Image via Nilesports.com.
Image via Nilesports.com.
It says something about Egypt's political scene, and something else besides, that the most popular authority figure in the nation at present was born in New Jersey. That would be Bob Bradley, the former Princeton star and U.S. Men's National Team manager whose Egyptian national team currently sits atop of its World Cup qualifying group. Under Bradley's leadership, the seven-time African champions appear headed to Brazil in 2014. In a country that's currently not enamored of most people in positions of power, this has made Bradley both popular and the most visible American coach in the international soccer world.
But he is far from the only one. There is a growing group of Americans and foreign-born American citizens who work as coaches and technical directors, for teams in nations as far flung as the Netherlands, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. They represent a new type of soccer manager: Men who were hired in part because of their very American-ness. "I'm not sure I'd be ready to call this a trend, but I think there is this very general sense with coaches and even with players that there's an American mentality," Bradley said during a phone interview. "When it's looked at in this kind of a general way, it's always positive because people think Americans work hard, and compete, and want to be number one."
This is a recent phenomenon. In 2009, John Murphy became the first American to coach in British professional soccer when he took the helm at Livingston FC in the Scottish 1st Division. Afshin Ghotbi immigrated to Los Angeles from Tehran when he was 13, but coached the Iranian the national team from 2009 to 2011; he now manages Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan's Division 1. Omid Namazi and Dan Gaspar are currently assistants with Iran. Petaluma, California native Joe Enochs spent the majority of his playing days with German second division team VfL Osnabrück and started coaching the club in 2011.
This list also includes Dutch-Americans Earnie Stewart (technical director, Alkmaar Zaanstreek), Gregg Berhalter (manager, Hammarby IF), Troy Ready (technical director, Tajikistan) and French-American Pierre Barrieu (fitness coach, United Arab Emirates). Stewart and Barrieu were not born in the United States, but they are American citizens with close ties to the U.S. soccer program.
The number is small but impressive given the dearth of opportunities for American coaches to gain international recognition. Although Major League Soccer now boasts 11 American managers across its 19 clubs, the league holds little cache in the rest of the world. Managing the U.S. Men's National Team is one of the only ways for a coach to earn widespread respect. Bradley's hiring by the Egyptian Federation in September 2011 marked a milestone in terms of how the world perceives American coaches. While the very fact that he got the job says a lot about the perception of U.S. coaches, his success may well have opened the door for future U.S. coaching hopefuls. "I respect what Bob Bradley has done," Murphy said. "That is a tough, tough job."
Sporting directors responsible for hiring soccer coaches from the U.S. say that clubs increasingly value the American focus on winning. Toon Gerbrands, who brought Stewart to AZ, saw this attitude at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. "When Americans go to the Olympic games, they only go to win," the former volleyball player said. "In Holland when we go, we have a goal. We might want to be top three or top five. From the USA's perspective, that's unbelievable. You go for the win all the way. That's a very American way of thinking."
Stewart, who spent the majority of his club career in the Netherlands but played in 101 matches for the U.S. Men's National Team, took the AZ job in June 2010. Notably, AZ's leading scorer during the 2012-2013 campaign is American forward Jozy Altidore. Gerbrands, the club's director of general affairs, appreciated the way in which Stewart's European understanding of soccer tactics meshed with his American drive.
Berhalter landed a coaching job in Sweden for the same reason. The New Jersey-born defender, who retired in 2011 after spending most of his 17-year playing career abroad on teams in England, Germany, and the Netherlands, manages Hammarby. Gustaf Grauers, the club's sporting director, was not initially seeking an American for the vacant coaching position. He found Berhalter after a colleague at AEG—which owns both Hammarby and the Los Angeles Galaxy—suggested the former North Carolina Tar Heels star. "I lived in the US for two years and I know the winning mentality, the competitiveness, and the mindset of American athletes," Grauers said. "[Berhalter's] idea of soccer probably comes more from Europe but his mentality comes from the U.S., and it's very appealing to me."
These managers, like the many American players scattered across international leagues, are helping to dispel the stereotype that Americans don't understand the beautiful game. "I think [sporting directors] stopped seeing lesser coaches. There used to be a bias against Americans, but I think it's starting to shift a little bit," said Barrieu, who spent his first 29 years in France and served as U.S. fitness coach during Bradley's tenure.
The Amsterdam-born Thomas Rongen, who spent his playing days in the U.S. and managed the American Under-20 squad for a decade before jumping to American Samoa in 2011, thinks teams abroad respect more than the desire to win. Sports organizations in the U.S. are more advanced in terms of analysis, sponsorship, technology, and business. "I had a lot of calls from people in the soccer industry like [former Holland star] Ruud Gullit and [former Barcelona manager] Frank Rijkaard," Rongen said. "They wanted to spend three weeks with the New England Patriots."
Bradley agrees with Rongen's assessment. "Coaches in different sports are looking always to see good examples of coaching at a high level. And I do think that some foreign coaches who have an understanding of sports in the U.S. understand that Bill Belichick has a reputation for detail and the way he does things," he said. "Without a doubt, there has been respect and admiration for the way organizations are run, the way the NFL is run."
Hiring an American coach makes sense for a foreign team that wants to mimic a U.S. organization. As John Murphy notes, however, there is more on the line when choosing a coach than a player. "When a coach comes over, people are going to feel like he's taking somebody's job. It's the same for the players, but on a team of 30 pros, there's more opportunity than getting one of three or four coaching positions with that club," he said.
More American players will land at big international clubs than coaches, but players and coaches are in this game together. "People around the world see the direction the game is going in the U.S. and they respect the players and they respect the coaches. With time, we'll see more and more people getting opportunities," Bradley said. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena, Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis, former U.S. players Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, even new Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter could soon find themselves hot commodities on the international soccer scene. Which means that Bradley—while he's probably likely to remain Egypt's most popular leader for at least a little while—could soon have competition for the distinction of most visible American manager.