After returning home to play in MLS, Michael Bradley is ready to lead the U.S. at the World Cup
During the final weeks of the 2010 World Cup, a painting titled American Dream hung at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. It depicted the celebration after the United States scored a late goal to secure a crucial 2–2 tie against Slovenia. The artist captured players and staff celebrating with a massive pileup. But the man who scored the goal, Michael Bradley, was nowhere to be found in the painting. He surely would be just fine with that, though. He was at the center of the pile.
It was fitting. The 26-year-old is the heart of the U.S. midfield, but he's not always noticeable. Bradley doesn't score many goals internationally (just 12 in eight years). But he's smart, tireless and ably performs whatever task the team needs, no matter how thankless. If the U.S. is going to survive its difficult draw and advance past the group stage for a second straight World Cup, Bradley is going to have to repeat his inspiring play.
Bradley wasn't physically gifted growing up. Though he's a lean yet imposing 6′ 2″, he didn't grow into his body until long after he'd learned to compete. He was born into an athletic family. His uncle Scott spent nine seasons as a major league baseball player. His mom, Lindsay, was a lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, and his dad, Bob, was the soccer coach at Princeton. There, Michael would hang out before and after practice, looking for a piece of the action.
In 1996, when Michael was eight, the Bradleys moved south and Bob took a job as an assistant with D.C. United. After winning two consecutive MLS titles, Bob was named head coach of the expansion Chicago Fire. All the while, Michael was soaking in the experience. "As a kid, I saw that the best players were the ones who loved it, who loved competing and [thrived] when the spotlight came on brighter. I was drawn to players who had that ability."
ON THE MOVE
Bradley turned pro when he was 16. Two years later he left for Europe and fought his way to prominence at clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Bradley loves a challenge. He learned new languages and tailored his game to fit diverse demands, leagues and managers. There have been U.S.-born players who excelled in one foreign country. But none voyaged as far and wide as Bradley, whose confidence never failed to match the increasing level of difficulty.
Bradley took a giant step in 2012, when he signed with AS Roma, one of Italy's most storied clubs. He played well, but earlier this year he made the shocking decision to return to North America. The team he chose to play for, Toronto FC, failed to make the MLS playoffs in each of its first seven seasons. But for Bradley, it was perfect. He hoped to set the tone on game day and lay a long-term foundation. This was his chance to make his mark, to fill the role he'd desired since he was a boy — to be an athlete who inspires. "I want to be a big player, and that's no disrespect to my teammates," he says. "It's my responsibility to be one of, if not the best guy on the field, every time we play. It's my responsibility to make sure this team wins. If it goes well, then this has the chance to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
The move to MLS was also controversial because it came five months before the World Cup. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been outspoken in his desire to have his players sharpen their skills by competing in the top European leagues as opposed to MLS. But at the same time, MLS is working harder to keep or bring home U.S stars, including national team regulars Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and Clint Dempsey. There were only four MLS players on the U.S. World Cup team in 2010, when Michael's father was the coach. That number could more than triple this summer.
Early results have been promising. In an April friendly against Mexico, Bradley played a more attacking role than usual. He scored the first U.S. goal and set up the second in a 2–2 tie. After the game, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said, "Bradley looked as if he was the best player in the world." Herrera may have been exaggerating a bit, but there's no denying that Bradley will maintain the focus and high standards that led to success in Europe.
MLS may not be as tough as the leagues in Italy or Germany, but Bradley believes his role as a leader in Toronto will carry over to the World Cup. "I'm not somebody who has 100 other things on the side. I do this. I play soccer because I love it. I love coming into training. I love the feeling of being a part of a group and now, challenging myself both on a personal level and on a team level to give everything I have, to make myself better as a player and to make whatever team I'm playing on better," he said. "Playing 45 games a year for Toronto FC and having the weight of that team on your shoulders, how is that going to challenge you as a player? Can you stand up to that? Withstand the pressure of doing that? Are you good enough to handle it all? That's the decision I made."
For more World Cup coverage, check out SI Kids' Guide to the 2014 World Cup!
Photos: CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES, ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED