Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

Hostile destination for former U.S. soccer coach Bob Bradley

LONDON — Just before the next act of his saga began, Bob Bradley took a few moments for himself.

All around him Saturday, in the crisp, autumnal sunshine of Emirates Stadium, the Premier League's traditional prematch rituals were being observed. Bradley's Swansea City players shook hands with their Arsenal counterparts. The referee Jon Moss and his assistants engaged in a last-minute pep talk. Some fans rushed to their seats; others, already safely installed, took commemorative selfies.

In his black sweatshirt, black trousers and patent black shoes, Bradley stood apart. Arms folded, he stood in his technical area. He turned a full 180 degrees, from the massed ranks of the home support at his back to the pocket of Swansea fans on his right, as though sweeping every inch of the stadium.

He seemed, partly, to be looking for someone. It is an old habit, he explained afterward, one that dates to his days on lesser stages, more bijou surroundings, when he might be able to pick out his wife and daughters in the stands. The bright lights of the Premier League do not permit such familiarity.

"I've been able to do that before, but I couldn't today," he said. In a sea of 60,000, their faces eluded him.

More than that, though, he seemed to be taking it all in.

"It's not like I spend all day thinking about it, but there was a feeling of pride walking out there," he said. "It was a proud moment."

This, after all, is where Bradley, an American, has always wanted to be. This was the destination he had in mind when he stopped coaching the U.S. national team in 2011: working in one of Europe's elite leagues, in one of Europe's iconic venues, against one of Europe's great teams.

Now, at last, he was here, the first North American manager in the Premier League. Just when it looked as if it might elude him forever, his ambition had been realized. He wanted to savor it. As soon as the whistle sounded, Bradley knew, the hard work would begin.

If getting to the Premier League was a challenge, proving he belongs will be no less daunting.

His arrival, it is fair to say, was treated with a degree of skepticism, which is not likely to abate after Saturday's 3-2 loss to Arsenal, which included "two poor goals" in Bradley's estimation.

His first opposing manager in England, Arsene Wenger, would recognize the challenge. A Frenchman who had been working in Japan, Wagner saw his exoticism held against him in his early days with Arsenal. "Arsene Who?" one headline read.

Bradley's career history in the United States — and with Egypt, and with Norwegian club Stabaek and French club Le Havre — was examined and found, by some, wanting. A host of former players queued up to query whether better, native candidates had been overlooked, whether Bradley's nationality had persuaded Swansea's American owners to appoint him, rather than his record.

That last charge is unfounded. It was the club's Welsh chairman, Huw Jenkins, who had the deciding vote.

As Wenger celebrates 20 years in charge of Arsenal, such parochialism seemed a relic of a dim and distant past. Coaches from every part of Europe and swathes of South America had arrived in England in the intervening two decades. The tendency among fans and executives, increasingly, is to eschew the humdrum local in favor of the glamorous import.

The reaction to Bradley's arrival suggests that open-mindedness might not yet extend to North America. In the 10 days since he had arrived, he had been at pains to play down the significance of his passport, insisting that he was just a "football manager," not an emissary for U.S. soccer.

It is an understandable approach but also, ultimately, a futile one. Bradley may not have asked to be a standard-bearer, but as with Wenger all those years ago, that is precisely how he will be seen. If he fails, long-held suspicions will deepen, whether justifiably or not; if he succeeds, perspectives might start to change.

The early signs, in the buildup to his debut, were encouraging. His players have taken to his training methods, enjoying his shorter, more intense sessions rather more than those of his Italian predecessor, Francesco Guidolin, which focused far more on stamina. He has earned plaudits, too, for his open, engaging style with the news media.

A section of Bradley's new fan base has been less convinced, unimpressed that Swansea's owners did not consult the supporters' trust — which holds 21 percent of the club — on either Guidolin's departure or Bradley's arrival. Bradley is wise enough to know that only results, and improved performances, will quiet the whispers of discontent.

Strictly speaking, then, Saturday's game ranked as a setback. That Wenger's team now shares the top spot in the Premier League will be scant consolation to those Swansea fans who see their side sitting squarely in the division's relegation zone.

It will be the same for the players, Bradley and his staff, of course.

"Not one of us will walk out feeling good about it," he said. He was not despondent, though — far from it. He had seen enough to feel he had something to build on: goals by Gylfi Sigurdsson and Borja Baston; a glut of chances to rescue a point wasted; the raw promise of Modou Barrow, a young winger Bradley coached intensively through the second half.

"I saw a few things where we can say we like what we see," he said.

He has had those few moments, to savor all he has done, to take in how far he has come. Now, he knows, it is time to see how far he can go.

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