When Connecticut-born Vincent Volpe, the new principal owner and president of the Ligue 2 club Le Havre, fired his head coach earlier this season, he didn’t announce the replacement at the same time. And so, within 24 hours of the decision, he says, more than 50 applications came in for the open job.
One of them came from the agent of American Bob Bradley. The timing made sense. Bradley, the former U.S. national team coach, was finishing his two-year contract at Stabaek, the Norwegian club with the shoestring budget that he had qualified for next season’s Europa League. The coach who’s on a quest to become the first American to coach in one of the big European leagues was ready to take the next step, and he was about to be a free agent.
“When we saw [Bradley’s name], we were very, very interested,” says Volpe. “Within three days of that, Bob came in for a very confidential visit here. We talked about his ambitions and the club’s ambitions, and we found there was a really good potential marriage there.”
Volpe couldn’t believe his luck. Five months after buying 90% of the shares in Le Havre, he was able to hire a coach who had won a World Cup 2010 group with England and had beaten Spain at the height of its powers at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
“It’s hard to imagine that he was available,” says Volpe, who signed Bradley to a contract through the end of the 2016-17 season. “He certainly had options in other places, including Norway, I believe. We sat down and spoke about our individual objectives and what we’re trying to accomplish, me with this team and him with his career. He looked at what we had already done in the market, he looked at video and saw the quality of the players. He saw the potential there.”
The goal for Bradley, Volpe and Le Havre, the oldest club in France, is simple: Win promotion to Ligue 1. Currently the team is in fourth place 14 games into a 38-game season heading into Monday’s league game against Brest (which will be shown on Eurosport). The top two teams will be promoted at the end of the season.
“Yes, we are a Ligue 2 club at this point in time, but whether it’s this year or next year or the year after, we will get to Ligue 1,” Volpe says. “And now all of a sudden, Bob finds himself managing a Ligue 1 French club. And if there were any doubts about his ability to coach in Europe—and I certainly don’t have any—those will be dispelled and this may be just as quick a way for Bob to get to doing what he wants to be doing than if he were to wait around for one of the bigger Ligue 1 or Bundesliga clubs to ask him.”
Volpe has an intriguing story, too. He’s from Guilford, Connecticut, the same hometown as Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, and he first moved to Le Havre in 1990 as part of his work with Dresser-Rand company, where he would rise to CEO.
“I’ve become part of the local community the last 25 years,” he says, “and I’ve become very fond of the people and the region and the food.”
The club in Le Havre was struggling financially, and friends started asking Volpe if he might be interested in buying the club. It had a nice new publicly owned stadium, and he saw the potential to bring Le Havre back to Ligue 1.
“We want to build a sustainable project,” he says, “and over time this will serve as an economic stimulus as well as a social stimulus for the image of the town and the region. So to me it’s a long-term project and investment. And we’ve gone step by step here doing what we think are the right things to restructure the business. We changed our board of directors. We brought in a new general manager. We’ve been very aggressive in the mercato in terms of bringing in players we felt we needed to add. And the most recent step is we made a change in our coaching staff and brought in Bob Bradley.”
Over the phone from Normandy, Volpe sounded like a happy man. He has reason to be. He just signed one of the most underrated coaches in world soccer—and suddenly made Le Havre a team that American soccer fans will want to follow.