MLS Focus: Bradley back to the league where it began

Only two weeks into the year and MLS may just have its story of 2014, or at least one which will prove tremendously hard to top.

When ESPN’s Taylor Twellman tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that Michael Bradley, the most indispensable player on the U.S. men’s national team, was on the verge of signing with Toronto FC, those reading could hardly believe it.

Minutes after Twellman, fellow ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas also tweeted to confirm the reported deal, which, coming entirely out of the blue, left U.S soccer and MLS fans alike in a state of shock and bewilderment– it was a move which simply seemed too astonishing to be true.

From there, rumours and reports began to snowball, until Bradley’s club, AS Roma, announced late Thursday that they had come to terms to sell the rights of the Serie A midfielder to MLS for a fee of $10 million, bringing one of the most successful and recognisable American players back to the league where he first cut his teeth as a teenager nearly a decade ago.

Beginning his professional career in 2004 with the MetroStars, coached at the time by his father, Bob, Bradley missed his first MLS season due to a foot injury before earning a starting role in 2005.

His performances as an 18-year-old were impressive enough to attract heavy interest from Europe and in January 2006 Bradley became the youngest player ever to be sold by the league, moving to Dutch Eredivise club Heerenveen for an undisclosed fee.

After later moving to Borussia Mönchengladbach and Chievo, respectively, (with a loan spell at Aston Villa in between), Bradley eventually transferred to Roma in July 2012 for a fee of €3.75 million, where he would duly establish himself as an integral part of the side during his first season in the Eternal City, playing in 30 games with 24 starts.

This season however, under first-year manager Rudi Garcia, Bradley had found himself on the edge of the first team and, with Roma recently acquiring Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan on loan from Cagliari with an option to buy, was looking at being the fifth option in the side’s three-man midfield.

Sources though have said that Bradley was looking for an exit even before Nainggolan’s arrival, with his lack of playing time during a World Cup year his primary concern. A handful of other European clubs were reportedly interested in the midfielder’s signature, including Sunderland and Tottenham, but, in the end, it was the unanticipated offer to return to North America which presented the most enticing opportunity for the 26-year-old.

Entering the prime of his career, Bradley has been capped 82 times for the U.S since making his debut in 2006 and, while cries of nepotism dogged him early on under his father, Bob, is now widely regarded as one of the most crucial players in Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad, alongside Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. With all three now plying their trade in MLS and including Brad Evans, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi, it’s possible that the league will house seven of the U.S. starters at Brazil 2014 (possibly even eight if the unsettled Jermaine Jones returns too).

With news of Bradley’s move coming less than 24 hours before Tottenham officially announced the landmark transfer of Jermain Defoe to Toronto for a fee reportedly in excess of $10 million, it highlights a busy few days not only for the Canadian club under their new regime, but also MLS as a whole, with the league’s growth and ambition well and truly underlined.

As Bradley signs a four-year contract worth somewhere in the region of $6.5 million per season, the $10 million transfer fee paid by the league and/or Toronto also comes only five months after Clint Dempsey was acquired by the Seattle Sounders for $9 million from Tottenham, in a deal which sent similar shock waves across MLS. Bradley also becomes the second-most expensive American in history behind Jozy Altidore, who moved to Villarreal in 2008 for $10 million and to Sunderland in 2013 for a reported $13 million.

Nevertheless, despite the deal clearly signifying the league’s increasing stature, there appear to be plenty of U.S. soccer fans who have voiced their displeasure over the move, citing a perceived lack of ambition on Bradley’s part and concern that the lower level of competition will not serve one of the country’s top players well for either the upcoming World Cup or the long term. These same fans hold a longing desire to make their own league better, yet, between that and the goal of improving American players and the nation team in turn, there really does not seem to be much leeway at all.

To that I would say; considering Landon Donovan has survived in MLS for the past decade while simultaneously proving himself as one of the most influential players in U.S history, it’s truly hard to view Bradley’s Toronto move as the disaster some seem to be dismissing it as. Instead, U.S fans should be celebrating the fact that their league has reached the point where established, big-name players are readily making a return, thus ushering in yet more interest and growth in American soccer.

With the quality of play in MLS clearly on the upsurge season-after-season, the arrival of players such as Bradley is only going to help in that department, as observes begin to recognise that the league needn’t be a stopping point on the way to bigger and better things. In addition, with ever-improving talent being cultivated through the increasing emphasis on academies and the homegrown player rule, it’s clear that MLS is also trying to build things from the ground up. If the presence of Dempsey or Bradley then helps convince the likes of Diego Fagundez, Wil Trapp or Luis Gil for example that they can stay and develop their talents at home then that’s obviously a hugely positive step.

In reality, the one feature of the Bradley deal fans should be most concerned about is MLS’ continuing lack of transparency when it comes to the financial side of things, as well as the major salary discrepancies evidently factoring into events such as reigning Golden Boot-winner Camilo and his agent manufacturing a move abroad. Clearly not all is so rosy in paradise, but nevertheless the financial structure which commissioner Don Garber and co. have championed over recent years has been undeniably pivotal towards creating the stable and now-thriving league we’re seeing before us today.

Ultimately, while I can understand to a certain extent the worry over Bradley’s return to MLS, I prefer to see the positive side for the league: fans desperately want the talent level to improve and splashing the cash for great players of his ilk is one way to make this happen, while gaining recognition from the wider soccer community at the same time. The signing of recognisable stars is a must if MLS wants to move to the next level and, by bringing Bradley back, it’s signalled that intent.

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