Brad Friedel prowled some of world soccer’s grandest stages in his remarkable 20-year professional goalkeeping career, places like Galatasaray and Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur, and readily admits opportunities to revisit those thrilling levels of exhilaration are rarer in subsequent chapters of life. Even coaching, he says, has been a difficult substitute.
“I can't tell you if I'll ever go back into coaching or not; I mean, that just depends. But yes, I will agree with you that football is a drug,” Friedel told MLSsoccer.com in a recent phone conversation. “There's no doubt about that.”
He got a reasonable facsimile of that rush from the sidelines while leading the US Under-19 national team and the New England Revolution, if only to a point.
“I found the playing much, much easier than coaching with regards to, the adrenaline gets going kind of in a similar manner," Friedel added. "But then you're helpless most of the time. You can make tactical changes and you can make substitutions, but as an ex-player you can't change what's going on out on the field. You can't. When you get to a certain time in the game, no matter how theatrical the coach is on the sidelines or whatever, you are in the hands of others. And it's an interesting, interesting feeling.”
The ‘keeper who once defined longevity on the global stage – starting a Premier League-record 310 consecutive matches from 2004-12, taking part in three World Cups and playing right up to his 44th birthday – now seems to be taking a new tack in his post-playing trajectory after a decidedly mixed bag with the Revs.
Friedel is spearheading a new North American expansion for Promoesport, a large and growing agency founded by Spaniard Jose Rodriguez Baster that represents dozens of players across Europe’s top leagues, prominent among them Adama Traore, Eric Bailly and Carlos Soler. As it turns out, Friedel sought to bring another of their clients, Alejandro Pozuelo, to New England before the Spanish maestro wound up at Toronto FC and the relationship grew as the Revs made Carles Gil a more-than-adequate alternative.
FC Dallas rookie Eddie Munjoma and recent Chicago Fire FC Homegrown signing Chris Brady are on their client list and Friedel says he’s signed eight players since November, including two Inter Miami prospects. He’s also partnering with his former Blackburn Rovers teammate John Curtis on a project called NCE (National Center of Excellence) that trains and evaluates young players in the Northeast United States and South Florida and aims to become a talent identification pipeline for pro clubs at home and abroad.
Friedel noted the country’s sheer size means even with MLS and USL dramatically expanding their academy systems, young talent can fall through the cracks. “Every player is not going to be able to be seen. So a lot of the kids that will get into NCE are going to be excellent players and some of them may just be outside of the system right now.”
Brad Friedel on the sideline during his time in charge of New England Revolution | USA Today Sports Images
He’s involved in a range of camps, tryouts and ID events along the East Coast as youth soccer activities are cleared to resume following coronavirus-imposed shutdowns. Those sessions provide a welcome dose of field time for the USMNT legend, who calls his time with the Revolution a learning experience, but as a result sounds cautious about top-flight management.
“I obviously wish there were a ton of things that were done different,” he said of his year and a half at the helm in Foxborough, where the Revs went 12W-21L-13D and won just two of their first 12 matches of 2019 before he was dismissed. “I guess in this game, you can never say never. But what I would say is I would never ever go into it without doing more homework on what's above me at a club. That's for sure.”
Friedel, whose straight-shooting temperament made a few headlines during that stint, emphasizes his respect for the Kraft family ownership group, his successor (and former USMNT coach) Bruce Arena and what he considers a mostly dedicated and hard-working squad. Yet there’s also an undercurrent of frustration, including what he felt were limitations imposed by the MLS’s collective bargaining agreement with its players, and significant differences from the footballing culture across the pond.
“Perhaps I wasn't willing to change enough, to regress a little bit,” he recalled, “but I really wanted to try to take the sport and the team of New England up to where I was used to, and how things were run at your Liverpools and Tottenhams and Galatasarays and Blackburns … I tried to take everything that I learned, and perhaps the people were sick of hearing what the Premier League was about, things like that. And I'm sure it backfired on me as well, but I was really trying to take the club up to that level.”
In a recent interview with coaching educator Gary Curneen, Friedel described players reporting to preseason as much as 20 pounds overweight, and being prevented from pulling them out of first-team training until they were fit. And he spoke of others in the locker room who he felt dragged down the rest, taking issue with the most basic rules, like wearing team gear on road trips.
That sense of freedom and relief that was palpable when Arena took over and sparked a dramatic improvement in Revs results? Friedel’s view hints at the other side of the coin.
“In the first six months we were very good, it was new, the players bought into it,” he said. “At that stage I needed to be backed. And when certain staff members and certain players needed to be out of the club, I was told, no. And then you're dead. Because I'm asking these players every single day to work harder than they've ever worked in their life.
“It’s all about professionalism for me, it really was. I just could not get my head around it.”
Brad Friedel gives instructions to New England Revolution's Teal Bunbury and Diego Fagundez. | USA Today Sports Images
The man who’s made more Premier League appearances than any other American – 450, a mark unlikely to ever be touched – and worked under luminaries like Gerard Houllier, Harry Redknapp and Mauricio Pochettino clearly has a vision of how the game should be played, based on an up-tempo, pressing-oriented philosophy. He’d like to transmit some of what he learned in England to the United States, but he has little patience for even a hint of the complacency he fended off for nearly two decades at the top.
“There were players that turned up every single day and gave their all,” he said. “But there was also the element that wanted to turn up as late as they possibly could and leave as early as they could, and have this job be sort of an hour-and-a-half to two-hours-a-day job. And that's not really what soccer has turned into.”
So for now Friedel’s journey will take him in a different direction, along a different route to help American soccer and its rising crops of young talent.
“I have to say I'm really happy doing what I'm doing right now,” Friedel said. “It's another learning curve, it’s another area that I probably never thought I would be getting into.”