Following a disappointing performance by its national team at the World Cup last summer, the U.S. Soccer Federation dismissed Bruce Arena as coach and suggested that the stalled program needed a fresh approach.
The idea was to hire a coach with international credentials and redesign the player development system, an outline that would properly prepare the Americans for the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Five months later, after failing to land its top choice, the USSF has hired an interim coach whose portfolio is eerily similar to his predecessor's.
Like Arena, Bob Bradley grew up in the New York area and has an Ivy League education. Like Arena, he worked for the University of Virginia and D.C. United and was on the sideline during the 1996 Olympics. Like Arena, he won an MLS title in his first season as a head coach.
And like Arena, Bradley has been asked to oversee a program that, despite its continual progress the last decade, is still a step behind the world's elite.
Bradley's chances of matching Arena's 7 1/2-year tenure, however, seem slim. Tapped by USSF President Sunil Gulati on short notice this month after negotiations with former Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann collapsed, he will run a 29-player training camp at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., starting Jan. 4. He'll then lead the team in friendlies against Denmark on Jan. 20 and Mexico on Feb. 7.
All the while, though, Gulati plans to pursue an internationally seasoned coach from Europe or South America, with the intent of hiring someone before two major competitions this summer. Bradley was also named U.S. Olympic coach, a position he'll retain regardless of the USSF's decision.
Not surprisingly, Arena believes his old friend is the best man for the full-time gig.
"You don't need a big, fancy name," he said. "We've been through a circus the last six months and we need someone to steady the ship. Bob will steady the ship. My hunch is the plan is to hire a foreign coach, but I'm hopeful Bob's work will say something.
"Bruce Arena was the right guy, Bob Bradley is the right guy."
Bradley, 48, is not resigned to giving up the job in the spring.
"There are things, having been in this country and having coached so many of our players over the years," he said, "that I have advantages that others don't have."
Among Bradley's many challenges will be forming his own identity with the national program. Although he has not formally worked with Arena in nine years and has established a winning and likeable reputation in MLS, Bradley has been burdened by the perception that he is a direct disciple of Arena and follows the same coaching tenets.
Gulati disagrees, saying, "Anybody who has played for them and anybody that knows them knows that they are very different in many ways."
Using an NFL parallel, he added: "Bill Belichick may have worked with Bill Parcells, they are rather different people, and different coaches with different styles, and they have both been successful. That's their commonality. That's also Bruce's and Bob's commonality."
Their relationship began in 1983 when a mutual friend persuaded Arena, a Cornell graduate in his sixth year coaching Virginia, to hire Bradley as an assistant. At the time, Bradley was at Ohio University coaching the soccer team and working on his master's degree in sports administration.
Two years later, Bradley left Charlottesville to coach his alma mater, Princeton. He spent 11 seasons there, guiding the Tigers to the 1993 national semifinals, where they lost to Arena and Virginia. When MLS was launched three years later and Arena was appointed United's coach, Bradley was on his way to Washington. They doubled as U.S. Olympic coach and assistant, running two teams through the busy summer of '96.
Like at Virginia, Bradley lasted only two years and was hired to coach the expansion Chicago Fire. D.C. and Chicago met in the 1998 final, the Fire winning 2-0 at the Rose Bowl. Bradley spent five years with Chicago — which included four winning seasons and a return trip to the MLS Cup in 2000 for a 1-0 loss to Kansas City — but a desire to return to the East Coast brought him to the downtrodden New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls). In 2005, amid a third straight mediocre season, he was fired.
Bradley resurfaced last spring with Chivas USA and earned coach of the year honors for the second time after guiding the second-year club to a 25-point improvement and a Western Conference playoff berth. He had already begun planning for next season when Gulati called.
"I always say to the players I coach, when certain moments come, you take advantage, you can't look back, you can't be afraid," said Bradley, whose brother, Scott, was a major league catcher for nine years and now coaches Princeton. Another brother, Jeff, writes about soccer and baseball for ESPN The Magazine.
Naturally, Arena was one of the first people Bradley contacted to discuss the U.S. offer.
"He's been a great friend and there is no getting around the fact that when someone has been in it the way he has, his experiences and his insights are very important for everything that we are doing," Bradley said. "I will continue to look toward him. After we spoke about the whole thing, Bruce said to me, 'You're the right man, you should take the job.' "
Despite their history, Bradley said he and Arena are different coaches.
"There are areas that I think are very similar," he said. But "there are differences in terms of how we look at certain things. We don't always think that the same players are as good or as bad or fit the right way."
Arena, too, dismisses the idea of sameness.
"We believe in a lot of the same things, but the way we arrive at the same conclusions is often different," he said. "Bob is Bob. He's learned from me, I've learned from him, but we're different people, we're different coaches."
MLS veteran midfielder Jesse Marsch has had a first-hand view after playing for Arena with United in 1996-97 and for Bradley with both Chicago and Chivas USA.
"Their thoroughness, their passion for soccer, that's very similar, but they communicate differently," he said. "Bruce will try things to motivate you and he's good at it. Playing for Bob is almost easy. It's very clear what is expected."
Bradley's tenuous status is not unprecedented. In 1995, Steve Sampson was promoted from interim to full-time coach after a series of quality results and the USSF's failure to secure a deal with Portugal's Carlos Queiroz or Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Could it happen again?
"I will be very driven to lead our team the right way," Bradley said. "I am confident in my work."