- Ahead of Bob Bradley's debut for Swansea City, we look back at the best accomplishments of his career and take stock of where it ranks for an American coach.
Bob Bradley will make history on Saturday, when he guides Swansea City onto the field at the Emirates Stadium as the Swans play Arsenal (10 a.m., CNBC).
Bradley is the first American manager in the Premier League, with his long, well-traveled road taking him to a place he'd always dreamed of coaching. That hard work will be met with difficult challenges right off the bat, as he inherits a struggling team that is lingering just above the relegation zone through seven games. Taking on challenges is nothing new to Bradley, though, evidenced by his track record with Egypt, Stabaek and Le Havre.
So with Bradley and his career on the mind ahead of his momentous day, our Planet Fútbol roundtable featuring SI's Alexander Abnos, Brian Straus and Grant Wahl focuses on Bradley, his accomplishments, what we should expect from him in the Premier League and where he ranks all-time among American coaches.
Here are our answers:
Alexander Abnos: Bringing Stabaek to Europe | Winning a double with an MLS expansion team
This is a tough call. Bradley’s coaching career has been full of notable accomplishments, and all of them seem to be impressive in different ways. His work with the Egyptian national team showed his strength of his conviction and character as a man. The U.S. national team’s performance at the 2009 Confederations Cup showed Bradley’s ability to construct a team for a tournament and gameplan effectively.
However, my choice for his greatest accomplishment as manager is a tie between Stabaek’s Europa League-qualifying season in 2014-15, and his 1998 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup-winning campaign with the Chicago Fire in their inaugural season in MLS.
With Stabaek, he took an unfancied club with limited financial resources to European competition (where they promptly fell to a Welsh Premier League club under Bradley’s successor). With Chicago, he oversaw what is still the single best inaugural season for any club in MLS history, and built a foundation for a Fire team that would be a powerhouse throughout the last 90s and early aughts. Both jobs speak directly to his ability to outperform expectations as a manager at club level, which he’ll have another chance to do at Swansea.
Also, his time at Stabaek contained this gem of a managerial moment, the likes of which I hope he takes with him to EPL post-match interviews:
Brian Straus: Coaching Egypt and all it entailed
He beat Spain, finished first in a World Cup group, won the double with an expansion team and even got Chivas USA to the playoffs. But nothing compares to his performance in Egypt, where he took a national team reeling from the 2011 revolution, the Port Said massacre and the cancellation of the Premier League season to within a game of the 2014 World Cup. The Pharaohs won seven of eight qualifiers (some of which were played behind closed doors) and were unlucky to draw Ghana in the playoff (CAF has since ditched that format).
Never mind the obvious political, cultural and linguistic obstacles facing an American coach in charge of one of the most popular, storied institutions in the Arab world’s most populous country. He overcame those and committed himself even further—marching with protesters, visiting hospitals and making himself accessible to fans and media. That he stayed is impressive. That he took Egypt to the threshold of the World Cup is remarkable.
Grant Wahl: The tough road to Swansea
It says something about Bradley’s career that there are multiple possible answers here.
For me, his greatest accomplishment is the work he did with Egypt, Stabaek and Le Havre that helped earn him the Swansea job. Few coaches would have turned down seven-figure jobs in MLS for much less money and attention overseas. Few coaches would have stayed in Egypt when the country was going through a revolution and state of emergency. But Bradley wanted to do what it takes to give himself a chance to coach in a top European league. He never was sure that it would happen, but he did it anyway.
That belief and courage—and all the work, day after day—is a remarkable achievement.
Alexander Abnos: Mid-table finish
Obviously avoiding relegation is an absolute must for Bradley, as it would be for any other coach in his position. However, Swansea has plenty of talent and has had a murderous schedule to start the season. A solid mid-table finish is still a realistic possibility, and getting there would surely be enough for Bradley to keep his job into next season, allowing him an opportunity to mold the squad as he sees fit.
Brian Straus: Keep Swansea up
He’s been hired by a team in free-fall, losers of its past three Premier League games and winless in six. Swansea hasn’t yet recovered from the departures of André Ayew (last season’s leading scorer) and captain Ashley Williams. It might have been nice to have Éder back in the fold as well following his Euro 2016 heroics. Meanwhile, newly signed Spanish forwards Fernando Llorente and Borja Baston (a club-record transfer) have combined for one goal.
There’d be no surprise if Bradley has walked into a beleaguered and skeptical locker room. And their first game together is at the Emirates. Before the season, deposed manager Francesco Guidolin said he was targeting 40 points. Last season, that would’ve been good for 16th place. He knew there was a rough road ahead.
Bradley’s job is to keep Swansea up.
Grant Wahl: Avoid relegation, get back into top half
This season the main objective for Bradley is to keep Swansea in the Premier League. The Swans don’t have nearly the talent and leadership that was with the club in previous seasons, and staying up will be a big challenge. But after this season Swansea should have the ambition to get back into Europe. This is a club that in the past five Premier League seasons has finished 12th, eighth, ninth, 12th and 11th.
Bradley needs to find stability first, then use his coaching acumen and the January and summer transfer windows to build a team that can get back into the top half of the league.
Alexander Abnos: Tied with Bruce Arena
The list of “greatest American coaches” for men’s soccer in the United States is a fairly short one, and the rapid growth of the game here means that the list is more or less limited to names the modern era: Bob Gansler, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, and Bradley.
Where Bradley ranks within that group is highly subjective, depending on what you value in a coach (Pure numbers? Building a foundation? Titles? World Cup performances?). For me, he’s tied with Bruce Arena. If he performs up to expectations at Swansea, yeah, he’ll be the best ever.
Brian Straus: Top two with Arena–but it's not that simple
It certainly would be hard to make a case that he’s not in the top two. Arena’s accomplishments speak for themselves. But Arena and Bradley have had very different careers since joining forces at D.C. United in 1996, so it’s difficult to judge them via the same criteria. Perhaps if Bradley had stayed in MLS or given a crack at a second World Cup, he’d have similar accolades.
So at the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s go with this: Arena is the best manager in American soccer history. No one has built programs, massaged rosters, lineups and locker rooms and maintained a championship standard like he has. He’s the ultimate team architect. Bradley is the best coach in American soccer history. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the sport, improving players on a granular level, game-planning and working within a system to get results, no one has more impressive credentials.
Grant Wahl: Right behind Arena
In terms of the national team, Bradley is right behind Arena and ahead (for now) of Jurgen Klinsmann (who’s not American, of course, but bear with me: We’re ranking USMNT coaches here). Arena got the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals, so enough said. Bradley’s U.S. team won a World Cup 2010 group, which puts him slightly ahead of Klinsmann for now, and Bradley also got the U.S. to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup by beating Spain. Bradley also won a Gold Cup in which every country brought its best team (in 2007), which is something that Klinsmann can’t say.
In terms of ranking American club coaches of men’s teams, it’s hard to argue with Arena, who has won five MLS Cup titles. Only two other American coaches have won more than one MLS Cup—Schmid (2) and Dom Kinnear (2)—and Bradley has won just one. Bradley’s degree-of-difficulty club work in Europe, especially at Stabaek, is remarkable. If Bradley can achieve things at Swansea he’ll move to No. 1 in this area, but for now I’d say: