AMSTERDAM – Anyone observing Bob Bradley over the years has probably felt at times that the coach knows something we don't. For those wondering what in the world the erstwhile Stabaek manager was thinking to pass up a Europa League invite he earned to become manager of Ligue 2 side Le Havre, another one of those times may well have arrived.
We’ll go through all the particulars of the move one-by-one, but expect a happy story. A lot of things are lining up to make this a shrewd move by both the club and Bradley. Folks, I can see it now... we're all going to have some fun with this one.
Le Havre AC, the oldest club in all of France, is located in a Normandy harbor town with a metro area of around 300,000 people. They last played in Ligue 1 in the 2008-09 season, lasting just one season in the top-fight before being relegated back to the second division. The club's longest run in the top flight was nine seasons, from 1992-2000, and their only piece of major silver was earned with the 1959 Coupe de France title.
Le Havre is perhaps best known for its youth development program, which has produced the likes of Paul Pogba, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Vikash Dhorasoo and Lassana Diarra. The club is owned by American businessman Vincent Volpe, who is showing some serious ambition. They have the fifth-highest budget in the league, so an earnest promotion fight would be right on par. Le Havre play in the three-year-old Stade Oceane, which houses just over 25,000 fans, sits a short walk from where the English Channel ferry lets off, and glows blue at night.
After sporting director Christophe Revault took the reins from Thierry Goudet on an interim basis at the start of October, Les Ciel et Marine (the Sky-and-Navy) have set sail. Since playing to a scoreless draw in Revault's debut, Le Havre have won four straight to reach fourth-place in the second flight.
The make-up of the team is not unlike what Bradley had at Stabæk: a handful of key veterans amongst a lot of youngsters learning on the job. However, whereas Bradley had built a well-rounded team in Norway, this one has gotten hot thanks to their defense. The attack, led by 2014 Ligue 2 Golden Boot winner Mathieu Duhamel's four tallies, has hit multiple goals only three times this season. To compensate, Le Havre have become road warriors this term, winning five of their eight away matches.
Overall, the squad is already warming and should get better as the season continues. Former Marseille, PSG and Cameroon midfield enforcer Modeste M'Bbami was a late arrival and is just now working his way to full match fitness. They already have four goals and two assists from young front line attackers and Le Havre II top gun Nathael Julan recently graduated to the first team.
Bradley loves to work. He loves to build close teams and formulate plans. This all will come in handy, because the mission is clear for this two-year contract: Bring Le Havre back to the top flight and keep them there to serve as the foundation for a quest toward a golden era.
The New Jersey native grew a good bit tactically during his time with Stabaek. This area will provide Bradley's biggest test in his new job, as French teams love to play chess on the field. He also will need to find the right combination for Le Havre's midfield, but he will have the players to do it. At Stabaek, Bradley showed he could constantly re-tool a winning team on a shoestring budget. Those days are now over, freeing him to build a squad for the long-term. If he needs a reinforcement or two in January, the money should be available, as the club only spent what they took in sales this past summer.
Le Havre have been switching back and forth between a 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 empty bucket this season, playing their best in the latter formation. Obviously, from his past experiences with these sets, Bradley will know where to start molding his game plans and none of ideas should jar the regulars. In many ways, everything here is set up for to the coach shine again. He will truly be Bob the Builder at Stade Oceane, able to create a squad without any obvious financial limitations for the first time.
Ligue 2 is about on par with Serie B in Italy and a shade below England and Germany, which are generally considered to have the top second divisions in the world. As such, Bradley will not be wading into a dramatic rise in league quality level coming from Norway. However, if he can take the club into Ligue 1, it becomes a whole new world for American club managers and their followers back home.
The thing is, Bradley has coached in plenty of bigger games than the ones he'll deal with at his new post. He's won a World Cup group, folks. He's raised MLS Cup and the Gold Cup, which are a lot harder to claim than some might like to think. He can certainly handle whatever this level can throw at him.
Being brutally honest, for this type of proven clubhouse leader to take charge of a group with upside sitting a few points shy of the Ligue 1 elevator this early in the season, promotion should be expected. That's why he's being proudly unveiled on Wednesday.
Will he get the job done? He has six months to jump at least two rungs in the table. Since none of the other top contenders look like running away with the crown and Bradley could well inherit a nearly 100 percent fit group, we can start wondering what it may be like to have an American coach win a league title in Europe. The progression will continue in Ligue 1, come hell or high water.