Sports leadership

Swansea Fires Bob Bradley: The End of American Managers in the Premier League

Bob Bradley’s firing/sacking by Swansea City yesterday set off the predictable firestorm in the U.S. soccer media. Old battle lines were drawn and both sides took to the modern version of Agincourt: Twitter. The pro-USA crowd immediately accused Swansea, the Premier League, and fans of not giving the former USMNT coach a chance because he said funny things like PK and got his start coaching the New York MetroStars. The Europhile crowd dismissed the sacking as what happens when you have an abysmal record after eleven matches and your team is doomed to relegation, and generally failed to acknowledge that being an American/non-U.K. based coach may have been a factor in stacking the deck against Bradley.

As usual, I find the truth to be more in the middle. Bradley’s coaching resume with the Egyptian national team and in Norway and France suggests he is a smart enough coach to be hired by a Premier League club looking for a different voice. His more attacking style of play, however, was a bad mesh with the current Swansea line-up and his failure to adjust to obvious deficiencies early in his tenure suggest he would be unable to turn around a club desperate to escape relegation. Bradley’s philosophy, however, is in line with other managers in England and would suite a PL club, just not this Swansea City side here and now. So the result is a manager justly fired but the firing should not bee seen as a damning mark against his abilities. If Bradley lands at a good European club and helps them to excel, he should earn a second chance at the Premier League or another top-rate league.

But we do need to go back and look at the accusation of Bradley’s Americanism working against him. Is it as simple as if he would have been Bob Bradley from Merseyside that he would have survived to the transfer window in January, in order to get his style of players? Yes and no. The simplistic reading is, yes, English Bob Bradley is treated much better by the fans and media because he is not American. I’d posit a different view: English Bob Bradley is treated much better by the fans and media because he is English. The nuance here matters.

When you take a look at the nationalities of managers in leagues around the world, something becomes apparent that may be obvious. Primarily, the teams in your league are managed by people from your region. Since the Premier League was launched in the mid-1990s, overwhelmingly managers of clubs in the league hail from the United Kingdom or Ireland. There have been more managers from Northern Ireland in the Premier League than Italy or France. Brazil, known for its soccer success, sent only one manager to England since the League was formed.

Looking at other major leagues, we see a pattern. Currently in the Bundesliga, arguably on par if not above the Premier League in quality, overwhelmingly the managers are of German or Central European descent. Ten of the current managers are German, and the others come from nearby Austria, Switzerland, France, or the Balkans. One (Alexander Nouri of Werder Bremen) was born and played in German but has Iranian hertitage, and one is Italian (some guy named Ancelotti). Move across the different leagues in Europe and you see the same lack of nationalist diversity in the coaching ranks at the top flight. The managers in your league are from your country and region. Soccer clubs are most comfortable with managers from their culture and tradition.

If you asked a soccer knowledgeable person to name the three countries that produce the best soccer managers, they’d say something like England, Scotland, and Italy (for example). In this example, why do teams in France hire French managers to fill their managerial vacancies?  Shouldn’t they more often look over the border to see who’s doing well in Italy and hire them? Why shouldn’t a manager who just brought a club up from Serie B to Serie A be atop every French team’s wish list? Or, more parochially, why aren’t more MLS, NASL, and USL teams managed by Englishmen, Scots, and Italians? There are certainly enough clubs in these countries that there is no shortage of candidates.

It’s because the people in charge want to be comfortable with who they hire. You can see this in the English media’s criticism of Bob Bradley’s verbiage in his post-match comments. It’s an easy stereotype to fall back on mocking Americans for their silly soccer words, but it also shows a bias towards familiarity. Owners, players, and the media of all countries feel that some who “knows” their soccer scene is the best person to excel domestically. If you want to stay up in the Premier League, managers who grew up following, playing, and working in the country should know the best ways to do this. This is the thinking regardless of the country it seems. Only when you reach the stratosphere of soccer does it seem that nationality doesn’t matter; you can hire an Italian in England to win the Champions League. Of course this is not a new concept.

What does this mean for the next American who wants to manage in the Premier League, or any top league in Europe? Most likely, this person will need to spend as little time in the U.S. as possible. This person will need to play in that country, take a job as a scout or coach in the country, and work in that country or region until they are a known commodity. Call it the Ryan Giggs strategy – be so well-known in a part of the world that glaring deficiencies in your resume can be overlooked. Someone like Bobby Wood is a good example. At this point, he’s spent almost ten years of his career in Germany. If he continues to find success in the Bundesliga or 2.Bundesliga, he can transition from a good playing career into a scouting or coaching position in Germany. At that point, if he continues to be well regarded, he could be seen as a managerial candidate for a top-flight club.

The problem for U.S. soccer fans desperate for a compatriot to succeed as a top flight manager is that Bradley may have been their one chance for a while. In the above scenario, Wood is still years, even decades, away from being a top-flight manager. It is incredibly hard for someone to make the jump Bradley did, from MLS to Europe. The only other viable candidate, Greg Berhalter, left Norway for MLS and may have a hard time reversing that flight. For these U.S. fans, the next American Premier League manager will come from three places, and none are likely in the short-term. The first is the player-to-coach scenario outlined above. The second is a USMNT coach overachieving with the national team to the point that they are viewed as a hot coaching commodity. The third is someone who is not an American citizen but has lengthy American roots (like Dafydd Evans) getting a top job and being claimed by the American soccer community. This may be the quickest path to fulfillment for many fans, but it would lack the “historic” implications that the Bradley hiring had.

The firing of Bob Bradley is not the death of a dream, just a dream long, long deferred.

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