Proving Ground

Feb. 23, 2009
Feb. 23, 2009

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Feb. 23, 2009

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Proving Ground

This year's major tests will determine whether cerebral, intense coach Bob Bradley can lift the U.S. into the ranks of the world powers

IN MAY of 1998the U.S. Soccer Federation unveiled an audacious blueprint, dubbed Project2010, to turn the nation into a serious contender by the 2010 World Cup. Therewould be a new commitment, backed by $50 million from Nike, to find and developpromising young players and funnel them into competitive soccer at an earlyage, as is typical in Europe and South America. Less than a month after thatannouncement, those far-reaching ambitions looked absurd, as the U.S. fellfeebly to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia at the World Cup in France, scoring justone goal. ¬∂ Since then the progress has been fitful. After a shock run to thequarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Bruce Arena's team crashed out of thetournament in '06, and the Olympic squad failed to advance past the first roundin Beijing. So as the U.S. began the final round of qualifying last week forSouth Africa in 2010—its self-imposed target date for global respectability—thequestions remained: How far has it come in 11 years? Is Project 2010 on track?Can the U.S. compete consistently with the likes of Brazil, Italy and Germanyon the sport's biggest stage?

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 2009 issue

The U.S. programis quite different from the one Arena left in 2006—and that's a good thing.Arena was brash and loose and relished attention. His successor, Bob Bradley, aPrinceton grad (and coach of the Tigers for 12 years), is a cerebralpreparation freak who runs a tight ship, with strict curfews and two-a-daypractices. "If there's one word to describe him, it's intense," saysright back Frankie Hejduk, a 14-year veteran of the national team. "Heknows the ins and outs of the game technically, tactically, and he's trying toinstill that in us as much as he can."

And while Arenarelied heavily on veterans to drive his team, especially toward the end of histenure, Bradley is gambling on young players in prominent roles. Two suchup-and-comers lined up next to each other in central midfield for the qualifieragainst Mexico on Feb. 11, and Bradley is directly responsible for launchingthe professional careers of both: Sacha Kljestan, 23, and Bradley's own sonMichael, 21. (Bob coached each of them during their respective rookie seasonsin MLS.) The younger Bradley, who now plays for Borussia M√∂nchengladbach of theGerman first division, dazzled in the 2--0 victory in Columbus, scoring bothgoals, making pretty, short passes and breaking up the Mexican attack bycutting off the passing lanes. Kljestan, who plays for MLS's Chivas USA, alsocontributed on both sides of the ball—though he was nowhere near aselectrifying as in his hat-trick performance in a January friendly againstSweden.

Both players hadbeen hailed as stars in the making, but under Bob Bradley their time has comesooner rather than later: Despite their youth, they have a combined 40appearances for the U.S. And they reflect the demeanor of the coach. "Theyhave energy, and they're willing to fight," says Hejduk. "They don'ttake any crap in the midfield, they tackle hard and they play simple."

The commitment tokids doesn't end there. Under Bradley a record number of players have receivedcall-ups to the national team in an ever-expanding pool of talent, with strikerJozy Altidore (age 19), defender Jonathan Bornstein (24) and midfieldersMaurice Edu (22) and José Francisco Torres (21) likely to be central figures inthe run to 2010.

Still, Bradley'steams have yet to win a meaningful match against topflight competition otherthan rival Mexico, which was undermanned in Columbus and failed to present itsnormal challenge. In the 2007 Copa América, Bradley's inexperienced andexperimental lineup was severely outclassed by Argentina, Paraguay andColombia. In fact, during his 2 ½ years the U.S. has only one significantvictory against tough competition in a major tournament: the thrilling 2--1comeback against Mexico in the final of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, whichfeatured a game-winning golazo from another young American, Benny Feilhaber,24.

The tests will becoming this year. The 2007 Gold Cup title earned the U.S. a trip to thissummer's Confederations Cup in South Africa, a major warmup for 2010. If theAmericans somehow survive a group that includes South American champion Braziland reigning World Cup champion Italy, they could meet European champ and worldNo. 1 Spain in the knockout stages.

Beyond that, theU.S. has nine more World Cup qualifiers through October, as the region's sixremaining teams contend for three automatic berths. (The fourth-place team willget a playoff against South America's No. 5.) That includes an August match inMexico, which will almost certainly be at Mexico City's hostile 105,000-seatAzteca Stadium, where the U.S. has never won in nine tries. It may be thehardest test in the most crucial year U.S. soccer has faced—one that will throwits youngsters directly into the fire.

Bradley, 50,admits the team is far from perfect and that he has plenty of work to do."There's so many things that need to get better," he says. "It'sthe whole package." How he handles his young troops will go a long waytoward figuring out if Project 2010 was farsighted or laughablyfar-fetched.



For news and opinion on the U.S. men, MLS, Europe and South America, check outJonah Freedman, Luis Bueno and SI's team.


PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Vieth/isiphotos.comSOCCER DAD Bob (inset) looked on with typical aplomb as son Michael scored the first of his two against Mexico.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BOB BRADLEY)[See caption above]