“Right or wrong, I felt I was still improving,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said about his stalled playing career. “I was a late bloomer. Was I good enough? I don’t know. When I was done playing in college I still felt I was getting better, that I had something to offer. Yet there wasn’t any place to try it out. Yes, there were reserve teams with the NASL, but there weren’t that many opportunities for Americans. They held open tryouts. You played games where you play against a reserve team. You played in men’s leagues, but nonetheless it was not that easy to find good ways to continue to play. You chased the game.”
That quote comes from page 113 of the aptly-titled Chasing The Game: America and the Quest for the World Cup, a new book by Filip Bondy, a columnist for the New York Daily News. Bondy has covered soccer in America since following the Cosmos in the NASL, with numerous World Cup assignments since 1990, the first time the United States had qualified for the World Cup for forty years (the “decades of futility“).
Bondy’s book is a well-informed journalistic romp through the history of American men’s soccer, flitting chapter by chapter from past to present: in chapter two, we are in 1863, then in chapter three, we are in CONCACAF qualiying for the 2010 World Cup, followed by chapter four, where it’s 1950: (“When the Americans left on a two-day connecting flight for Rio in 1950, their sendoff party was minuscule. A few friends and relatives came to the airport, but no media. Dispatches on the matches from wire services were never more than a couple of paragraphs long and the only American newspaper reporter on the trip was a writer with the incomparable name of Dent McSkinny from the soccer hotbed of St. Louis, home to several U.S. players. McSkinny paid his own way.”)
At the heart of the book is the transformation of American soccer, and the growing opportunities the game gives good young American players: it is a tale enscapsulated by the story of Bob Bradley and his son, Michael, who will play for his father this Saturday in the United States’ game against England. Unlike the ragtag bunch who travelled to the World Cup in 1950, many of the American players who will appear on June 12th have been systematically groomed for that purpose: while the elder Bradley “chased the game” as a talented youngster with few opportunities to further his career in the NASL-era after college, the game quite literally came to his son, Michael.
We read about Bob Bradley’s emptiness in the 1980s, coaching Princeton, “a period of time when college soccer was still the primary destination for America’s top players. The Tigers won a couple of Ivy League titles and reached the NCAA Final Four in 1993. But after a while he found that this university job was incapable of supporting his obsession.”
The formation of MLS in 1996, in Bondy’s story, comes to Bradley’s rescue: assisting Bruce Arena at DC United, success with the Fire and failure with the MetroStars are equally important in the forging of Bradley’s intense managerial style.
His talented son Michael, meanwhile, is able to take up a different path as a young player than his father, due to the clearer path from youth development to the professional ranks: “He grew up, mostly, in Palatine, IL, after Bob accepted the head coaching position of the Chicago Fire. After his amateur team, Sockers FC, advanced to the 2002 national championships, Michael was quickly singled out as an exceptional talent. His parents then reluctantly agreed to send him off for two years to the Bradenton Academy in Florida.”
Reluctantly, we learn, because of Bob’s concern about Michael leaving home at the age of fifteen, as he tells Bondy: “In the U.S., when you have kids you think they’ll be home with you until the time time they’re eighteen years old. And so when all of a sudden, there’s this idea that Michael might leave at fifteen, that’s different. But you can’t talk about having dreams and working hard for dreams and then all of a sudden when the day comes, you say, ‘No,’ at that moment.”
The Bradleys, especially reticent to talk to the media about each other, are portrayed together in rare detail. We see how soccer has become a generational gift, the son’s love for the game and talent carefully nurtured by the father, something that was not possible for Bob in earlier years.
This is, as I mentioned, a journalist’s book. There are moments of insight, but this isn’t a book exploring in depth the value of the new youth development system put in place from Bradenton to Project 40 to the US Soccer Development Academy system. But it does a good job as a primer explaining what this is all about, and how it’s taking American soccer down a different path from the haphazard development of the past.
Jay Berhalter, formerly of US Soccer, is quoted as saying: “We’re looking at this thing, and we decided the system is broken. Watching the 2006 Wold Cup, you could see we hadn’t made enough progress. It’s been great, but not good enough. Unless we’re honest, we’re just going to keep painting the pig and not get anywhere.”
Race and immigration come up as Bondy considers the changing development of the US national team, Rossi, Torres and Castillo’s stories are discussed, but this isn’t a think piece on the meaning of all this.
Still, Bondy has plenty of entertaining and informative raw material to fill the pages with on both the broader picture of this changing landscape alongside the details of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, including interviews with key figures from Bradley to Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer, “the man behind the curtain”, who sees it all playing out: “From his little office at Columbia, he saw the whole ball of wax, spinning and spinning, moving forward slowly and steadily at the same time.”
Yet there are events, my dear boy, events to chronicle — these, of course, impact how that ball of wax spins: handballs called and not called at the 2006 World Cup, or El Salvador’s WIlliam Reyes somehow shooting straight at Tim Howard from eight yards out in a critical qualifier for the U.S. just last year.
Events, indeed, threaten to run ahead of this timely book: DaMarcus Beasley’s international career is (fairly enough at the time the words were written) portrayed as practically over in the descriptions of his poor performances in 2009, when in fact he is now in South Africa for his third World Cup campaign. His selection, of course, was on a knife-edge just weeks ago, so no discredit to Bondy: just a reminder of how quickly a contemporaneous book can feel dated. This book has a shelf-life of about two more weeks before a rushed revised edition will surely be needed.
But the events covered are described in lively enough fashion. Page-turning, short chapters easily spring us back-and-forward through American soccer history. And given the paucity of narratives out there about the American team — apart from now near mythically recalled moments like Belo Horizonte in 1950 — this is a valuable addition to any American soccer fan’s library for the coming weeks, and might also give English fans a few things to think about ahead of Saturday.
As Gulati is quoted as saying on the back cover: “All of my dreams end the same way, with us winning the World Cup. But if we talk about when that will happen, it starts getting a little fuzzy.”