AMSTERDAM – Early last year, US boss Jurgen Klinsmann charged his squad with seeking out new challenges to progress as players. And since then, perhaps no American has filled the brief better than AS Roma midfielder Michael Bradley.
While he stayed in the same league, the 25-year-old moved to a new level with a summer transfer from Chievo. In the sweltering heat of Roman soccer, Bradley has spent most of this Serie A season confirming that Klinsmann's message was received.
"He talks about playing at higher levels," Bradley told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Roma's training ground on Wednesday. "Without that drive and determination, it's hard for anyone to become a real player."
If he wasn't already that "real player" before arriving, he has surely announced it this season. Working out of a packed midfield stable, Bradley has started 18 of his 21 league matches for the Giallorossi – sometimes even getting the nod ahead of local hero Daniele De Rossi.
It's not just quantity with Bradley. There have been precious few sub-par outings from the American, who has consistently provided a holding foundation for the top attack in Italy. Roma are a team with high aspirations and plenty of promising talent.
"We talk about being a team that can play in the Champions League and play for championships," Bradley said.
They are also a team in a cauldron, with raucous and ravenous supporters to please. If Klinsmann has a "higher level" checklist, Bradley has ticked all the boxes to qualify.
"Roma is one of the biggest clubs in the world in one of the biggest cities in the world," he said. "There's pressure from the outside, there's pressure from the inside. There's this want and need and desire to have a successful team. Every time we step on the field, we're expected to win."
Of course, Bradley knows all about repeatedly finding higher levels, counting both his club and international careers. Not one to rest on accomplishments, he still talks a lot like the teenager who arrived at Heerenveen from MLS to start proving a lot of people wrong about his ceiling as a player.
"There's no time to stand around and feel good about yourself, you know? You're constantly trying to improve and push yourself up that ladder, so the move to Roma has been a great one in all ways," he stated. "But it doesn't stop there. I'm still trying everyday to get better."
If the team can reach its potential, Bradley will find himself back in the Europa League for the first time since an appearance with Heerenveen five years ago.
Roma are currently four points off a Europa League invite and will take a lead into the away leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter Milan next month. They’re five points off the pace for a Champions League invite.
While their play has improved over last season, local fans will quickly grumble that Roma stand in the same place they finished last season. Bradley & Co. are currently on a three-game win streak, a trend he's hoping will set them off toward a stronger end result to the campaign.
"We've been too up and down," he said. "As you move into the most important part of the season, you want to feel like the team is heading forward.
"There's a lot of confidence in the team about our quality. Part of the growing process is making sure that quality means more points on a more consistent basis."
The same can be said these days about the US national team, who are also trying to find new levels.
Predictably, Bradley isn't much for fretting and hand-wringing over a loss in the opener of final round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Needless to say, Bradley is eager to put some points on that board when they meet Costa Rica and Mexico in qualifiers later this month.
"Let's be honest: You can talk about how things didn't go according to plan in the first game, but these two games are huge at this juncture regardless of if we took a point out of Honduras," Bradley said. "These are the two other best teams in the region. The time for talking is over. Now, it's time to step on the field and get the job done."
If it makes tense USMNT observers feel any better, the 2010 World Cup standout is confident the squad will right the ship.
"There's enough guys in that team who have been through difficult moments and played in big games, who know what it's like when everything is on the line," he said. "I said it after the Honduras game: The hexagonal is never easy, there's twists and turns, and things don't always go your way.
"We're not going to let this throw us off. We're going to do everything we need to make sure that after 10 games we're going to the World Cup."