'General Bradley' gets respect in Italy's Serie A
He's become known in Italy as ''General Bradley,'' ''the midfield sergeant'' and ''the American Marine.''
Whatever the name, Michael Bradley has adapted to both the highly technical Italian game and his new country. Having joined Chievo Verona in August to become the only American in Serie A, the 24-year-old midfielder has become a regular starter and already speaks Italian.
''When this is your livelihood, your profession, you give everything you have for it and you put everything you have into it,'' Bradley explained during an interview last weekend with The Associated Press. ''There's no doubt that when you're in a new country with a new club it's important to be able to integrate yourself as quickly as possible - that's part of the deal.''
A son of former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, Michael has cut a distinctive figure in Italy with his shaved head, his New Jersey roots and a nickname likening him to Omar Bradley, the famed World War II general. He's only the fourth American-born player to join a Serie A club in recent years, following Alexi Lalas, Giuseppe Rossi and Oguchi Onyewu.
Lalas played for Padova from 1994-96 after starring for the U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup. Rossi, born in New Jersey to Italian parents, played on loan with Parma in 2007. Onyewu had a brief injury-plagued stint with AC Milan in 2009-10, making only one competitive appearance.
Bradley was kept on the bench during his first match with Chievo, but has started every game since.
''We didn't expect him to adapt so well and so quickly,'' said Chievo's front office member Fabio Moro, who played for the club for 11 seasons. ''It's rare for a foreign player to become a starter and do so well in their first season in Italy, but he's showed all his worth and we've been very impressed - he's improving game by game and become a key member of the squad.''
Moro noted that Bradley already conducts interviews in Italian.
''He already speaks very well, which has also been a surprise,'' Moro said. ''So beyond showing that he's a great player, he's showed that he's also an intelligent person.''
Michael turned pro at 16 when he joined the New York-New Jersey MetroStars and training with the U.S. national team ahead of the 2006 World Cup. He got his first taste of European soccer with Dutch club Heerenveen from 2006-08 and then scored 10 goals in 76 league games for Borussia Moenchengladbach in Germany.
However, midway through last season Bradley wasn't interested in extending his contract with Moenchengladbach and was loaned to Aston Villa in the English Premier League.
When Alex McLeish was appointed Villa manager at the end of last season, Bradley again found himself looking for a new club. At the same time, new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann chose not to call Bradley up for two friendlies while he was sorting out his club status.
So for a short span, Bradley had no club and had temporarily lost his spot on the national team - having been a regular starter under his father.
''That's life. That's football,'' Bradley said. ''When you're a professional you know that this is the nature of things. You know that if you lose a few games in a row there's going to be pressure, there could be a new coach, there could be new players. And that's the same whether it's a club team or national team.
''When you come to a new club you try as quickly as possible to earn the respect of your teammates, to earn the respect of the coaches, to earn the respect of the people in the club with the way that you train, play, handle yourself, so that's the challenge,'' Bradley added. ''Flip to the national team, it's the same thing. A new coach comes in and you want to show him that you're a guy who can be counted on in big games.''
Bradley quickly regained his starting spot for the United States for a November friendly at Slovenia. Klinsmann - who played three seasons with Inter Milan - can surely appreciate Bradley's rapid development in Italy.
''I was really pleased with his move. It will really help him in his learning curve,'' Klinsmann said. ''In an environment where they are kind of tactic fanatics, the Italians will teach him a lot, will kind of help him a lot to read the game better, to anticipate the game better and to know exactly when to go into certain spaces and when not to go into certain space. And so I was very pleased. On top of that, he chose a beautiful city with Verona. That's always great for a visit from a coach.''
Bankrolled by Christmas cake-maker Paluani, Chievo has transformed itself in recent seasons from a small neighborhood club into a Serie A regular, finishing as high as fifth in its fairy-tale debut season in 2001-02 and solidly mid-table last season in 11th.
As a kid, Bradley and his father, then the Princeton coach, would religiously watch the one Serie A game broadcast on RAI International each Sunday. That's how he became a fan of AC Milan and midfielder Demetrio Albertini.
When Italy trained in New Jersey for the 1994 World Cup, Bradley and his father went to watch a few practices.
''(Albertini) wasn't necessarily the best player on those teams, but in a lot of ways with (Marcel) Desailly or whoever he played with in the center of the midfield was one of the most important,'' Bradley said.
''These kind of guys who play in the center of the midfield and are able to work for the team in attack and defense and really impose themselves on the other team,'' Bradley added. ''These guys help their team win, and these are the kind of guys that I've always appreciated and enjoyed watching.''
Bradley is highly articulate and puts a lot of thought into what he says. Asked about the darker sides of the Italian game, which is rife with match-fixing and betting scandals, poor attendance and fan racism, Bradley treads lightly.
Has he heard any racist chants at Verona's 39,000-seat Bentegodi stadium?
''No,'' Bradley said, before taking a long pause. ''Obviously you always want to be educated when you go into a situation of what's gone on, the history of things, but at the same time you go in with an open mind and since the day I've been here I have nothing but good things to say about Italian people, Italian soccer, living in Verona. In all ways it's been a great experience.''
So great, in fact, that there has been mild speculation that three-time Italian champion Roma is interested in signing Bradley, especially since Roma is under new American ownership, and has not renewed the contract of midfielder Daniele De Rossi.
A group of four Boston executives closed a deal for Roma in August to become the first foreign majority owners of a Serie A club.
''If these people have come to Roma and have big ideas and big plans for the club, I think that's great,'' Bradley said. ''I think it's good for their club, I think it's good for Italian football and I think it's good for football in general. It's no different than the Americans at Liverpool or the Americans at Man United.''
For now, though, Bradley remains focused on Chievo, which lost 2-0 to Roma on Sunday and is in 14th place, eight points clear of the relegation zone.
He's in the first year of a two-year contract, and sounds open to an extension.
''I've enjoyed every part of playing for Chievo so far, every part of playing in Serie A, every part of playing in Italy,'' Bradley said. ''For me and my career right now it couldn't have been a better step and a better move for me.''