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Bradley's legacy comes down to next 3 games, not past 3½ years

Any analysis on the U.S. coach's ability to inspire and steer this team is entirely moot. Nothing said by media or supporters about his performance, none of the criticism or acclaim -- much of it attached to last year's Confederation's Cup achievement -- is relevant. If you voted "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" along the way, then you jumped the gun.

For Bradley, the highly organized taskmaster and fourth U.S. coach in the past 19 years, everything that has happened since late 2006 has basically been about three games. The next three, to be precise, starting with Saturday's celebrated clash with England.

The crucible is now squarely upon him. Bradley has three matches to show whether he's been up for the job all along.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati made Bradley the choice to succeed Bruce Arena once the courtship of Jürgen Klinsmann went off course late in 2006. From the day Bradley was hired in December 2006, the U.S. coach always had two targets, and he surely needed to nail them both. Everything about his $475,000-a-year job always came down to achievement over two measures: He had to qualify for the 2010 World Cup -- which was sort of the low bar of the exercise. Past that, Bradley needed to get into the second round in South Africa.

That's it. So here we are.

If Bradley gets the team into the second round, he's done his job. He's stuffed three-and-a-half years into a handsome little package, tied it off with a pretty ribbon and mailed it home to the supporters in America. He has succeeded -- sticking it to all the Bradley Bashers along the way.

Not that he cares much about that angry brigade. People close to the program increasingly point to the U.S. Soccer coaching paradox: Bradley seems to get ample respect from some of the indisputably bright minds of the global game, but can't seem to muster broad support back home from the country's growing legion of armchair managers.

On the other hand, if the United States fails to break through group play, we're right back where we were four years ago, still paddling around in the shallow end of global soccer, wishing for so much more and wondering if the glory of 2002 was mere aberration.

We'll almost surely see a coaching change at that point, and Bradley's legacy will suffer immeasurably.

That's it. Nothing else ever mattered -- even if Bradley Backers and Bradley Bashers alike wanted to believe it did. That doesn't mean the coach has been without flaw. He surely has made mistakes along the way, and a qualifying campaign that was something this side of convincing had his critics perched to pounce. Nor does it mean he didn't move the program along, paying attention and striving to improve details great and small, like the vertical integration of U.S. Soccer's pursuits that isn't so sexy to talk about. It just means that all that will be judged inconsequential when held up to the boom or bust on what is the planet's grandest sporting event.

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It does mean that any debate and analysis always needed attachment to proper context. All along, Bradley talked about the delicate balance inherent to his job: He had to steer the United States into a sixth consecutive World Cup. But he could never take his eye off the longer-term focus, success in South Africa, so his choices always had to be rooted in deference to both.

Gulati always presided with a reasonable, even-handed approach about all this. When things weren't going particularly well early last summer, with the United States looking quite average in the spring and then appearing a bit feeble early in the Confederations Cup, Gulati had Bradley's back. The U.S. Soccer president summarily dismissed all talk that anyone other than Bradley would guide the United States through South Africa.

The Americans, making stellar use of a chip on their shoulder, rose in time in last year's warm-up tournament and calmed the unease about it all. Still, the practical and politically astute Gulati always had a firm grip on his long-term definition of success.

Would anything less than second-round appearance be a disappointment?

"The absolute goal of every team here is to make the second round, so, yeah, sure," Gulati said Thursday when asked about it. "I don't think there's anybody involved in U.S. Soccer, whether it's administration, players, coaches or fans, that wouldn't be disappointed. We were disappointed in 1990 when we didn't make it, but that was a little different, because no one expected us to. Things are a little different now. The team and the program have come a long way, so I think we'd all be disappointed if the team didn't advance, sure."

That sentiment is precisely why everything Bradley has done to this point needed to be viewed through World Cup goggles. If Bradley did something that didn't seem prudent at the moment, it could well have been that it wasn't about that moment. It was always about three games in South Africa.

We all watched the same games and made assessments off the very same actions and reactions. The difference was always in perspective; the impatience of the great unwashed demanded success for the here and now; Bradley was always measuring on a different plane of awareness.

He wasn't just watching for connections and combos between the white lines, either. Bradley was watching to see who could cope, who showed the requisite grace under pressure -- whatever pressure of the moment that happened to be. He had to assess who could blend, assimilate and stave off some of the boredom that, believe it or not, goes hand-in-hand with the security-enhanced isolation of a World Cup.

Something else: We may have all wondered why he picked X for a certain match when Y was clearly a better choice? In retrospect, the answer should always have been obvious: He needed cover in the event of injury or if one of the other metrics went askew en route to South Africa.

It may be cruel that so much of his legacy will come down to 270 minutes. Then again, that's what the World Cup is all about.