Let’s go back to the 2004 MLS SuperDraft.
It seems like a long time ago, but even if you don’t remember it, you do actually remember it. It’s the one where a 14-year-old wunderkind named Freddy Adu was the prize catch, and would play only for hometown club D.C. United.
Except D.C. United didn’t hold the top pick – FC Dallas (neé Burn) did. So there was some pushing and pulling, a little bit of back-room dealing and arm-twisting, and when all was said and done, D.C. got the pick and Dallas got an allocation.
More importantly, the first American superstar was making his first stop on a journey that would surely, we were told, end up with him as the midfield maestro at one of the world’s great clubs. Adu would be the guy who broke through, who gave the US player credibility on the world stage.
Two hours and 35 picks later, the MetroStars took Michael Bradley. Nobody thought much of it at the time.
Over the past eight years, however, we’ve begun to think of it more and more. Bradley has exceeded expectations at every stop, becoming Metro’s starting defensive midfielder in 2005 at age 17, moving to Heerenveen a year later, putting up a 20-goal season in 2007-08 and becoming one of the Eredivisie’s best box-to-box midfielders along the way.
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Bradley being Bradley, he wanted a bigger challenge, so he moved to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga. “Too high!” his detractors shouted. But he didn’t listen – instead he won yet another starting role, and held it.
He did so at home as well, becoming a starter for the US national team, one of the first names on his father’s team sheet. All before he could legally buy a drink.
He went on to star at the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup. He scored huge goals in World Cup qualifying, barked at the press and referees and covered more ground than most figured was humanly possible.
Bradley’s career arc kept defying conventional wisdom. He’s a good, but not outstanding athlete. He’s got nice feet, but isn’t a wizard on the ball. He can play the last pass if given time, but isn’t the type to carve out said time himself if under pressure.
In short, he doesn’t really have a lot of the loud components that easily translate when scouting a player and assessing his upside.
What he did have – and still does – is an ability to address his own shortcomings and turn them into strengths. He no longer runs himself out of plays, over-pursuing the ball; now he’s known for his tactical discipline. You can no longer overplay his right foot; his left’s nearly as good. And he doesn’t go to ground for risky slide tackles anymore – not unless the situation absolutely calls for it, or somebody needs to be sent a message.
Unless you’re specifically watching him, Bradley is almost entirely unremarkable (the lone exception being set pieces, where he remains deadly either serving them or finishing them). He is the ultimate cog, the consummate coach’s kid.
And he’s found a perfect fit in Italy, where even the most outstanding players are hammered ruthlessly into the correct tactical shape, whether it’s Arrigo Sacchi benching Roberto Baggio at the 1994 World Cup or Thierry Henry being shipped from Juventus to Arsenal for a fraction of his true value because he didn’t quite fit the plan.
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Bradley, of course, isn’t at the level of Baggio or Henry in their respective primes. But while we stateside are still marveling at the fact that a kid who was almost always an afterthought has worked himself into better and better situations, he’s become the darling of the Italian press. They call him “General Bradley,” and basically genuflected before him in February when he played a key role in the US’ 1-0 win over the Azzurri. He’s expected to be named Chievo Verona’s Player of the Year when the season wraps after this weekend.
And after that, when the transfer window opens, he’s expected to be sold to one of the “big” clubs. The Italian press are convinced it’s Roma, where he would absolutely make a nice midfield running-mate to Daniele De Rossi.
But a source tells MLSsoccer.com it’s actually Inter Milan who are making the hardest push for him (to the tune of high seven figures). And that the Nerazzurri see Bradley – our afterthought, our “How’d he make it there?” guy – as the heir to the great Javier Zanetti in midfield.
It’s stunning. It’s a move that, should Bradley pull it off, would be a breakthrough for any US player. This isn’t coming up through the system and getting spot minutes, or just going to a big club and filling a role: This is going to one of the world’s eight (give or take) biggest clubs and taking the place of a guy who will, at some point, be commemorated with a statue.
So it turns out we’re going to get (if our source is correct) exactly what we were promised in 2004: a precocious teenaged talent who made his first stop in MLS, then kept climbing the ladder, ever onwards and upwards until eventually landing a key midfield role at one of the best clubs in the world.
Nobody then would have guessed it would be Bradley. But at this point, it’s beyond time to stop being surprised when he exceeds our expectations.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.