BMO Field, Toronto: On a warm evening in late July 2014, Toronto FC & U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley is doing all he can to help the newly respectable Canadian club win their match against Sporting KC. Although Bradley plays masterfully, dominating from one end of the pitch to the other, his efforts ultimately aren’t enough: the visitors score twice after the break and steal three points in a game that might as easily have gone to the hosts.
Bradley’s TFC teammate, ex-Spurs striker Jermain Defoe, is absent this night through suspension. Another former star, Canadian Dwayne De Rosario, is in the waning years of a stellar career and only comes on as a substitute at 82 minutes. Even TFC’s erstwhile 2014 keeper, Brazil’s Julio Cesar, has been recalled to QPR. Toronto FC does what it can with up-and-comers like Doneil Henry and Jonathan Osorio, promising imports like the two young Brazilians, Gilberto and Jackson, and veterans like captain Steven Caldwell. All of which is to say that Bradley has precious few others at his level with him on the field.
The opposition can claim no different. Save for U.S. internationals Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, division-leading Sporting KC’s roster is filled out with designated players like Argentine Claudio Bieler and top college products like goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.
Michael Bradley is the son of former U.S. national coach Bob Bradley. He grew up on the pitch and was a star from childhood on, becoming in 2004 one of the youngest-ever players drafted into the MLS at just 16. He has made an impact for top sides in Germany and the Netherlands, and arrived in Toronto from Roma in Italy’s Serie A. Last month, he was the Americans’ best player in a strong World Cup showing. He is just 26, and in the prime of his career.
So why is he suiting up for Toronto FC, plying his trade in the soccer gulags of North America?
Well, he’s making money, for starters. His $6.5 million annual salary is almost six times what he was being paid in Italy. That kind of coin makes him one of the MLS’s top earners, right up there with Seattle Sounders’ Clint Dempsey and TFC’s Defoe, and ahead of fading luminaries like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane. Bradley has a young family, doubtless top of mind when he opted for BMO Field over Roma’s majestic Stadio Olimpico as his hometown office.
No knock against him here: professional athletes have only a few years to maximize their earnings before hitting the club ambassador / colour-commentary circuit. Injuries, unfortuitous transfers, and unsympathetic managers can shorten that decade or so of top moneymaking potential. So purely in terms of financial security, Bradley’s decision isn’t hard to fathom.
Another factor is that Bradley is getting 90 minutes a game with Toronto FC, playing a key role as the 2014 version of the club finds itself in unfamiliar territory in the top third of the division after seven straight years of appalling on-field results. By contrast, his time in Rome was marked by inconsistent starts and a supporting role that clearly didn’t sit well with a man now often cited as the MLS’s most competitive player. Here again, nobody can question a top athlete’s desire to contribute and his frustration at watching too many matches from the bench.
And yet, and yet. Despite the riches and the role in Toronto, Michael Bradley can’t escape the fact that in footballing terms, he has now moved from rep to house league. His every day in training and every match are spent in the company of players with far less talent and infinitely more limited prospects than he. Watching Toronto FC play, it is impossible not to notice that Bradley’s most penetrating runs go largely unrewarded with a timely ball from a teammate and his most subtle passes go unreceived. Though he is a formidable tackler, frequently winning the ball with devastating open-field ferocity, all too often he sees his resulting through balls run into touch, his Reds cohorts not anticipating, not moving into space, simply not understanding. (Hockey fans of a certain age will recall Wayne Gretzky’s artistry similarly uncomprehended by occasional mid-80s Edmonton Oilers linemates like Dave Lumley and Dave Semenko, those sublime passes off 99′s stick only righteously appreciated by Jari Kurri or – once, memorably – Mario Lemieux.)
And then there’s the matter of Toronto FC’s regular opposition. On this night, apart from Zusi and Besler, there are no internationals in the ranks for Bradley to truly test himself against. This is the MLS pattern: only a few top players can be found on any roster, even on marquee clubs like the Los Angeles Galaxy, DC United, or the New York Red Bulls. Although the league’s general calibre is slowly improving, in most of its 19 franchises, the football is rather more minor than Major League Soccer purports to be. (Never is this more apparent than when watching MLS right after gorging on a month’s steady diet of World Cup matches.) A player at Bradley’s level rarely faces the type of opponent he’d see in all 11 spots on any side in Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga, or the English Premiership.
Which raises a thorny career-path issue if you’re 26-year-old Michael Bradley. Is Toronto, with its fat paycheque and local acclaim, the final stop in his soccer career? If so, he can comfortably play out the string for the Reds as a dominant force on the pitch for at least the next half-dozen years. His teammates, the club, and its fans will be the beneficiaries. But if not – if Bradley plans to return to a more appropriate role as a starting midfielder for a decent club in any of the leagues above, or even in France, Holland, or any other soccer nation – then he’d best consider options soonish. The longer he spends unchallenged in the MLS, the slimmer his chances at a shot elsewhere.
No less an authority than U.S. National Coach Jurgen Klinsmann recognizes this trajectory. He’d rather his top guys (Bradley, Zusi, Besler, and Dempsey among them) eschew the cash and the comforts of the MLS for the rigors of Europe so as to be better prepared to represent their country when next called. Klinsmann knows that too long in the house league will soften his players, allow them to pick up bad habits, make it harder for them to rise back to the level they must to compete with any of the world’s top 20 soccer nations.
It’s hard to believe that Bradley isn’t mulling this over with each passing day. Come December and the end of the 2014 MLS season, our money’s on him pressuring his employers to loan him out to a European club with Champions League aspirations. And – assuming he still has what it takes to play with the best – will it be long before we see him permanently back at work in one of the world’s best leagues?