American soccer desperately needs more Michael Bradleys. Dozens more. As many more as we can get, and as soon as the developmental pathway (or blind luck) can spit them out.
There, I said it.
Maybe that sparked a “Are you kidding me?” tweet straight into my mentions. Maybe you’re nodding in agreement. Maybe, ahead of yet another final for Bradley and Toronto FC, we can all acknowledge that we’re still working out how to define the legacy – sorry Bob, I know it’s not your favorite word – of one of this country’s greatest ever players.
Because somehow, in the long shadow cast by Couva and a World Cup that came and went without the United States, wishing for more Michael Bradleys has become something of a polarizing statement. Somehow the word “overrated” crept into the conversation around the Reds’ captain and stayed there.
And it’s fine if you agree. We’re all entitled to an opinion.
US national team fans were entitled to be upset Bradley returned to MLS in his prime. Atlanta United supporters were entitled to boo Bradley and Jozy Altidore after Couva. MLS players were entitled to vote Bradley the second most overrated player in the league in ESPN’s anonymous poll ahead of last season. Gregg Berhalter is entitled to play whoever he wants as the No. 6 for the US.
Here’s my opinion: Michael Bradley is the archetype for everything we hope the American player can and will be, in MLS and beyond.
Before we go any further here, it’s probably my ethical responsibility to publicly acknowledge that I’m an unapologetic Bradley stan. He’s my favorite US men’s national team player of all time. If you’ve got a Heerenveen home kit from that magical 2007/08 season – 15 goals from a 20-year-old American in a European top flight! – I’m prepared to make you an offer you can’t refuse.
And though I stan, I’m not blind to reality.
Bradley’s legacy is more complicated than most. He’s the son of one of American soccer’s most influential coaches. Not just that, he played for his father for club and country. He was the captain of the US team that failed when it mattered most and missed a World Cup for the first time since I was born. His salary this year was second only to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he will reportedly make $6.5 million more in 2020 should Toronto FC win MLS Cup (Sunday, 3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN).
But none of that should blind you from what Bradley’s built and is still building. Archetypes do not demand perfection, but they must pursue it. And that never-ending slog toward greatness, in my mind, is what defines Michael Bradley’s career. In almost every way, he is the model for what we say we want in an American player.
Before skipping college was du jour in US soccer circles, a 16-year-old Bradley made the jump straight to the professional game. He didn’t play a minute his rookie season with the MetroStars. Bob barely took him off the field the next season, 30 starts earning the teenager a move to the Eredivisie.
In Heerenveen, a town better known for speed skating than soccer, it took Bradley three months to force his way into the team. He learned Dutch. He took part in the local customs (seriously, click the link and watch the video). He helped the Frisians qualify for the UEFA Cup, then helped the US finish atop their group at the 2007 U-20 World Cup.
Bradley scored 19 goals all competitions in his second full season with Heerenveen. He lived what we one day hope for Richie Ledezma. Those performances got him full national team call-ups. They earned him a move to the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach. He scored both goals to "dos a cero" Mexico. He helped will the US to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. He started all four matches in South Africa before Ghana ended the Americans' fairytale run.
He learned German. He moved to the Premier League with Aston Villa. He never broke in. So off he went to Chievo Verona (USMNT fans: “Huh? Where?”), and became “The General.” He learned Italian. Roma came calling. Bradley won a starting job. He played next to Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi, Erik Lamela and Miralem Pjanic.
I liked that Bradley was ambitious. He moved up the soccer pyramid while thriving with the USMNT. He bounced back from failure. He became a polyglot and did as the locals do. He was a risk-taker. May every American soccer player be so fortunate.
May all of us be so fortunate as to choose our next professional destination as Bradley did in 2014. May we all pray ours are not as publicly polarizing. Back to MLS? In his prime? Before a World Cup in which he would start every game? It was a risk to move to Toronto FC, no matter how big the bloody deal. This was a club Danny Koevermans infamously called “the worst team in the world” two years prior.
But Bradley’s entitled to an opinion, too. It’s his career. It’s his life. He chose leadership, and yes, a life-changing large paycheck came with it. He wanted to change a club. He wanted to be that change. He’s played more games with a Toronto FC crest on his chest than any other in his career, by a wide margin.
Ten finals in six years later, it’s no stretch to say Bradley’s arrival and presence changed the fortunes of a moribund club. That, just as much as his individual accomplishments, is his legacy.
Toronto FC supporters know it. It’s why they spent days painting a tifo to honor their talisman, whose future was very much in limbo, before the playoffs began. The pulleys lifted a massive image of Bradley applauding the fans above into the sky at BMO. Below, these words: Your City. Your Legacy. Our Captain Forever.
“My position is I love the club, love the team and love the city,” Bradley said when asked about his future with the club back in September. “And I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life than here, in every sense — in a sporting sense, in a family sense. That part, that’s an incredible feeling.”
And here Bradley stands yet again, six years after he arrived in Toronto. Altidore needs “a miracle” to play. Sebastian Giovinco is long gone. Jermain Defoe’s only tie to the 6ix is by making the news for getting fooled by a Drake impersonator. It turns out Bradley was the bloody big deal, after all.
On Sunday, Toronto FC may pay $6.5 million for a championship and another year with their captain. If so, it’ll be worth every cent. They may fall short, the Sounders putting a bookend on the MLS Cup matchup that’s defined MLS 3.0 and the Reds’ captain headed into an offseason with uncertainty for the first time in awhile.
Either way, Bradley will be in the middle of it, inspiring opinions on both sides of the spectrum. Call him overrated. Call him overpaid. Call him whatever you want. It won’t change the truth.
We’ve been spoiled by Michael Bradley. May there be many more like him to come.