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How Bob Bradley explains soccer

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- There are times, when you sit and talk for more than hour with U.S. coach Bob Bradley, that you wonder if he's a sort of soccer version of Rain Man.

In our mind's eye, most of us can remember the images of big goals that have been scored in important games. But usually we only recall the spectacular finishes, not the entire sequences of small plays that led up to those strikes. Bradley does. Out of nowhere, four months after the fact, he can lead you through the little moments in last May's Champions League final that led up to Samuel Eto'o's game-changing goal against Manchester United.

It's in those little moments, those tiny details, that Bradley lives and works. I have no doubt that he can do the same thing on thousands of other goals, too. I have no doubt that when it comes to watching soccer Bradley has exceeded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule" many times over. Of course, there is far more to coaching than the photographic recall of goal sequences. And so, last Thursday in Park City, Utah, I sat down with Bradley to get a sense of how his soccer mind works.

If you're hoping that I jabbed a finger in his chest and put him on the defensive -- Why doesn't José Torres play more? Where's Freddy Adu? Why are you asking Landon Donovan to play defense? -- then you might come away disappointed. Or you might not. Those questions may come on another day, but I think Bradley's answers actually appear in the interview below when you hear him explain how he views the game, how he wants his teams to play and which priorities are important to him.

On the eve of Wednesday's important World Cup qualifier for the U.S. against Trinidad and Tobago (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Galavisión), I can tell you that I learned more about the specifics of Bradley's priorities, including:

Playing hard games matters. "As players move from one level to another, they have to grow," Bradley says. As you'll see below, there is a clear awareness on Bradley's part that what works in CONCACAF may not work against the world's best teams at the World Cup. That's why the U.S. has played tougher games outside of CONCACAF than in the previous World Cup cycle, whether they were friendlies (Spain, England, Argentina, etc.) or tournaments (Confederations Cup, Copa América). That's why you can be certain that the U.S.' last three games before the 2010 World Cup will be against harder teams than the '06 pre-World Cup friendlies (Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia).

Defense has to be a priority, even (and especially) for the world's best teams. Even if you have a ton of skill, Bradley says, the great teams do more when they lose the ball. If you ask Bradley to discuss his strategies for hard games -- as I do below for the U.S.' 2-0 upset of Spain and recent 2-1 loss to Mexico -- he will always begin by talking defense.

With Bradley, sometimes you have to connect the dots. If you spend much time at all covering Bradley, you realize that he doesn't like getting into many specifics on U.S. players. But you can learn a lot about how he approaches coaching the U.S. from listening to the way he talks about the teams, players and coaches he respects. I decided to present this interview as a lengthy Q&A because I think it gives you a window into the way Bradley thinks. You may not agree with everything Bradley does, but I do think you'll learn more about the man in charge of the U.S. national team.

SI.com: Where would you begin to explain how your world view of soccer works, how you view the game?

Bradley: Like most coaches, I follow the game around the world. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to coach on different levels. Those experiences help. The experience of coaching some really top players along the way is important, because your ability then to get across ideas and know that they've been at the top and make sure that the things you see in the game fit with things that they see in the game. Those are all important. I think like most coaches you have this combination of experiences, some of which come from your own work and then when you watch other teams in training, when you watch teams play, when you see what the game is like on the higher levels, you're constantly trying to move things further along. But it's the combination of all those experiences that get you to the point where now on the one hand you have your own ideas, but the game is always challenging you to stay fresh.

SI.com: Which teams, players and coaches over time have had the biggest influence on you? When I first met you back in the early 1990s, I recall the AC Milan teams of those years had a big influence.

Bradley: Those teams influenced a lot of people. It's like anything else: As you dig into how those teams came about, then you would read about how Arrigo Sacchi was a huge fan of the Liverpool teams in the '70s, the Liverpool teams that had very good players but really knew how to play as a team. So those were good teams. When you pay attention to soccer over the last how many years, you see someone like Sir Alex Ferguson and the way that his ideas, his way of putting teams together, has stood the test of time. Sacchi was so successful at Milan, then you see a guy like CarloAncelotti -- who worked with Sacchi in '94 as his assistant with the national team but eventually coached at Parma and some different places but ended up at Milan and kept some of the same ideas but tweaked things -- come up with using Andrea Pirlo in a role that up until that point was little bit unique. So you see the way teams play, you get a sense of how different managers run their teams.

SI.com: In what ways, specifically?

Bradley: Ancelotti, from the time he got to Milan, has been such a professional, steady presence in his teams. The expectations at Milan, with an owner like Silvio Berlusconi, with all the things that could go around, such a professionalism, such a calmness, it's no surprise now he's at Chelsea and already you hear players talking about the way things get done. That speaks for itself. I've been fortunate over the years to see Man. United train at different times, spend a little time with Sir Alex. And if you're ever at Man. United, everything that goes on inside that club, it has his personality stamped on everything. He's very bright. He's got a great way of being on top of everything.

There would be stories of guys he would ask ... I think it was Ryan Giggs in an interview said how Sir Alex had said, 'I heard you were out late the other night...' Just his overall sense of what was going on with all his guys, what was going on in Manchester, and Man. United has a very down-to-earth feel at the club. There's a cafeteria. You see them sitting in there, youth players, first-team players, that group of guys that have been there over the years, like GaryNeville, PaulScholes, Giggs. All these guys just in terms of the way they train, the way they carry themselves, and I think this all stems from just the overall way that Sir Alex has for understanding what's important, how to deal with people, when to be hard, when to joke. So that I think is why in the world of soccer it's such a special situation that somebody has been there that long and has had that much success.

I've seen José Mourinho work. He's a got a great way with his team. His teams seem to have a real team spirit. They compete, but he's got a good feel for dealing with different kinds of players, getting the most out of guys. You always get a sense that the guys that have played for him along the way appreciated what it was like to play for him. So that's important. You put all these things together, you combine them with your own experiences. When you've coached players like Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Hristo Stoitchkov and YouriDjorkaeff, and now on top of it, players that have strong ideas. I think it's always been something that you appreciate. Within the teams that I've worked with, I always appreciate people who come in and aren't afraid to say what they're thinking and have ideas. And then that challenge you and you challenge them. That type of working environment, I think, is pretty important.

SI.com: How much soccer do you watch?

Bradley: A lot. It's hard to put into hours and stuff.

SI.com: Obviously, I assume you watch the U.S. players. But when you watch other teams and not just the U.S. players, who do you watch?

Bradley: I watch all around the world. I enjoy the big events when they come around. I think anybody who's a fan of soccer looks at Champions League, the way the Premiership is covered and presented. That makes watching all those games great. When you have U.S. players that are in the Premiership, it gives it an extra bit. If you look at where we've had guys play, you try to follow all the different leagues. When you're involved in U.S. Soccer, it's important to know what's going on in CONCACAF.

There are always going to be also just teams in all countries. If you've been to Argentina and had any chance to see what goes on at Boca Juniors, when they're on they're fun to watch, just the pure passion that Boca teams have. When you go to England, in recent years, Man. United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, we see how well they do in Champions League. The quality of the players on those teams, they've done really well to now be teams that have talented players, big players who work hard but also have a lot of skill. I think the package of everything in the best teams in England in recent years has come through by the results in Champions League.

When you watch a team like Barcelona, now you see a team that a lot of people say it's great when they win because they play the right way. And there's a lot of truth in that, because they are able to control the game with their pure technical ability, their ability as a team to move the ball quickly, efficiently, to have players at the right moments who are dynamic, who can go by people. And then you see a first-year coach like Pep Guardiola, who then with all those things that have been there, really emphasizes that if they're going to be a great team, they have to have the ability to do more when they lose the ball. And now he has such an ability in his first go-around as a coach to keep the technical aspect of their game, but to make sure they understand that if they're really going to be a great team they have to do more when they lose the ball.

So it's in all these ways that you watch and you see how all the little things go together. Even with all those great players he wasn't of the opinion that now they could just say, 'We're better than everybody with the ball,' and that by itself is going to win us championships.

So you find a way to push the players to understand that great teams also play like this when they lose the ball. And I think it's in all of that that when I say that you keep learning from the game, the two sides always challenge each other. You want to get really good with the ball, but as you get good with the ball you know that one day somebody is going to be able to make it harder so that they can pressure you better than you can play the ball, then eventually you try to play the ball better than they can press you, and it's in all of that that the game keeps going to a higher level. That's true in any team.

I think on a very simple level for all coaches, in any situation, if you have better players, if you just go out and say, 'We have better players, we're going to let 'em all play,' that's a great thing when you get results. But then there may be a day where all of a sudden you play against a team or in a league where you're no longer the best team. And if you don't learn from those games, if you just think, 'We're going to stick to what we've been doing up until now,' then chances are, you'll hit the wall. I think this applies in all sports. Sometimes even with our teams, I use basketball as a way of understanding this. You'll have a team in the NBA that's never made the playoffs, and now they'll get some better players and all of a sudden now, they'll have a year where throughout the year they're a little bit better, and suddenly they're a playoff team. There's a certain amount of growth to get to that point. Now you get in the playoffs and you find out that, OK, the things that got us to this point, that's no longer good enough to survive.

So usually there's a point where the players learn the hard way, and they get knocked out, and they've had a taste of harder games. And they realize that if we're going to play at that level we've got to raise the bar. Then ultimately you get to a point -- the Celtics team of two years ago was one that I would use as a good example. Because now you had some guys like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and you got the sense they had all done a lot of individual things in their careers, but now they had gotten to the point where they understood to win in the playoffs this is what it's going to take. And it wasn't just each one doing what they wanted to do, it wasn't just each one saying, 'I want 20 shots a game.' It was now this more collective sense of, 'How can we make it hard for the other team and how when we get in the hardest games will we play?'

So you're trying to take all of that and now apply it with the teams that you coach. If you're a college team and you're the best team in college, then you may at first have the challenge: You're trying to get your team to understand that the things that we're doing in 16 of our games won't get us through in the other five or six games. And now then you may get a team that's good enough in those five or six games so they're at the top of the heap of NCAA soccer or NCAA basketball or whatever. If that team was then promoted and now got put to the test somewhere higher on the ladder -- if UNC basketball wins the NCAA championship but the next year the whole team is playing in the NBA -- then the same formula, the same things wouldn't be enough anymore.

So this is the process that goes on at every level. This is where you try to help players understand that, because as players move from one level to another, they have to grow, they have to take the things they're good at and move them up the ladder. They have to sometimes be able to have a picture of what kind of players they're going to be in this kind of situation. So you're doing that with your players, trying to help them understand that. You're doing that with teams, and you're hoping over time that these are the things that you move along.

SI.com: The obvious comparison to make with what you're doing here is you've got different levels of what this team is doing in World Cup qualifying and then, if you qualify, at the World Cup.

Bradley: Yeah. So in '07, as we were growing as a team, we won the Gold Cup. The team as a whole played well moving through the Gold Cup, winning against Mexico in the final. And now a month or so later we played Sweden in Sweden. And Sweden has a lot of talent. So now there's a moment where all of a sudden you sense there's a little bit of, 'What's happening here? Why did we not do this?' Some questions arise. And the most important point in that moment is for them to understand that, look, we had a certain level of success in the Gold Cup, and now all that's happened is we've come here on this day and guess what?

If you're a central defender and now throughout the Gold Cup on the plays that come into your part of the field you're dealing with some good strikers, but none of them are Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So now, maybe in the Gold Cup a player like CarlosBocanegra, in the plays that come into his part of the field, is coming away winning almost every battle. And now we play against Sweden, and on the same kind of plays the percentage of winning those battles is lower.

And that's happening in a lot of spots around the field. There has to be a sense that in that moment it doesn't mean you're back to square one, doesn't mean you're back to the drawing board. There has to be a sense that, 'OK, we were able to do that at this level, now we get a taste, how quickly can we do the same things that we were doing in the Gold Cup? How quickly can we do them here?' So you're trying to move that along, knowing there's always a package of all these different things that on a given day in terms of the technical side, how are you doing? In terms of the competing side, the mentality, the tactical side, how are you putting all these things together knowing that on the highest level they're all important?

You don't typically succeed on the highest levels just because you're good in one of those areas. And that is how teams grow. It obviously is very helpful when it corresponds with players being challenged and growing in their club situations, so that when they come into the national team, they have experienced some of those things both individually and as part of a team on the club level.

So when you talk about coaching the national team in the United States, it's all of those things that you're trying to put your arms around. And it's not like you look at one part one day and forget about the other parts. You're trying to put your arms around all of them so that as many guys as possible can see the whole picture.

SI.com: I wanted to ask you to take two previous games and get into how you prepared a strategy for those games that you decided on. I wanted to pick the Spain game from the Confederations Cup (a 2-0 U.S. victory) and the most recent Mexico game in Estadio Azteca (a 2-1 U.S. loss). Could we talk about leading up to those games what was going through your head in preparing a strategy for your team, and how that worked out?

Bradley: So we played Spain in '08 in Santander. It was their last friendly before the Euros. And when we were preparing for that game, I showed our players the video from the same day that we played Poland, two months before the U.S.-Spain game, Spain played Italy. So here's a team like Italy, the defending World Cup champions, they're playing Spain and, on that day, Italy has to defend a lot because Spain is so good with the ball that there are periods in that game where now Italy has to stay as a unit, work hard, but the bar in terms of which team has the ball is tilted for sure for Spain. That is also something that has been very obvious at times in Champions League, especially when teams play Barcelona. And so there are a few things that you are hoping for.

You always want to give your team a picture of what the game might look like. So in that regard, in many of the games Spain had played, they have possession for anywhere from 55 to, who knows, 70 percent of the time. That happened throughout the entire European Championship. And quite honestly, when even our players saw some of the games where Spain played the Netherlands, Spain played Russia, Spain played Germany in the final, I think our guys realized we played pretty well in Santander [a 1-0 Spain victory]. So as you prepare for them again, you have that experience. And then you know their players and you know their team. So what you're trying to do is to find a way that now gives your team a sense that when Spain has the ball what their movements are like, which guys are most important.

Xavi is a key. Xavi is not a guy that any team could ever really mark with one player. We don't typically mark with one man, because in modern soccer, you see a guy like Xavi and he's moving all over the place. He's always available and he's getting the ball. So the number of times in every game when he receives the ball and passes the ball, the numbers are almost higher than any other player. If you went back to the statistics in '08 you would see he's completing 80, 90, 100 passes in almost every game.

So now you prepare that as they move around your sense of now how to stay tight as a unit, obviously with a guy like Xavi what you're trying to do is to see if you can make it more difficult for him to play the ball forward, make him play more balls square, more balls backwards, not allow him to receive the balls in the most dangerous areas where his penetrating passes are going to cause you trouble. So that's a big thought. You try to make sure there's a sense, to use an example, of the movement of a guy like Fernando Torres, who's very clever moving along the line. And so you try to have a picture of how they play and how you will move as a team and trying to deal with certain things.

Then you try to make sure that when we have the ball that we are going to also play quickly, try to make it so that if Spain -- like Barcelona, at times -- wants to pressure right away, then can you play out of that first pressure? Can you make them defend a little bit more? And then what kind of situations can you create? So you try to do all that. On the day against Spain, it's a great team, but our overall ability to do some of those things was good. We took advantage of some of the situations we created.

We felt that in the right situations athletically, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore could cause them some trouble. Landon is an athletic player, quick, his speed in the right moments is a threat to even the best teams in the world. Clint Dempsey has shown that he can still make attacking plays against good teams. So you have a balance, you understand what the game is going to be like, you understand their strengths and then you make sure everybody understands that to win a game like that you need a lot of our guys to have good games. That's one of the most basic things. To beat a good team you need six, seven, eight guys to play really well. That's always part of it.

SI.com: So let's take the game against Mexico at the Azteca last month.

Bradley: You try to find a balance because at Azteca when you consider everything, it's still likely that they're going to certainly, at times, have the ball. And so your ability to understand how important it is to stay tight as a group, your ability then when you get the ball to make sure that you're threatening them, you're causing them trouble, making them defend.

In any game when you score, then in that moment the game will typically change. So when we took the lead against Mexico in Azteca, when it's a very important game for them, with the crowd, with the altitude, with the need for them to win, there's going to be a real push at that point. The urgency that they're going to have in their game, you're going to feel that right away. I think we had a good start to the game, we got a goal, and now they start pushing at us.

In that moment, you can't get stretched out all over the place. In that moment, you have to understand that the one thing going in when you only have a short amount of time to deal with the altitude and you go in late -- I think our players who had been there before said that's the best they had felt -- but nonetheless, the one area that you feel it a little bit is just when you make a hard run, then how quickly do you recover before you make another hard run? There are going to be periods in that game where now they have the ball and you have to be able to defend.

In any of these games, you always try to prepare a team to understand what the game will be like. You don't want to paint it black and white. On the one hand, when we have the ball, it's always the challenge to move well enough, to pass well enough, so that now we're a threat. And then when you lose the ball, it's the challenge to defend, to win it back as quickly as you can, and if it's deeper make sure now that everybody understands for this part of the game we've got to defend as a team.

Going back to using Barcelona as an example, they understood that to be a really great team that it was also going to take efforts when they lost the ball. This is true at all the different levels. At the end when you look at the game against Mexico, we got into the second half, we made two changes [bringing on Altidore and Stuart Holden]. I think having some fresh energy meant that now there were some opportunities for us. So down the stretch of that game, there's a feeling within our team that maybe there's the chance for us to still win this game.

But at the same time, if we stick to what we've done well, they're not getting many opportunities, so there's a real chance if nothing else to take a point. We had a few moments that didn't quite pan out attacking-wise, and now at the end of it, as is the case in most games, the combination of them seeing an opening, us as a team not reacting well, these are the moments that you get determined on.

You go to the Champions League final last year and you have a team like Man. United, and in the first five, six, seven minutes of the game they get four or five shots. And now there's one moment in the game, and it just starts off a ball that got hit by Edwin van der Sar up the field, it's headed back, and now it comes to MichaelCarrick. If I remember right, Carrick tried to head it down for somebody. He could have headed it back up the field, but when he headed it down it went to Andrés Iniesta. Then there's a series of slow reactions: Carrick, Anderson, and now, all of the sudden, Iniesta is still dribbling and Eto'o cuts inside of NemanjaVidic.

This is what happens in soccer at all levels, where you can have a great game plan, you can have your team very tactically prepared for what's going to happen, but then it can be five to 10 seconds where all of the sudden, you have one, two or three reactions, or on the flip-side, a player gets a little bit of an opening and then there's a quick reaction by the next player and how they're able to capitalize on something. And then that will change the game quickly.

So once that happened, the ability for Man. United on the day to respond to that, both mentally and physically, in terms of playing against a team that's so good with the ball. And now as the day wore on, even great competitors like Wayne Rooney on that day looked like they had given up. No one has more respect for Rooney in terms of how he plays every game than me. But that was a result on that day when that play happened, Barcelona got the lead. That's the part of it being a combination of all these different things.

So we were disappointed after the Mexico game because knowing what the game was going to be like, we still felt that we had given ourselves a real chance, and there's a period when we thought, 'OK, we can still get the second goal, and even if we don't, then we're not going to give one up.' And all it took was a quick little succession of plays, and now you're down. So it's a disappointment.

SI.com: Are there any trends in the game today around the world that you're seeing?

Bradley: Certainly the athleticism. The speed of the game, the constant ability now for players to be able to execute plays, think, concentrate in games where physically it's just going faster from start to finish. And once again, I think that probably fits in with what we see in other sports. So why is it that when you watch Björn Borg play John McEnroe, you don't think they're playing the same game as when you watch Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal? So that ability physically in these games, and yet this is what makes Barcelona such a great example, is that with all that going on, now they're still able to play such a high level of soccer. But don't mistake it. It still includes all the ability to physically compete as well.

SI.com: I was going to ask if all this athleticism is actually good for the game of soccer. But even though tennis has had all these advances in athleticism and equipment, people still think Federer and Nadal are good for the game. It seems like you could say the same thing about Barcelona.

Bradley: Yeah, 100 percent. Barcelona, United, Chelsea, it doesn't matter. When you see teams that now have everything, when they have great players, when they play as a team, when they impose their style on the other team, when they're good with the ball but make it very hard for the other team when they don't have the ball, this is what sets the standard. That's what makes the moments when certain teams come up against each other special. What wins out on the day? Does Barcelona's technical ability and skill win? Or does Chelsea with the power of Didier Drogba and now the ability as a team to make it hard for Barcelona, does that win? It was up for grabs [in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal] until a late goal by Iniesta.

So with everything that has happened, it was still in that moment a ball that was a Dani Alves, cross if I remember right. Michael Essien, who played a really good game, just didn't clear very well, and Iniesta nailed one in the corner. And so again, with everything that we look at, it still does come down to these moments in the game, these plays, an individual making a special play at a moment when it really counts, a team that doesn't give up. You never know what will hold up or what will win out. I think that's what makes it exciting. That pits all the different aspects of the game together all the time.

Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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