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Bradley hitting his stride with Roma

FOX Soccer sits down with USA midfielder Michael Bradley.
FOX Soccer sits down with USA midfielder Michael Bradley.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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There exists a contradiction within Italy’s aesthetic sensibilities.

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As a people, the Italians generally like their architecture grand, their food rich, their mosaics intricate, their gardens sweeping, their women curvy, their art colorful and their fashion ornate.

Yet when it concerns their other art, soccer, the Italians value austerity above all.

Steeped in their tradition of catenaccio– Italian for 'doorbolt' a largely abandoned style predicated on all-out defending with a dedicated sweeper in hopes of stealing the necessary goal or two on a rogue breakaway – fans of Serie A and the Azzurri have a singular appreciation for the functional.

In no other country can the deep-sitting midfielder who mostly occupies himself with the early stages of the build-up of attacks and with plugging holes and bailing out defenders be the star. But in Italy, he can. There is a long tradition of adulation for the unfussy, gut-busting holding midfielder, who displays flair only through his hair.

Little wonder US midfielder Michael Bradley feels so at home there.

"I think in Italy that [unheralded] work, that job is not as unsung," says Bradley. "When you look at the best Italian teams, whether it’s in the national team or their best club teams, there’s always a real appreciation for players in all positions, but especially those in the midfield who are able to sacrifice themselves."

The famously intense 25-year-old, who shields his life from all distractions but his family in order to devote himself to his craft and career, lives by that same sparse efficiency. He sports no hair, is not known to have any hobbies and only does and says things he’s absolutely certain won’t get in the way of playing soccer – ask him about a tattoo on his right biceps and he’ll quickly cover it up and tell you not to worry about it.

His game is designed in the same vein. A two-way central midfielder with a fantastic capacity for labor, he plays no improbable passes, only utilizes his strong long ball when the situation calls for it and covers so much ground and so many opponents he couldn’t possibly be attributed with the appropriate credit for it.

After two seasons with the New York Metrostars in MLS, two and a half years with Heerenveen in the Dutch league, a two-and-a-half-year spell with Borussia Moenchengladbach in Germany, a brief and unsuccessful loan to Aston Villa in England, and a season with Chievo Verona, Bradley is a regular for AS Roma, one of Italy’s most beloved teams.

Watching him play there, the conclusion that that’s where he’d belonged all along imposes itself. "Once I got to Europe and as I moved around a little bit, there was always a feeling that the qualities I had as a player would fit in well in Italy," says Bradley. "There had been an opportunity or two along the way that didn’t pan out. And then two summers ago when things at ’Gladbach were done and the opportunity for Chievo was there, for me it felt that was something that would be really good for my career.”

With his easily recognizable bald pate, Bradley quickly earned a fondness from the Chievo fans, who dubbed him 'The General.' The love for Italian league fans is mutual. "I love playing here," says Bradley. "Italian people love their football, they’re so passionate for it. It’s such an important part of their lives and who they are. I think the same would go for myself. To be lucky enough to play in a country, to play for a club, to be surrounded by people, who think and feel the same way you do, that’s something special."

Bradley's development into a player who fits so seamlessly into the physically and tactically demanding Serie A is little wonder. Growing up in New Jersey, where his father Bob coached Princeton University’s soccer team before becoming an MLS and then the US head coach, there was hardly any soccer on TV. On Sunday mornings, however, there would be a Serie A game broadcast in Italian on RAI. "I’d be so excited that there’d be a good game on from Italy," recalls Bradley.

"I have great memories of waking up in the morning and sitting with my dad and watching the Italian league game. That was eye-opening as a young kid in the United States, to see what football was like here. They had great midfielders,” says Bradley. “I’d watch those guys and see if I could learn and add those things to my game. To this day, I watch all kinds of players and see how guys do things and make them count on their teams."

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That Bradley is a student of the game is evident in his continued evolution at an age when a lot of players plateau. "Every day I feel like I’m improving and becoming a more complete player and more consistent," says Bradley. "That’s a never-ending battle. From the day you first kick a ball until the day you decide you’re done, that has to be your mentality."

The most noticeable sign of his maturation and the influence of the Italian league on his game is Bradley’s knack for coming deep to pick up the ball even more often than he already did. "To come deep and dictate the flow and rhythm of the game from that deep spot, connecting things and finding players and having an eye for passes whether it’s playing through the defense or over the top of things," he says. "That’s definitely something that’s improved."

This is especially apparent when he plays for the US, where he’s gone from the boy accused of having made the team because his dad is the coach to the undisputed master of the midfield, turning in good performances with a consistency no teammate can match.

American fans will get a rare chance to glimpse Bradley and his Roma team in December, when the club will travel to Orlando to prepare for the second half of the season at the Disney complex.

And then Bradley will return to Italy, some 3,000 miles from home, where he has found his footballing home.

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