Wednesday September 24th, 2014

When Bob Bradley, the former U.S. and Egypt coach, turned down the Vancouver Whitecaps last year to take a lot less money coaching Stabaek, a smaller team in a lesser league (Norway), his decision left more than a few people in North America scratching their heads. Bradley, after all, had coached the U.S. to a win over Spain at the height of its powers (in the 2009 Confederations Cup semis); had led the U.S. to first place in its World Cup 2010 group ahead of England; and last year had taken Egypt within a hair’s breadth of its first World Cup since 1990.

So why would Bradley opt for Stabaek, a cash-strapped team with a 7,000-seat stadium? Why would he choose a club whose in-stadium gym was so small that he first thought it was a storage closet? A club that had just won promotion to the Norwegian first division but was expected to go right back down?

“Every expert picked Stabaek to finish at the bottom,” says Bradley, who nevertheless became the first American to take a job coaching a European top-flight club for one reason: He thought it offered a better chance than MLS of landing a gig in a bigger European league.

“When I came here to visit, there was one moment when I thought maybe in some ways this is a little too small,” Bradley says. “And pretty quickly I thought: Wait, it’s like a small club in any country. You don’t have everything, but you try to take what’s there and make it as good as possible.”

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And that’s exactly what Bradley has done in his first season, a soccer version of Northern Exposure. With six games left in the league season, Bradley has Stabaek in ninth place with 30 points, nine points above the guaranteed drop zone in the 16-team league. And on Wednesday, in front of rabid Stabaek fans who’ve come to adore Bradley, his team will play in the semifinals of the Norwegian Cup knockout tournament against league leader Molde.

Observers of Bradley’s work have come away impressed by how he’s handled one of the youngest teams in league history. “Bob is fantastic,” says Inge Andre Olsen, the Stabaek sporting director who hired Bradley. “I’m always saying he’s a mix between a Mafia boss and a Navy SEAL. He’s tough and he’s honest, but still he’s competitive and works really hard to achieve what he wants.”

Added Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a Norwegian who’s the former chief scout and sporting director for several European clubs, most recently at Monaco: “He has done a terrific job. I believe Bradley deserves a chance in a top European league, and England would suit him perfectly. In any case, no one really believes he’ll be in Norway for much longer. He’s too good for that.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Stabaek fell to Molde 1-0 on an 86th-minute goal, bowing out of the competition]

Wednesday’s cup semi won’t be easy: Molde is 11 points clear at the top of the league, and Bradley calls Stabaek’s foe (which includes on-the-mend U.S. winger Josh Gatt) “the best team in Norway without a doubt.” But Stabaek tied Molde 2-2 in league play last month, and if Bradley’s team plays at its best it can take down the favorite and reach the final, the marquee event on the Norwegian club soccer calendar.

“In a way there’s more pressure in the semifinals,” Bradley says. “The final in Norway is the last match of the season, it’s two weeks after the league finish, and it’s always held in Oslo as a major event. The cup here is really special.” Not for nothing is the cup-winning club called “the champion” in Norway, as opposed to the “league winner.” What’s more, the winner of the cup final earns a spot in Europa League qualifying next season, which would be a major achievement for Bradley’s team.

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Stabaek (pronounced like Staubauch, as in Roger) has had a turbulent recent history. After winning the Norwegian top-flight in 2008, the club ran into serious financial problems, which forced the team to unload players and move from a new indoor arena back to their old stadium. Relegation soon followed. Stabaek is on more stable footing now, but it still can’t spend much, and Bradley has faced several challenges as the season has progressed.

After a surging start with 18 points in the first 10 league games, Stabaek struggled midseason and lost some important players. Enoch Adu, a Ghanaian midfielder who was on loan from Belgium’s Brugge, moved to Malmö in Sweden and played 90 minutes in Champions League against Juventus last week. Stabaek also sold promising 18-year-old midfielder Morten Thorsby to Heerenveen in the Netherlands.

But Stabaek has found some helpful midseason replacements, including Andrew Jacobson, the former Dallas midfielder who’s on loan from New York City FC. (Former LA Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens has also been a useful player.)

“As the season has moved along, it’s incredible how positive the response has been, from other coaches, media and fans,” says Bradley, who has met several times with Stabaek’s fan club to answer their questions. “People have really appreciated the way we play and are still very surprised at the results. We’ve tried to keep that part going.”

No, the Norwegian league isn’t the English Premier League, nor is it even MLS. (“Man for man, no doubt MLS is a better league,” says Bradley. “The budgets are bigger, and athletically MLS is more talented.”) But Norway can be a launchpad for players—15-year-old Martin Odegaard of Stromsgodset is among the most talked-about teens in Europe—and occasionally coaches too.

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Plus, Norwegian soccer is learning from Bradley, who has been conducting coaching clinics with the Norwegian federation. When asked whether Bradley does things that are not typically Norwegian, his sporting director, Olsen, says: “All the things that he does are not typically Norwegian.”

“In Norway they’re good people and welcoming, but in some ways they’re still a little bit stiff,” says Bradley. “So you try to get the players to let a little bit out sometimes, to have a little more personality, to think more outside the box. They’re used to seeing things one way, and sometimes you try to get them to understand you have to look a little deeper here.”

Moving to a quiet Oslo suburb has been a distinct change for Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, who lived in turbulent Cairo even during that city’s state of emergency. Bradley brought his strength and conditioning coach, Tomasz Kaczmarek, from his Egypt staff, and he has made sure to take his sense of humor along for the ride. During his first week on the job, Bradley went on a team-bonding ski trip with his Stabaek players, and even though he’s a decent skier his only moment in front of cameras wasn’t a shining success. “The only part the media filmed was me falling on my ass on the lift going up the smallest hill,” he jokes.

During a recent edition of Bob’s Corner, his weekly video on the Stabaek website, Bradley joked that none of the players must have heard of U2, The Who, Credence Clearwater Revival or “my man Bruce Springsteen” when it came to programming the locker room sound system. Since then, the stadium sound system has started playing Springsteen tunes for the crowd before games and Bradley is being asked to sing songs by The Boss for the local media.

How long Bradley stays with Stabaek remains to be seen. He has a two-year contract, and the pull of MLS will always be there. (He says he hasn’t been contacted by Toronto, the underperforming club where his son, Michael, plays.) But if he keeps surpassing expectations in Norway, it’s fair to think Bob Bradley will draw interest from bigger European clubs sooner rather than later.

And winning the Norwegian Cup trophy certainly wouldn’t hurt.

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