There have been plenty of big games in the English Premier League since NBC Sports became the league's American home three years ago. But there's a buzz around Saturday's Arsenal-Swansea City matchup that has rarely, if ever, been seen on American shores.
It will be Bob Bradley's first game in charge of the Swans, and the first ever Premier League game with an American manager on the sidelines. You can watch it on CNBC at 10 a.m. Eastern.
(Though it's worth noting that NBC won't be sending its own commentary crew to North London for the occasion. Instead, Arlo White and Lee Dixon will be across town for Crystal Palace-West Ham at 12:30 p.m., since it's on NBC's broadcast network.)
I chatted with NBC analyst Kyle Martino to get his take on just how big a deal this is. I figured he'd have some insightful things to say, and he sure did.
"It's bigger than it should be," Martino said. "It shouldn't have taken this long for an American coach to break into the Premier League, and Bob Bradley is as good a candidate as any to be the maverick that paves the way."
Bradley had his critics on this side of the Atlantic during the latter years of his tenure as U.S. national team manager. His preferred playing style didn't seem to value creative, open soccer all that much, and Bradley himself was a pretty reserved guy.
Since getting fired from the post five years ago, though, Bradley has transformed himself into a coach without any equal among his countrymen. It would have been enough if he had simply come back to MLS after his time in Egypt, but going to Norway's Stabaek and France's Le Havre put him even farther clear of the pack.
Yet there was still more to prove, because no American had ever broken the long-unreachable barrier of getting a job in one of Europe's elite leagues. Now Bradley has to prove that he's up to the task - and if he isn't, an entire country will be judged by the game's most entrenched of snobs.
"The perception is that this will make or break the image of the American coach, and I think that's an unfair pressure to put on Bob Bradley," Martino said. "The sample size is one."
At least it is at this level. Gregg Berhalter spent a season coaching Swedish stalwart Hammarby before taking the helm of the Columbus Crew. There's also David Wagner, whose name you're going to know very well soon if you don't already.
Wagner is a former disciple of Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. He won eight U.S. national team caps, including a 1997 World Cup qualifier against Canada. A German-American dual national, he managed Dortmund's reserve team for four seasons before taking the head job at English second-division team Huddersfield Town last year.
Huddersfield is currently atop the league. If they go up to the Premier League next season, Wagner will become a big deal very fast.
Bradley is a big deal now, though. And anyone who has ever dealt with him knows that he's absolutely ready for the stage he has finally been allowed to step on to.
"People talk about the Swansea job, and the pressure of being the only American in the Premier League, being a challenge that might be too big for Bob. Well, this challenge is nothing compared to some of the things that he has dealt with so far," Martino said. "At this point, he is - if you look at his CV, experience and travels - the man best positioned to go and represent American coaching."
Martino never played for Bradley, at club level or during his cut-short-by-injury national team career. But in his days with the Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy, Martino played against Bradley-coached teams plenty. And of course, Martino has plenty of friends among the fraternity of Bradley's current and former pupils.
"The message all around is pretty clear: Bob is a very serious, very organized, very passionate coach who expects a lot out of his players," Martino said. "He has the nerve, he has the resilience and I think he has the acumen to succeed in this job. But the Premier League is the most competitive battleground in the game, so it will test every bit of Bob's coaching caliber."
In his introductory press conference at Swansea, Bradley asked to be regarded as "a football manger," not "an American manager."
But he also laid bare some truths that needed telling when he took aim at some of the sutble biases in the British soccer sphere that automatically deduct points based on one's accent and passport.
"There is the perception, and has been in the past, that Americans can't be good enough without even really doing the due diligence to look into whether that's actually factual," Martino said. "The louder the critic, behind that is a knowledge and a secret - whether it's conscious or not - understanding that we're gaining a lot of ground. That's not something that's easy to take for a country that used to be the big brother in a lot of situations."
Martino has seen it. Bradley has seen it. We've all seen it.
"I'm sure [Bradley] has pride in his country and wants to be this maverick, but first and foremost he wants to be a good manager, and stop being looked at in that light," Martino said. "And being the only American on [NBC's] Premier League coverage, I can relate to that."
I'm sure most of you would rather not go there. The proverbial horse has long since been beaten to death. But the subject at hand is the equivalent of a stable, not just one horse.
(I'll stop the analogy here, as I don't want to be accused of cruelty to animals.)
Here's what matters: Martino went there without any prompting from me. He knew the point that needed to be made. And you, in turn, know exactly what Martino meant.
You can say Robbie Mustoe is American, since he has lived in the United States for a decade now. Robbie Earle has been in the U.S. for a while now too, commentating on Portland Timbers games in 2011 before joining NBC two years later.
But Martino is the only one of NBC's Premier League commentators who has an American accent. When the network hired him, he had to prove his worth to those who believe that only the British can talk authoritatively about the game to U.S. audiences.
"At the beginning, there is an insecurity that all eyes are on you, and your 120 percent is only as good as the others' 90 percent," he said. "A predisposition to think that you can't do the job, without giving you one second of an open mind to see if you can actually do it. What Bob's going to fight against is the same thing I fought when I first started covering the Premier League, which is not only do you have to win fans, but you have to convince people that are hoping you're not good."
Martino proved himself to Premier League fans, and is now widely regarded as one of the top soccer analysts covering any league across American television. If Bradley has anything resembling Martino's success, Swansea will be in very good stead.
"There was a time when we weren't brave enough to speak up and call this game our own, and talk out loud about it, in groups where we felt we were inferior," Martino said. "The average soccer IQ - whether British, French or American - is incredibly high. No one, at this point, has to pass a test to be a soccer fan."
Heaven knows that this subject has been discussed to death and then some by the American soccer community. It has risen again now, but at least it has done so because the game's progress here has reached a genuinely new milepost.
"The quality of play on the field by Americans [and] the quality of commentating in the booth by many of my colleagues that are American have raised the bar," Martino said. "At this point, any perception of inferiority is just a lingering insecurity or chip on the shoulder from us. Any expats or Brits who look down on Americans and think that they're not capable of being part of the game - whether it be as a fan, as a player or as a coach - are definitely eating crow every weekend when they see the quality of people who are involved in the game."
It is even true in Britain itself, as evidenced by the considerable amount of praise Swansea and Bradley got from within that nation's borders. For as crazy as the fans and media can be, they respect hard work and honesty. Bradley brings both traits in spades.
"Once you get in the job and you start putting your head down and doing the work, and proving to others - but I think more importantly, proving to yourself - that you deserve to be there and you're good at it, you just become a coach," Martino said. "Bob has already done that in other leagues, and I expect him to do that again in the Premier League... It might be a harder path for us because of our backgrounds, but at the end of the day, Bob believes in himself, and the parallels are [there]. I believed in myself, and if I didn't, that criticism would have gotten me down, and I wouldn't have been able to perform at my job."
Just in case Bradley needs a little extra motivation - or just in case the British media needs a little extra reminder of its inclination toward ignorance - there's the man who will manage Swansea's opponent on Saturday.
Twenty years ago, Arsène Wenger arrived in London as an unknown Frenchman with ideas and methods never before seen in the sport's birthplace. A decade later, Arsenal had 11 new trophies in its cabinet, including three Premier League titles - the last of which capped off the first undefeated season in the English top flight since the 1880s.
Wenger proved to be a revolutionary hero, becoming one of the planet's most respected managers. But the 10-year trophy drought that followed the 2005 FA Cup triumph led no small number of Gunners loyalists to call for his head. More than a few still do, since for all the club's wealth they still haven't won the Premier League since making the aforementioned history in 2004.
If Wenger's Arsenal loses to Swansea in Bradley's first game in charge, you can be sure that Sunday's headlines won't be about Bradley's triumph. They'll be about Wenger's failure.
"Here's a manager who has won the Premier League in probably the most dominant fashion anyone's ever seen and is still, every single season, having to prove to his own fans that he deserves to be in the position moving forward," Martino said of Wenger. "A manager with an incredible career in the top league, the longest serving manager in the Premier League, who still has his fans questioning his capabilities."
Bradley isn't going to replicate that kind of success, chiefly because Swansea doesn't have Arsenal's resources and likely never will. Heck, the odds of the Swans coming close to Leicester City's miraculous Premier League title run are slim.
Still, the point should be clear to all parties involved.
"Forget some of the criticism, forget some of the shortcuts in thinking that I think a lot of people are taking in their critiques of Bob already," Martino said. "Expectations are not to have Swansea beating Arsenal at this point. Expectations are to improve performances. Bob will do that slowly and methodically."
There's nothing methodical about the hype for what Saturday means to American soccer, though - and there probably shouldn't be. For as much as clashes of Premier League titans are appointment television for fans over here, Bob Bradley's debut at Swansea should be just as big a deal. And I'd be willing to bet that for quite a few folks, it might be even bigger.
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