Wednesday May 16th, 2007

One hundred and sixty days.

That's how long it has been since U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati hung the "interim" albatross around the neck of Bob Bradley, a man who deserved better.

And so we have 160 reasons to believe that Bradley wasn't even Gulati's second choice (or his third? his fourth?) to become the new U.S. men's national team coach. One hundred and sixty reasons to doubt that Bradley will ever have the full support of his boss -- the one thing he really needs from him to succeed -- after finally shedding the "interim" tag on Wednesday, 160 days too late.

Let's be clear: Bradley is the right man for the job, and he has been ever since Jürgen (the Titanic Teutonic Tease) Klinsmann left the USSF at the altar last December.

Bradley has more wins than any coach in MLS history, he knows the American player inside and out, and he has been equally adept at developing young talent (DaMarcus Beasley, Jonathan Bornstein), coaxing consistency out of mercurial domestic stalwarts (Landon Donovan, Ante Razov) and earning the locker-room respect of veteran international stars (Hristo Stoichkov, Peter Nowak).

(For his part, Nowak believes in Bradley so much that he gave up MLS' best head-coaching job at D.C. United to become his assistant with the national team.)

Just in case that wasn't enough, Bradley succeeded as the interim coach even after Gulati had set him up to fail. As I've pointed out before, the first year of a four-year cycle leading to the 2010 World Cup should be more about developing young players and less about results on the field. Yet Bradley had to win -- and win fast -- to lose the "interim" tag.

And even that might not have been enough. After all, Gulati's decision to wait until May (i.e., the end of the European club season) to name a coach clearly showed that he had his eye on one or more potential replacements with bigger names than Bradley (like, say, Manchester United's Carlos Queiroz or Lyon's Gérard Houllier).

Remarkably, Bradley thrived despite the barriers thrown in his way, using a young lineup to beat a far more experienced Mexico team 2-0 in February and following that with a 3-1 win over a solid Ecuador side. He never once complained about his shabby treatment by the USSF, and his record as the interim coach was an encouraging 3-0-1. Granted, these were friendlies and hardly World Cup-level games, but what else could Bradley have done to show he's capable?

If Bradley can still win and develop players when his obstacles include his opponents on the field and his own bosses in Chicago, then those are impressive feats indeed. But it shouldn't be that way. The role of the USSF should be simple: to provide the coach with the public backing and logistical support he needs to win and then get the heck out of the way.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those people who thinks that Sunil's Siege -- the 306-day stretch that the U.S. has gone without a "real" coach -- has crippled the program. The failed pursuit of Klinsmann was worth the effort (though we're left wondering if another president might have, you know, actually landed Klinsmann), and Bradley's hard work has put the U.S. in a position to make the most of a busy summer schedule that includes the Gold Cup and the Copa América.

But the 160-day wait to remove Bradley's "interim" label has sent a clear message moving forward, one that really could harm the national-team program. No matter what he may say, Gulati's actions show that he's unlikely to give Bradley the full support he needs and deserves, the kind that the best executives have the fortitude (read: guts) to give their most important hires.

In other words, Gulati has done little to disprove the albatrosses famously hung around his neck -- that he's a "micromanager" and a "superfan" -- by former coach Bruce Arena, the man Gulati pushed out the door last July. One can only hope that Gulati's far-reaching plan to recruit more Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities to U.S. Soccer is successful, because it's hard to imagine his handling of the coaching decision going much worse.

After a post-Final Four tour of duty for SI Latino -- keep an eye out for my stories on a two-week road-trip adventure to Mexican soccer stadiums and a pre-Copa América profile of Venezuelan star Juan Arango -- I'm back on the soccer case for SI.com. It's an exciting summer for MLS and U.S. Soccer, and I'm looking forward to experiencing it with you.

I have been keeping up with things, though, whether the subject is MLS, U.S. soccer or the international game, so let's get it started with a Mailbag. Send in your questions, and I'll be back right here next week!

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