Bradley ready to lead new generation
Michael Bradley is all grown up, both as a soccer player and as a man.
He has grown up before our eyes, from the days of sporting braces and peach fuzz on the US Under-17 national team, to his current state as a talented and imposing presence in the midfields of the US national team and Chievo Verona. Bradley has matured into not only one of the best American players in the world, but to a player poised to lead the US national team’s next generation.
Bradley has thrived in Europe, succeeding in leagues like the Dutch Eredivisie and German Bundesliga. He has also endured, fighting through the disappointment of riding the bench during a loan stint in the Barclays Premier League with Aston Villa. He has battled back, shaking off the Aston Villa disappointment, the firing of his father Bob as US national team coach and his own benching by new coach Jurgen Klinsmann to regain his place in the heart of the US midfield.
“You have to have a mentality, a determination, a commitment, a desire to fight through anything to get where you want to go,” said Bradley when discussing the turbulent times he went through a year ago. “All the time at Villa did was reinforce my mentality and desire to keep working. You have to use it that way. As frustrating as it is, all you can do is use it as reinforcement that, no matter what, you’re not going to be put off by things that don’t go your way.”
Bradley put England in the rear-view mirror and transferred to Serie A side Chievo Verona, where he flourished in his first season. The 24-year-old central midfielder drew rave reviews for his play in helping the Flying Donkeys finish a respectable 10th in Serie A, and also drew praise for the way he assimilated to a new league and new culture so easily.
“I think he deserves a tremendous compliment, how he went through that year,” said US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of Bradley. “All the complications in the beginning of the year, all the issues. Ending up in Verona, and embracing the Italian culture.
“He embraces the way they do things there. He told everybody “I’m going to learn,” and then he fought his way through the roster on his own team to become one of their leaders within one year,” Klinsmann said. “This is exceptional.”
The move to Serie A was the realization of a dream for Bradley, who grew up loving Italian soccer and watching it every chance he could. After coming close to a move to Italy four years ago, Bradley jumped on the opportunity last season.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching Serie A, the Italian national team and Italian players,” Bradley said. “I’ve always had a respect for what the best teams and the best players have been about.
“For me, there was always a sense that (Serie A) was a place I could fit in well and where my qualities would be appreciated,” Bradley said. “A few years ago, when I ended up going to Moenchengladbach, there had been a chance maybe to go to Sampdoria. In the end, Gladbach was able to make it better financially for Heerenveen so that was the route that I took at that time, but I always had it in my mind to play in Italy because it would be something good for my career.”
Bradley’s successful first season with Chievo, and his outstanding form with the US national team, has led to growing speculation about his future. Several clubs in Italy have expressed interest in prying Bradley away from Chievo, with AS Roma among the teams reportedly interested.
A jump to a bigger club after just one season in Serie A seems quick, but Bradley’s ability to adjust to life in Italy has impressed clubs throughout the country.
‘He’s ready for the next step,” Klinsmann said. “If it’s not the bigger club right away, he’s definitely ready to take even more responsibility in the Verona side. And that’s big.
“For a foreigner in Italy to put your stamp on a team in his first season, it’s quite amazing, especially with the Italians and their craziness on tactical things and their small elements on a detailed level to deliver all those details,” said Klinsmann. “Understanding the importance of set pieces and stuff like that. So his learning curve was quite an incredible one.”
Bradley’s focus now is on the national team and helping the USA qualify for another World Cup. His play this year has been outstanding, and it can be argued that he has been the national team’s best player in 2012.
His form has made it easy to forget that he temporarily lost his starting place on the national team less than a year ago. Klinsmann put the benching down to wanting Bradley to focus on his club situation. Bradley responded by putting in an extraordinary performance in the team’s 3-2 victory against Slovenia in November. He has been a fixture in the starting lineup ever since.
“All I’ve ever tried to do with the national team is give everything I have for the team so that, as a team, we could have success,” Bradley said. “It was like that when I first came in under Bruce. All the times I was in under my dad nothing changed, and it will never change.
“For me, the honor and the pride of coming in and playing for your national team is something nobody will ever be able to take away from me,” Bradley said. “I truly feel like if I’m fit and sharp and playing well that I’m a guy who has a lot to give to this team.
“My challenge, and anybody’s challenge as a player, is to be as consistent with that as possible, and to show that every time a big game comes around that you’re a guy who has to be on the field.”
Klinsmann also pointed out the same sentiment about Bradley, stating “in the beginning I left him out because he was without a club. I said “Sort out your club situation and you’ll come back.” Through his presence, through his attitude, through his willingness to play the game simple and fast with a strong presence, he gained his starting spot back.
“And obviously he had his highlight in Italy with the way he played,” Klinsmann said, referring to Bradley’s masterful effort in the USA’s 1-0 upset of Italy on Feb. 29. “From a learning curve in his own personal path, it’s amazing to see what he went through the last couple of years. And it seems that it gives him a lot of confidence now.”
Bradley’s performance against Italy felt like a high point in his career. He played excellently in a fixture that saw him matched up against Italian ace Andrea Pirlo, and Bradley more than held his own. To some, the match was the best of his national team career.
“As Americans, we fight for respect every time we step on the field,” Bradley said. “We can’t afford to right just anything off as a friendly. We’re constantly trying to show people that we belong and that we deserve more.
“That night, to play Italy in Italy and to be able to come away with a win, I think everybody who was on the field was proud of that,” Bradley said. “For me, it was a pretty solid game. Having said that, at the end it’s still just a friendly and when I talk about big games, important games where things are on the line, that doesn’t rank real high.”
When asked what games stood out for him, Bradley didn’t bring up games where he scored (like his two-goal game in a World Cup qualifying win against Mexico). No, Bradley’s attention turned to the two biggest tournaments of his young but impressive career.
“When you look at the summers of 2009 and 2010, with the Confederations Cup and World Cup, when I look back, for myself and my team, I’m very, very proud of the way we played and what we were all about and what I was all about,” Bradley said. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying every game I played great, or every game the team played great, but when you look over the course of those two tournaments, games played at the highest level, we all look back with pride at what we were about.”
Bradley sets out this summer as one of the key players on a US national team looking to qualify for a sixth straight World Cup. He is no longer the kid on the team, no longer dismissed as the coach’s son by skeptics. Now, Bradley is a team leader on the field, and a married expectant father off the field (his wife Amanda is set to give birth to a boy in the fall).
Bradley has grown up before our eyes and now stands as one of the best players on the US national team. And he’s still getting better.