Who's Your Coach?

Friday, July 29, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

It was never easy with Bob Bradley. He tested our patience constantly, made things complicated, failed to ever give us reason to feel comfortable with this stewardship of our beloved national team. He mumbled, hmm'd, hawed, and fussed his way through each and every press conference he ever gave. How a coach performs for the press has nothing to do with his ability to successfully coach a team. But it doesn't get motors running in the fan base, either.

But here's a truth that may only become clear in the next decade or so, when little boys and little girls grow up to become grown men and women with burgeoning passions and the need to share them with others: it was during Bob Bradley's tenure that American soccer took a massive step forward in the battle for the attentions of a people with more fractured interests - and more ways to sate them - than ever before.

2002 was amazing, and Bruce Arena deserves a bucket of plaudits for taking the US deeper in a World Cup than they'd ever gone before. But that tournament happened on the other side of the world, in the wee hours of the morning, and at a time when patriotism was high but our attention was mostly elsewhere, on our painfully discovered sense of vulnerability. It was a blip, with combining factors relegating it to a supernova of USMNT love the burned out as quickly as it had flared into existence. 2002 was a thing, and a special one, but its impact was muted.

Bob had more moments. 2007, though that was soccer radar-only stuff. 2009, and the slaying of an Iberian dragon. 2010, despite the ultimate heartache, gave us Donovan and Algeria and that uniquely unifying event that only sports can provided, the ref that screwed us. The calendar, and the just-enough level of achievement Bradley conjured, spread out the soccer joy. It wasn't constant momentum, but the sum total was more than a few bright weeks in the summer of '02. After Bruce's team let us down in Germany, Bob's success refreshed the palate.

The growth of the fan base is linear. There are more fans of soccer, and the USMNT, in 2011 than there were when Bradley was reluctantly handed the keys in 2007, simply because more time has passed and the number of people exposed to the game has increased through the growth of the media and the mediums through which it transmits. But implying that just being present while that organic growth occurred is all Bradley did isn't fair to him or his legacy.

Among Doctor Who fans, whom I observe like apes in the wild that I share several traits but cannot fully understand, there's a question that is asked as a natural part of the shared experience:

Who's your Doctor?

The answer to the question, as far as I understand it, is which incarnation of Doctor Who was the one in place when the show caught your fancy; whichever actor was playing The Doctor when you starting watching, that's your Doctor.*

*I got all of the above wrong, which was inevitable I suppose. Using an analogy spawned by a show I don't watch is among the worst of my recent writing failures. As I came by the mistake honestly, I won't apologize, but since the analogy is broken, so is this piece. Hopefully the spirit of it is not. 

Sports don't work like episodic television of course, and certainly not one as fantastic as Doctor Who, but they do have a genesis moment for every fan that finds themselves caught up in the intense devotion for a particular team. Players and coaches come and go, and while we remain, there will always be a special place in our memories for those that were there when we discovered our passion. I'm certain that Bob Bradley will exist in such a place for many, many fans of the United States Men's National Team. It will take time for it to crystallize, but crystallize it will.

It's a shame, in a way, that Bradley is such a stoic figure. Appreciation will be slower to come precisely because he was drab and calculating, rarely allowing anything "real" to pass across his face while he was on the job. Bob rarely excited us. His sidelined exhortations gave us a glimpse, but were never enough. His legacy will suffer for that.

Eventually, though, Bob will become the answer to the question "Who's your coach?" when asked in a way that means "Who was in charge when you became a fan?" He may never be a favorite, even for his success, and it's possible the every coach to come from Klinsmann forward will be much more beloved during his time than the man who was variably called "Robot", "Huh Bob", "Coach Sweatpants", and other even less flattering epithets.

Bob won't have lyrical missives penned about his influence. His time won't be chronicled in bestselling tomes thick with a mythology of mystical powers that every truly great coach seems to possess. He's not going to stoke the fires of history and spawn a cult of personality or have his name invoked in prideful boasts. For the most part, he'll just be a bland, never-quite-good-enough coach who took the US to a few places they'd never been, failed in moments when he could only be allowed to succeed, and gave a player or two we might see over the next three years their start with the Red, White, and Blue.

And, for a great number of people who might have even called for an end to his time at the helm in irascible tones and with a shivering fervency, he'll also be the answer to a question that speaks to his influence.

Raise your hand, and wave a thankful goodbye, if Bob's your coach.
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