Bob Bradley's dismissal as head coach of the US men's national team shouldn't have come as a complete shock, and not just because of the team's Gold Cup final debacle against Mexico, or the lingering feeling that the 2010 World Cup was a wasted chance to go further.
No, the firing should have been seen coming because for US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, Bradley was always a second choice.
Bradley put his job in jeopardy with a disappointing stretch of results dating back to the summer of 2010, capped by a brutal fall-from-ahead loss to arch-rival Mexico in June's Gold Cup Final, but the reality is that, dating back to his very first appointment as US head coach, Bradley was standing in the shadow of the coach who Gulati really wanted.
It is no secret that Gulati chased Jürgen Klinsmann on two previous occasions, and after each failed attempt, Gulati turned to Bradley as his fallback plan. Each time, Bradley gladly accepted the responsibility of what he always considered his dream job.
Bradley did a good job in his first four-year cycle, leading the United States to a 2007 Gold Cup title, the 2009 Confederations Cup final, first place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and even first place in the US team's 2010 World Cup group. That still didn't keep Gulati from feeling an opportunity was missed in the World Cup to make a deep run, and it didn't stop him from having doubts about Bradley's future.
After struggling in the first year of his second World Cup cycle, Bradley made it easy for Gulati to once again consider the possibilities. Now it appears he has succeeded in landing the sort of high-profile head coach he always wanted for the position.
Klinsmann is being strongly linked to the job again and is considered the leading candidate to be named as Bradley's replacement on Friday, and if he and Gulati finally worked out the differences that kept them from reaching agreements twice before, then Gulati's sudden dismissal of Bradley becomes all the more understandable.
The reality is Gulati's re-hiring of Bradley always had the feeling of a forced move, like a marriage of convenience doomed to end in divorce. Given the poor track record managers have in their second World Cup cycles (Bruce Arena being the most recent American example), a second World Cup cycle for Bradley seemed more likely to fail that succeed.
That had to weigh on Gulati's mind as he prepared another courtship of Klinsmann after the 2010 World Cup, one which ended badly and included Klinsmann coming out publicly and revealing that he had spoken to Gulati about the position, something Gulati refused to acknowledge, admit or refute. He simply handed Bradley a new contract and did his best to pretend that he'd gotten the coach he wanted.
That move now looks like an unmitigated disaster. Not only did Gulati hand Bradley a four-year contract only to fire him seven months into it (a move that will cost US Soccer somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million), he also handed a coach he wasn't completely sold on precious time that a new coach could have used to start shaping and steering the US national team program.
Gulati isn't likely to worry too much about that mis-step if he did indeed finally land his man. Though Klinsmann is far less appealing a coaching candidate now than he was in the summer of 2006 (when he had just led Germany to third place in the World Cup), Klinsmann is still a wildly popular candidate among the scores of US national team fans who believe a high-profile coach is needed to help the United States reach a new level.
Klinsmann is an appealing choice, though he can hardly be described as a can't-miss option, not after flaming out as Bayern Munich manager and basically spending the past few years in coaching limbo. What he does bring is a fresh perspective and an international approach, something that could shake things up after almost a dozen years of the Bruce Arena/Bob Bradley era.
As much as critics of Bradley will point to his tenure as head coach and think of the disappointments, the fact is Bradley's run as head coach had just as many high points as low points, and he deserves credit for helping the US team through a period of major transition after the retirements of key players like Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope. He made his share of mistakes, but he also won a fair amount, including multiple victories against Mexico and that unforgettable win against Spain.
Bradley's tenure could have been better, but at a time when international managers weren't knocking down Gulati's door to take the US job, Bradley stepped up and filled the void admirably. Though never flashy or the charismatic type who was going to win fans over with his personality, Bradley brought a strong work ethic to a young, maturing team that needed a stern leader.
We will find out soon enough whether a national team manager with a big name and European pedigree can produce better results than the Americans who came before, and if Klinsmann is the pick to replace Bradley, we will find out whether all the trouble Gulati went through to hire him was worth it.