Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bradley continues to grow on and off-field credibility

Coaching is more than just tactics and picking players, but also about building credibility and developing relationships.

US coach Bob Bradley's decisions to allow both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to have quality time away with his family during a critical phase of the CONCACAF Gold Cup had become a hot topic leading up to the USA's 2-0 victory against Jamaica in the quarterfinal stages, and Frank Giase of the Newark Star Ledger writes of how Bradley continues to build credibility and respect among his players.

Anyone who heard U.S. coach Bob Bradley speak from the heart about the death of a childhood friend who was serving in Afghanistan last May could see how much family and friendships mean to him.

It was a rare moment of candor for Bradley, who has always shielded his private life from the fame and intrusion that comes with where his coaching career has taken him.

So it was no surprise last week when, following discussions with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, two of the national team’s most important players, they were allowed to leave the team in the midst of the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football’s Gold Cup to travel to their hometowns to each attend the wedding of a sister, which took place in California and Texas, respectively, on Saturday.

It was a decision that could easily have backfired on Bradley, whose job may have been on the line had the Americans lost to Jamaica in the quarterfinals Sunday in Washington instead of the spirited performance the team turned in.

While the U.S. Soccer Federation apparently agreed with the decision, going as far as chartering planes at considerable expense for both players to return Sunday morning in time for the game, the federation also made it clear the importance of winning the Gold Cup.

“There are times that players come to you with personal requests and as a coach you have an idea how you think things should be done,” Bradley said. “That’s especially true with the national team. You have to hold the bar as high as you can, but at the same time understand what families mean to them and you have to sometimes weigh things and make decisions.”

While being at the wedding was a joyous moment for Dempsey, he also said the family took time to put flowers on the gravesite of his sister Jennifer, who died of a brain aneurism in 1995 at the age of 16. For Donovan, this wasn’t just his sister, it was his twin sister, the person he was closest to growing up while he was being raised by his mother following his parents’ divorce when he was two.

Clearly, these were occasions that had deep, underlying meanings.

So what is a coach supposed to do?

“Everybody has different attitudes about that,” Bradley said. “Somebody was saying that (former national team midfielder) Pablo Mastroeni spoke on MLS radio and said he missed his brother’s wedding and he said it’s the worst decision he ever made.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big story if we weren’t talking about Donovan, the national team captain and all-time leading goal scorer, and Dempsey, who is the heart and soul of the team.

Not only are they two of only three players in U.S. history to score goals in multiple World Cups, and will still be key players in 2014, they are players who play with passion and commitment. Could they continue to play that way and buy into everything Bradley says if they believe their coach was responsible for them missing such an important moment in their lives?

Ironically, a similar situation involved Bradley’s wedding in 1986.

“My brother Scott, when the wedding was set up, was playing for the Yankees,” Bradley recalled. “The Yankees were playing in Baltimore that day and he was going to be the best man and he got traded to Seattle, and before he had five seconds to think about it I called him and said ‘you need to be with your team. (Younger brother) Jeff’s going to pinch-hit for you and that’s that.’

“But that doesn’t mean just because I did it that way that’s right for somebody else. So you learn in all this that there’s give and take. You try to always do what’s best for the team and you make tough decisions.”

So the answer was yes.

After the game, both players said how much it meant to them and they vowed to play their best against Jamaica and not use the travel or the time away as an excuse.

And they did.

Dempsey played 90 minutes of high-energy soccer and scored the goal that sealed the 2-0 victory. Donovan played the final 25 minutes, brought a spark to the game, and helped set up Dempsey’s goal. At the World Cup last year, the U.S. fell behind in three games, rallied to tie each time, and Donovan scored the winning goal in stoppage time in a win-or-go-home match against Algeria.

That type of effort and commitment is hard for a player to give a coach he doesn’t respect. Last week’s decision was an example of how a coach earns that respect.

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