way to improve on that.
Bradley’s success and experience convinced U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati that he already had the right coach, outweighing any concerns about the team going stale or taking a step backward in a second four-year cycle with the same manager.
"We’re familiar with the statistics of first- and second-cycle coaches," Gulati said Tuesday, a day after Bradley agreed to an extension that runs through the end of 2014. "In the end, we came to the conclusion that his experience and record, his work over the last four years, overcame any issues.
"We think we put ourselves in the best possible position to continue the growth we’ve had by reappointing Bob."
Still, Bradley’s extension came as something of a surprise. He has made no secret of his desire to coach overseas someday – he was linked to the openings at Fulham and Aston Villa in the English Premier League, though had no direct discussions with either team – and many thought U.S. Soccer might want a fresh start in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup.
National team coaches tend to have short shelf lives – with good reason. West Germany coach Franz Beckenbauer may have followed a trip to the 1986 finals with the World Cup title four years later, but most struggle to replicate their initial success. Defending champion Italy and 2006 runner-up France were dismal in South Africa, despite having the same coaches as four years earlier.
Bradley’s predecessor was Bruce Arena, who led the Americans on a surprising run to the quarterfinals in 2002 only to have them crash out in the first round four years later.
Gulati refused to say whether he had talked with any other candidates, including Juergen Klinsmann, who was offered the job four years ago.
"All the positives greatly outweigh the other concerns," Gulati said. "We think on balance we’ve made the best possible decision."
Unlike teams in Europe and Africa that already have begun playing qualifiers for their continental championships, the United States doesn’t have significant games until next year’s Gold Cup. The Americans do have exhibitions against Poland (Oct. 9) and Colombia (Oct. 12), however, and Bradley will use the games to begin looking at younger players who could help over the next four years.
"When you begin a cycle, you do an overall assessment. You take inventory of where you are as a team," Bradley said. "Most important is identifying players, beginning the process of bringing those players in. … I really believe strongly that our staff did an excellent job of that in the last cycle. We will try to do a better job in this next cycle."
As for avoiding that second-cycle slump, Bradley said the key is to constantly be aware of the environment he’s creating. Among his biggest strengths are his even-keel demeanor with players and willingness to be open-minded. He said Tuesday he has looked to longtime successful coaches like Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for ways to maintain a connection with players.
Krzyzewski, who led a star-studded roster to the basketball gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, told Bradley he made sure to connect with three players every day.
"If you don’t watch yourself, given your different responsibilities, you can so easily get out there and kind of be in your own little world. If you let that part get away from you, then your players see that quickly," Bradley said. "That is the challenge on the job. But that is the challenge whether you’ve been on the job four years or four days."
While Bradley said he is proud of the progress the Americans made in his first four years, he knows there is room for improvement. The Americans won their group in South Africa, finishing ahead of England, only to lose to Ghana in overtime in the second round. They’ve developed a troubling pattern of falling behind early, and they got no goals from their forwards at the World Cup. Their aging backline was also shaky, and will need to be rebuilt before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
And, despite that victory over Spain at the Confederations Cup last year, the U.S. still has a ways to go before it can be considered one of the world’s best.
"I’m not easily satisfied," Bradley said. "We feel good about what we’ve accomplished the last four years, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s all perfect. That’s what motivates us and our players, so we’ll continue to work at it."