Bob Bradley, eight years on: How we shocked the world’s best team

Witters-USA TODAY Sports

A miracle at the time; a legend in time. Bradley engineered one of the biggest wins in U.S. soccer history.

For a tournament much of the world regards as a small-scale, World Cup dress rehearsal, the Confederations Cup can stamp lasting imprints on careers and legacies.

Take, for instance, former U.S. men’s national team manager Bob Bradley. On June 24, 2009, his United States team produced a stunning victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal.

That [win] was a defining moment .... It’s a game that all of us were incredibly proud to be part of.

- Bob Bradley

It’s easy to talk about the players on the field that day, and what it meant for Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to score against Spain. But in retrospect, the United States taking down this fabulous La Roja version was probably an essential moment for Bradley, a critical link in the career chain that would eventually yield notable breakthroughs for American managers.

It could be argued that Bradley may not have had the same opportunities but for events that summer. That implausible 2-0 upset was the high point of a three-game run that bent his career trajectory upwards. It certainly shaped the way U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati (below) regarded Bradley’s job performance and his ongoing employment.

If not for that achievement against Spain, Gulati may have been tempted to find a sexier coaching option to run the big show once Bradley had the team qualified for World Cup 2010. After all, Gulati wasn’t very patient with Bradley after the 2011 Gold Cup final, a 4-2 loss to Mexico in a crackerjack of a match.

The man who owns the hot seat. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley’s 2009 Confederations Cup started with back-to-back defeats to Italy (3-1) and Brazil (3-0), but the displays weren’t as crummy as the results might suggest – especially considering a Sacha Kljestan red card left the United States to battle mighty Brazil a man down for more than half an hour.

Either way, what happened next reversed a lot of fortunes, including those for Bradley. His legacy as a U.S. manager may have improved in the light of the failed Jurgen Klinsmann experiment: the dependable results under Bradley didn’t look so boring in retrospect.

What you focus on when [you] play Spain, whether you like it or not, is that they are going to have the ball more than you. But you also have to have confidence on the ball when you do get it.

- Bradley

But expectations are high and rightly or wrongly, much of the chatter in early June of 2009 was about the United States not delivering. By the final group match against Egypt, they needed a win, at least three goals, and lots of help.

“Certainly, there was a lot of negative talk,” Bradley told FourFourTwo this week, taking a break from watching this year’s Confederations Cup. “As a team, even though we were far outside the U.S., there was a sense that people had it wrong. So, as we got ready for the game against Egypt, we knew we still had a chance.”

They certainly did. Goals by Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley and Dempsey delivered a 3-0 win, while Brazil’s simultaneous 3-0 triumph over Italy meant Bradley’s men squeezed into the semifinals, past the Azzurri on goals scored.

Instead of exiting the tournament at the first opportunity, the United States had arranged a semifinal against Spain. The reigning European champion who would add the World Cup a year later, was unbeaten in 35 consecutive matches.

“Everyone in the world recognized that this [Spanish side] was a special team,” Bradley said. “What you focus on when [you] play Spain, whether you like it or not, is that they are going to have the ball more than you. But you also have to have confidence on the ball when you do get it, in the things that you do.”

In the end, the gap in possession at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein wasn’t as vast as it could have been. Despite Andres Iniesta’s injury, La Roja’s clockwork midfield contained Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas – but even with all that talent, the Spanish team struggled to regularly break down a tactically superb U.S.

Bradley, ever studious in preparation, noted that most teams played one striker against Spain. In Davies and Altidore, he thought he had two young go-getters whose combination of speed and strength could bother La Roja center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.

“We told them that, if early in the game, you can find a way to try to go by them, show them your athleticism and be a real threat, well, every defender feels that,” Bradley said.

Witters-USA TODAY Sports

Witters-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. midfield performance that day was quintessential Bradley management: a tightly organized group, well-rehearsed in movement, working hard for one another. Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley covered ground in the middle, aided by Landon Donovan and Dempsey, who pinched in faithfully from their wider positions. The idea was to always be near Xavi, to force the Spanish orchestrator to play laterally and backward, to minimize the number of potential slice-and-dicers he could play through the middle.

Altidore and Dempsey scored on either side of halftime. Tim Howard did his part. Donovan was having a great tournament, determined to atone for an admittedly subpar 2006 World Cup and setting the stage for his heroics a year later at South Africa 2010. Michael Bradley, too, continued to establish himself as a dynamic midfield fulcrum.

In fact, that Michael Bradley was shown a questionable red late against Spain surely hurt the United States in the final, a highly respectable 3-2 loss to Brazil. Still, a tournament that was looking like a bust had turned into an important moment for the program and for its manager.

Confident after the Confederations Cup, Bradley’s team duly qualified for the 2010  World Cup and reached the second round in South Africa. When Gulati pulled the trigger a year later, Bradley accepted a series of challenging positions: the Egyptian national team, Stabæk in Norway, Le Havre in France and, of course, the high-profile Premier League post at Swansea.

Bradley typically turns talk about himself to talk about the team, to the importance of coordinating as a unit, to being difficult to play against -- that performance in a tournament like that requires everyone knowing their role and doing their part. But in all that, it’s surely his own homework that leads the way.

“I’ve always taken pride in my ability to prepare a team,” he said. “We always spent time looking at the opponent, trying to understand strengths and weaknesses, to find a balance in things that make it difficult for our opponent while still doing the things that we are about.

“So that [win over Spain] was a defining moment,” Bradley said. “We felt we were capable of playing with big teams, on that stage, in a semifinal against a team that had won 35 in a row. It’s a game that all of us were incredibly proud to be part of.”

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.