For followers of American soccer, which I know some of you are since you’ve come over here by knowing my work with Yanks Abroad, the news is already old news that Michael Bradley has left AS Roma to return to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC.
Normally, I’d put my thoughts on a dedicated soccer website, and I still may, but in the spirit of developing a grassroots sports section for Middle Theory, I’m going to put my first thoughts here.
Also in the spirit of developing a grassroots sports section for Middle Theory, I will begin writing about other sports as well, so that fans of football, basketball, baseball, and others can also be interested. I love all sports, and I aim to expand my coverage. With the Superbowl, March Madness, and the Olympics around the corner, this section is going to get content-heavy.
That being said…
Bradley has been a key player for the United States National Team for most of his adult life. At 26-years old, he has already made 82 appearances for the National Team and played in the South Africa World Cup in 2010, scoring the memorable tying goal against Slovenia to keep the team’s chances alive for advancing to the elimination round. He’s one of the few locks for a starting position on the team for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, because his quality has been so consistent, for so long, that despite the depth of the roster for the Center Midfield position, he can not be displaced.
Bradley’s rise in stature as a player has been predicated on his tenure of playing in Europe since he was 18-years old. His determination has allowed him to thrive in a situation which has crushed so many potential stars, culminating in his rise from a mid-level team in Holland, to a lower-level team in Germany, to a mid-level team in Italy, and finally to one of the top teams in Italy and Europe. Each of those steps was a promotion, and they seemed to be leading him to a position that no American field player has ever been in: The opportunity to be a significant player on a team that can legitimately challenge for the title in one of the world’s top competitions, the UEFA Champions League.
It began to go sideways for Bradley a few days ago, when a new player was brought in for the second half of the season. Radja Nainggolan is a quality player who immediately looked like he might threaten Bradley’s already tenuous hold on consistent playing time in Roma’s small midfield arrangement. In a World Cup year, playing time for one’s club team is the paramount concern for players and their National Team coaches, so it stood to reason that one more player coming in to compete for playing time was going to send Bradley packing.
It’s a shame that it had to happen, but looking at the assortment of teammates playing in the center of the midfield at AS Roma, it shows why. Kevin Strootman (Netherlands), Daniele De Rossi (Italy), Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Alessandro Florenzi (Italy), and now Nainggolan (Belgium) can all conceivably, without much surprise, hoist the World Cup trophy over their heads this summer in Brazil. It is one of the best core groups of midfielders in the world that has been put together in Rome, and it is a testament to Bradley’s resiliency and his own skill that he was able to be a regular player in such a scenario.
Even though it seemed like it was going to be an obvious choice for Bradley to leave the team, the destination is shocking. Coming back to MLS is nothing new; National Team players Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, and Clarence Goodson have all returned from Europe in the past couple years. None of them were in the situation that Bradley is though. Dempsey and Goodson are reaching the end of their peak, Johnson wasn’t getting playing time. Bradley is in his prime, and has proven himself as a player who can run with and against the best in the world.
Moving to Toronto FC, one of the historically worst teams in the league, was about the last possible destination that could be conceived of, but the financial incentive and the near guarantee of being not just an every day starting player, but also being the face of the team and one of the faces of the league are good opportunities for Bradley.
There will be no shortage of minutes for Bradley with Toronto. There is even an argument that he will be in better shape for the World Cup, as he will have some time off to recuperate from the first half of the year in Italy, before starting play with Toronto. With the rest, he will start the MLS season fresh and be in mid-season form and fitness for Brazil, rather than the tournament coming at the end of a grueling season.
The financial incentive is incredible for an American player. Roma sold Bradley to Toronto for $10M USD, the third largest sum to ever be paid for an American player. His annual wage will put him among the league’s top earners, salary wise, at what is rumored to be about $6.5M a year. He was making a little under $1M a year at AS Roma, so the pay raise is going to be quite appreciated in the Bradley household.
The move can help turn around the fortunes of Toronto FC, which has been struggling to find quality play since its inception in the league. Along with Bradley, veteran England and Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe is also moving to Toronto. The two will immediately become the faces of the franchise, some of the most popular names in the league, and will reward some of the most faithful and consistently disappointed fans in the league.
It is a win-win situation for Toronto and Major League Soccer, but it’s a ticking time bomb for the U.S. National Team and American soccer. Now, with the three best American players playing in MLS, in Bradley, Dempsey, and Landon Donovan, there will be increased scrutiny paid to our still developing domestic league, and the performances of those three players in Brazil, especially with Dempsey moving from Tottenham to MLS last summer, and Bradley moving from Roma to MLS this week, will, for better or worse, greatly influence international and domestic opinion on the league.
Already, there is a heavy Euro-snob contingent among American soccer circles, where fans believe that any soccer league in Europe is superior to its American counterpart. The fuel has been added to the fire of that debate by endless flame wars currently going on around the American soccer blogosphere with MLS defenders and critics using Bradley as the latest catalyst for the seemingly endless argument: Does MLS suck, or is MLS good?
The reality of the situation is that MLS is less than two decades old. It isn’t up to par with the world’s best leagues. But it’s closing the gap, and moves like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey help that gap get smaller. One day, if the salary cap is lifted allowing team owners to financially compete with teams across the globe, the league will be counted among the world’s best. Until then, we have come to a potential tipping point, where a good performance in Brazil by a team led by MLS-based players will act as a shot in the arm for the league, a massive PR stimulus that boosts the league’s credibility around the world.
On the flipside, a poor performance will serve as a “See, I told you so,” moment for its detractors, and could potentially harm the league’s image as a slow, but steadily growing destination for players around the world. With the harm that could come from that, it could also harm the domestic game in general, as quality of play in the league could potentially drop, interest in the game could fade from the fair-weather fans, TV deals would be less desirable, advertising in general may slump, and the league may enter a sort of recession. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against a good performance, considering the U.S. team’s opponents in the group stage: Germany, Ghana, and Portugal. If a poor performance ensues, it stands to reason that the critiques that will flood forth will argue that we lost because our best players were not playing in the best leagues.
In that regard, this can almost be seen as a make-it or break-it situation for American soccer. In reality, the league and the game are too resilient to break over one tournament, but it can certainly see short term harm caused by it. And unfortunately, the odds are stacked against us right now.