Michael Bradley, Toronto FC and American Angst

After a successful stint in Serie A, Michael Bradley is headed home. Sort of.
After a successful stint in Serie A, Michael Bradley is headed home. Sort of.

Neil W. Blackmon

Multiple sources have now confirmed that USMNT and Roma midfielder Michael Bradley will depart Serie A for perennial MLS als0-ran Toronto FC in a deal high on transfer fee (from both Roma’s and MLS’ perspective) but higher on fan reaction melodrama. 

Bradley, fighting but failing to receive a great deal of playing time in Roma manager Rudi Garcia’s mega-talented three-man midfield,  had been the subject of various transfer rumors over the past month but typically each was either confirmed as rejected by Bradley himself or denied, via Bradley’s agent, Ron Waxman. Until yesterday. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman was the first with a “source”, tweeting yesterday afternoon that MLS and Toronto FC were on the verge of a “blockbuster” deal that would bring the central midfielder to Toronto. Waxman issued only a “no comment”, rather than deny the story altogether, and the story became a boulder moving downhill for the rest of the afternoon. As afternoon turned to evening, several other sources confirmed a deal for Bradley was close, although not done, and this morning, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle confirmed with other sources near the club that a move was imminent. Finally, as lunch neared on the east coast, Waxman himself confirmed that a deal was done.

Needless to say, the story is shocking. Bradley is widely (and rightly) regarded as the finest player on the US Men’s National team, and certainly not by extension but by most metrics, the finest player in CONCACAF. While Roma’s three-man midfield made life harder on the 26 year old, there was never any sense that Bradley was “too far behind” in the pecking order, and this was enforced largely by manager Rudi Garcia himself, who spoke of Bradley consistently with high praise. Bradley has, to date, appeared in eleven Roma matches, and started five, and while those numbers aren’t exactly what you’d hope for a year removed from being a central, constant figure in the starting eleven, they aren’t terribly disheartening given that he is playing for a team, as currently comprised, highly thought of as one of the best outfits in Europe.

Nonetheless, it is a World Cup year, and World Cup years are different. Every match for any player in serious consideration for a final roster spot is scrutinized. A starter receives more scrutiny, and the centerpiece of your entire tournament hopes? Let’s just say his form is monitored with the painstaking detail typically reserved for oil company tax lawyers around April 15. Michael Bradley is, without question, a critical artery for this US team’s hopes in Brazil, and a playing Michael Bradley is better than one not playing- that was the general belief.

Until yesterday.

Prevailing sentiment? The best US player in his prime should remain in Rome, where he plays sparingly.
Prevailing sentiment? The best US player in his prime should remain in Rome, where he plays sparingly.

Social media was set ablaze. Swiftly, and with little variation, the criticism mounted. Sure, it would be optimal if the man US fans lovingly refer to as MB 90 were playing regularly at his club in the build-up to Brazil, but surely he could do better than Toronto? The past weeks had proven that: Fulham, Hellas Verona and Sunderland had all expressed interest, either in a loan or loan then option to buy capacity. Even if of this bunch, only Hellas Verona were playing for anything beyond avoiding the drop, these were all reputable clubs in Europe’s best leagues. And at 26, what harm would be done if Bradley went on loan for six months prior to the World Cup, received the needed playing time to enter Brazil in top form, and returned to Rome ready to compete, or ready for a perceived “lateral” move at the end of the summer?

Prevailing sentiment? Any of this would be preferable to a return to MLS. For the best US player, in his prime, to return to MLS at 26 and in so doing leave one of the better clubs in Europe, where he was playing a fair number of minutes and is a year removed from being a starting eleven fixture, this was a tough news story to grasp. That he would leave for Toronto, a club of late that is at best a league afterthought, at worst a league laughing stock, this was borderline inexcusable. Do a google search: Michael Bradley Toronto FC. The first three “news” items that pop up are: Michael Bradley to Toronto FC? Why Would Michael Bradley Move to Toronto FC? Shocking Move of Bradley to Toronto FC? Disbelief, angst, despair. A soccer version of the film Prisoners, where nothing good happens for two and a half hours and it always rains.

The story really should be about how Toronto FC and the new ownership group headed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment President Tim Leiweke pulled this off. After all, the how was the central focus of the Clint Dempsey to Seattle Sounders story in its aftermath, with questions about Dempsey’s motivation, and the move’s impact on the national team secondary. Yes, there are a handful of distinctions between a Dempsey MLS move and a Bradley one. Toronto is, even under the best of circumstances, not going to be a flag-bearer for Major League Soccer in the mold of Seattle or Portland. Dempsey made the move at 30- from a Spurs club that had missed the Champions League; Roma would need to play very poorly after the winter break to miss that competition. Dempsey played regularly; Bradley sparingly.  Dempsey was leaving for a “Destination” MLS side; Bradley isn’t. These distinctions matter, but the underlying story is similar: an elite American departs a high-level, storied European club for the domestic league, and people wonder why.

In Dempsey’s case, the explanation is probably a bit more black and white or at the least green, and MLS receiving that caliber a player at the tail end of his prime becomes the story, making how Seattle and the league pulled it off far more interesting.

In MB 90’s case, there is no simple explanation and MLS receiving that caliber a player in the middle of his prime, in a World Cup year, well– the why seems to be what folks are fixating on. And the why has been dominated with negative undertones, ranging from the snarky and cynical to agony-laden anger.

Questions about whether Dempsey was "giving up" in Europe were made more palpable because his destination was an "it" club in MLS.
Questions about whether Dempsey was “giving up” in Europe were made more palpable because his destination was an “it” club in MLS.

Oh to be young and want it all.

Two narratives seem to drive the growth of soccer in the United States, and the Michael Bradley move demonstrates the disconnect- nay, fissure– between those two narratives, which should not, under any circumstances, compete with one another. First, American fans and yes, writers, alike want Major League Soccer to grow and become one of the world’s more preeminent soccer leagues. Securing top-level talent is of course integral to that process. Making the league a viable option for the best players is integral to that process. Securing the best players in your own country would, it logically follows, seem to be integral to that process. And yet narrative number two, which in truth has existed about as long, if not slightly longer, than MLS, suggests that the US Men’s National Team, and its success, is integral to the growth of soccer in the United States and for the US Men’s National Team to succeed, its best players must compete (and succeed) at the highest levels. Having a great national team player ply his trade in the domestic league is perceived as antithetical to this process. This is almost entirely why Landon Donovan will always be somewhat disappointing to a larger-than-you’d-like-t0-admit portion of the US soccer fan base, and why having MB 90 return home while entering or just having entered the prime of his career, is viewed with such angst. The disconnect between these two narratives is of course why the reaction to Michael Bradley’s move to Toronto FC has been the dominant story since the “rumored” news broke and one would suspect, rightly or wrongly, that it will continue to overshadow the question of how Tim Lieweke and company got this deal done, at least in the short-term. World Cup years have a way of doing that to even the most level-headed observers.

But here’s the thing: the disconnect itself should be addressed. It’s simply not acceptable to subscribe to the notion that Michael Bradley returning to Toronto FC is a referendum of the success of the US Men’s National team, or a referendum on the continued viability and ceiling of American players overseas.

The framing of Bradley’s return as such is flawed for a host of reasons, but the most compelling reason it’s wrong is a simple blend of fact and reality: Bradley did succeed in Serie A, he did succeed at Roma, and as he leaves, Rudi Garcia loses critical depth he spent a great deal of time praising in recent months. Plus, the reality is that at 26, MB 90 will have every opportunity, particularly if he plays as well in Brazil as he did in South Africa, to return to Europe and there will be suitors, because, well- there have been plenty of suitors before. Michael Bradley isn’t going to forget how to be good at soccer because he plays in a moderately-good league in MLS rather than a great league in Serie A. Clubs aren’t going to ignore a great World Cup because Bradley played in MLS for six months in the build-up to the tournament. And whether he’s the fourth man on the bench in a three-man midfield dogfight in Rome or the field general for a vastly improved Toronto team, Michael Bradley will still enter the 2014 World Cup as the best player in CONCACAF, arguably with room to spare. Toronto FC doesn’t change any of this for Michael Bradley. Nor, one would think, will the move change who Bradley is: a tenacious competitor who aspires to excellence and wants to get better every day.

Alejandro Bedoya is just one American excelling at a good European club, even as Bradley departs.
Alejandro Bedoya is just one American excelling at a good European club, even as Bradley departs.

Beyond that, Bradley moving to Toronto says nothing about the ceiling or viability of American players abroad. Indeed, Bradley did well in Serie A. But he was hardly the only American player excelling at a high level European club. The Belgian League isn’t terrific, but Anderlecht is a fine team and Sacha Kljestan is one of their leaders. He played consistently in the Champions League this autumn. The French league isn’t Serie A either, but Nantes is a good club with a chance at Europa. Alejandro Bedoya contributes consistently and has been called “technically perfect” by his manager in recent months. Steve Cherundolo has captained a Bundesliga side for ages. Tim Howard has helped Everton put themselves in a position for a top-four finish. The list of American players playing well in Europe in its best leagues will continue to expand. And, history suggests, sooner or later, one will get another shot at a high-level club. Bradley’s departure from Rome says nothing about the ceiling for American players that is unique to the American player. If the finest player in CONCACAF leaves Rome because the midfield is crowded, it isn’t an indictment on CONCACAF or the player, it is a calculated move in a World Cup year that affords the player a chance to play consistently entering the World Cup. Nothing more, nothing less. And yeah, Bradley might decide he likes being in Toronto, handsomely compensated and close to home. There’s not really anything wrong with that either, outside of it not fitting within the narrative that America’s best must challenge themselves with Europe’s best or America will never be the best.

And that’s where it gets tricky. The same people who are filled with such angst over Bradley moving to Toronto, are, by and large, the same people who want MLS to be the best. Well, all due respect to Landon Donovan, but when has MLS ever had the best player on its continent playing in its league? Until Toronto takes the field for the 2014 campaign, the answer is probably never.  The signing of Michael Bradley is the Clint Dempsey move on steroids. It is a coup for Tim Lieweke and the suddenly fascinating Toronto FC, who appear poised to add Jermaine Defoe to the fold as well, bringing the Lieweke total haul to: Gilberto, Dwayne De Rosario, Jermaine Defoe, Michael Bradley. We don’t, as of yet, know what will happen with Matias Laba, but one would suspect Toronto will either have to deal him or restructure his deal in such a way that allows them to carry three Designated Players, one of whom is Michael Bradley, who as a returning US international would circumvent the MLS Allocation order. Lieweke is even doing the little things right, like when he captured Justin Morrow for cash just before Christmas. There’s a new sheriff in Rob Ford country, and MB 90 will be his deputy.

One thing is certain: Bradley makes Toronto FC interesting, and way better.
One thing is certain: Bradley makes Toronto FC interesting, and way better.

What’s more, Michael Bradley should help when the CBA negotiations begin. It is safe to assume Bradley’s salary will be gargantuan compared to the typical MLS’er– but Michael Bradley, like his father, is a thoughtful, say-what-you-think and what-you-mean type of guy, who likely can help when the inevitable wage cap questions come up at the CBA. Bradley certainly will have an incentive to help: at 26, he can improve and benefit from an improved MLS, but MLS can’t truly maximize its growth (from a technical standpoint) potential until non-designated players can earn better salaries within the league. Heightening the wage cap isn’t just fair business, it’s good business because it helps the ultimate product, and it helps it long-term. It’s great to sign designated players. It’s fantastic to sign the finest player on the continent where the league is based. It’s even better to strengthen clubs top-to-bottom. Wage discussions, and increases, will accomplish that goal.

Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the Bradley to Toronto news, people have been too busy listening to their Smiths records and feeling sorry for the USMNT based on some bizarre, distorted narrative about US player success abroad rather than asking the more interesting questions, like how did the deal get done and what does the deal mean for the league economically as it moves forward. Michael Bradley in MLS makes MLS one great player better. It makes Toronto FC instantly better. It doesn’t make the USMNT worse. It doesn’t mean US players have a ceiling abroad they can’t bust through. And it doesn’t mean Bradley is finished as an elite player. It just means that in a World Cup year, five months and one week prior to the US attempting to exorcise fantastical demons against the Black Stars of Ghana, the heartbeat of the American soccer team is headed home, where he’ll get the chance to play.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt