Bob Bradley is at his wit’s end. He has managed Stabæk, a small Norwegian team from the Oslo suburb of Stabekk, for the past two seasons. He took over in 2014, following the club’s promotion back into the Tippeligaen after one year in the second division. To hear him tell it in an interview with AP’s Rob Harris, the club was a mess when he arrived, and he has operated with significant financial restraints:
“When I came to Stabaek it was at a time when the team had just come up from the second league and there had been some tough financial days,” Bradley said. “The work the last two years had to be done in a creative way because we certainly didn’t have great resources.
By any reasonable standard, Bradley—who will leave Stabæk after Sunday’s season finale—has succeeded. They finished ninth during his inaugural season, and they currently sit in second, having already secured Europa League qualification for next season. It is unclear where Bradley goes from here, though Norwegian paper VG is reporting that he will join second-division French club Le Havre.
What is most apparent in the interview (and the extras that Harris posted on Facebook) is Bradley’s frustration at never having been given the chance to manage in one of Europe’s top leagues. He won’t come right out and say it—especially because he is still employed by Stabæk and doesn’t want to denigrate them—but Bradley clearly believes he should be coaching somewhere like England or Germany, not Norway.
I just figure, if I keep at it then maybe somebody will really take a close look and figure it out. Maybe then there’s an opportunity at the next level. It’s a strange one because sometimes people say, ‘Well it’s Tippeligaen’ and you think yourself ‘But in any league if you have a team and now your budget is one the smaller side and you don’t have as a club all the bells and whistles and you can still have a team that plays good football and a team that competes and gets good results, it doesn’t make sense to me when in certain cases people say to me ‘It’s just Tippeligaen.’
Depending upon how you feel about Bruce Arena, Bradley is one of the two greatest American managers ever. It’s not a perfect comparison by any means, but it mirrors the debate about whether Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey is the greatest American player ever. Like Donovan, Arena spent his entire coaching career in the United States, and is easily the most decorated MLS manager with five titles. Like Dempsey, Bradley had success in MLS before embarking on a foreign odyssey that (so far) failed to land him at an elite European club.
Americans have been playing in Europe for over two decades, with varying levels of success. Mostly this has been in the Premier League, where numerous keepers (Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan) and some outfield players (Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron) achieved success. But others have made it in Italy (Alexi Lalas, Michael Bradley) and Germany (Steve Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter), along with France, Holland, smaller European countries and second divisions, and a handful of elite dual nationals who the United States can claim partial credit for developing.
At this point, Americans are evaluated relatively fairly in Europe. They are still seen as inferior to equivalent European or South American talents, and that’ll take decades more—and a few truly world-class players—to overcome. There are also legitimate logistical downsides (no European work permit, constantly flying halfway across the world for national team commitments) to signing a player from America over one from Albania, but no longer is there a belief that Americans can’t play.
But what Americans can’t do, or so those in charge of European clubs think, is coach. The list of Americans to coach a first division European team is quite short: Bob Bradley is the only name on it. Joe Enochs (VfL Osnabrück in the German second division), Gregg Berhalter (Hammarby in the Swedish second division), and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover’s U-17 team in the German first division) have achieved some success—as have David Wagner and Earnie Stewart, dual nationals who grew up in Europe—but so far the Norwegian first division is the best it gets.
This is partially a problem of time. Most (but by no means all) top managers played for top European clubs first, something Americans only recently began to do. That’s why Cherundolo—who spent 15 seasons with Hannover, 12 of them in the Bundesliga and eventually captained the team—is the best non-Bradley candidate to break through, even though he retired from playing just last year.
As Bradley notes, it’s also a matter of connections. Americans don’t have them in the European game, and thus are still seen as out-of-the-box, risky hires:
I think that in many cases decision makers play it safe. There’s certainly a network. There are still a lot of good managers. There’s also a lot of bad managers. It’s not to say that sometimes you don’t shake your head at how certain guys keep popping up in jobs. But for a club to think a little bit outside the box and look a little closer to see how a person manages, how the teams play, what are some of the characteristics that seem to pop up time and time again. You’d like to think there would be some people who go deeper like that.
Bradley’s name has been bandied about for Premier League openings—most recently Sunderland and Aston Villa—but nothing’s stuck. Which is actually somewhat surprising, because what Bradley has proven most of all in his career is that he is a reclamation project specialist, and that’s exactly what Sunderland and Aston Villa (currently second-to-last and last in the Premier League) need.
He began his career with the expansion Chicago Fire, and won an MLS title in their inaugural season. He then moved on to the then New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the currently-on-hiatus Chivas USA, turning around two miserable franchises (though he didn’t lead either anywhere close to a title). He did a credible job with the USMNT, leading to a Round of 16 appearance in the 2010 World Cup, before taking on one of the hardest jobs in the world: signing up to coach Egypt in the fall after the Arab Spring. He held the team together through revolution and the horrific Port Said massacre, before they lost to Ghana in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. That is the road he took to Norway, where he guided a team with one of if not the smallest budget in the league nearly to the top of the table.
If Bradley does indeed end up in Le Havre, it’s honestly not a bad spot for him. After 13 game Le Havre are in fourth, six points out of a Ligue 1 promotion slot. France isn’t as glamorous as England or Spain, but Ligue 1 is the 5th or 6th best league in the world, depending upon how you feel about Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Winning promotion and managing in Ligue 1 would be a very big deal for Bradley.
Over the summer Le Havre were purchased by Vincent Volpe, an American who was formerly the CEO at Dresser-Rand. Which explains part of the reason Le Havre is interested in Bradley, and is also a window into the most likely route American coaches will take into the upper echelons of the game. Numerous European clubs, including most of the top ones in England, are now owned by Americans, just the sort of connections a coach like Bradley needs.
In the Premier League, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Aston Villa, and Sunderland are all owned by Americans, as well as Fulham and Millwall in the English Championship. On the continent, Roma (Italy), Hammarby (Sweden), Le Havre (France) and likely a couple of other lower division teams we can’t think of, are owned by Americans. That these clubs seem to employ Americans on the field, as coaches, and in the front office at rates higher than others across Europe can’t be discounted.
It’s a problem not unlike the one the United States has had with developing top playing talent, with a world class player yet to emerge even after numerous “the United States will be a world power by ____” proclamations by U.S. Soccer and their marketing brethren. It takes time, and requires the proper infrastructure so that potential coaches can be identified and given opportunities to improve upon their craft. Bob Bradley might not make it to the top of the mountain, but eventually an American coach will.
It just might not be as soon as anybody would like.
Photo via AP