When Michael Bradley left a top flight team in Italy to join a moribund MLS squad in Toronto, critics crowed that he was chasing the money. But it was all part of his master plan to be America's most important player in Brazil.
HALFWAY INTO THE first match of his new life in Toronto, Michael Bradley has already harassed DC United defenders into submission, flattened an out-of-position referee, barked direction at his teammates and lifted a textbook pass to set up the game's first goal. So when he sees a ball pop into the air in the 64th minute of the March 22 match, he doesn't hesitate.
In the battle for possession, Bradley launches himself, crashing heads with DC United's Davy Arnaud, who crumples to the ground. Bradley stumbles but stays on his feet, oblivious to the blood streaming down the back of his bald head. A teammate waves him to the sideline, where Bradley begs the trainer to hurry the patch job so he can get back onto the pitch and help his team close out a 1-0 victory.
Two hours later, Bradley, sporting 13 fresh staples in his scalp, steps into the toy-filled family room at BMO Field. His 17-month-old son, Luca, has missed his afternoon nap but can't stop smiling, because Dad has finally arrived. Michael walks up to Luca's stroller, drops to one knee and leans in. The toddler reaches out and pinches his dad's nose. They both giggle. "Give me five, buddy," Bradley says. "We got 'em today." He then gives his wife, Amanda, a kiss, and they head for home. As Bradley pushes Luca's stroller to the car, he thanks every stadium worker in his path.
This is the Michael Bradley whom outsiders never see. After the final whistle blows and the cameras are turned off, the 26-year-old is nothing like the fiercely competitive and frequently combative engine who drives Toronto and the U.S. national team, at times alienating teammates and media along the way.
Bradley looks like a man at ease with his decision to play in this city for a team that has never made the playoffs. Why would a player in his prime leave a storied club like AS Roma of the Italian Serie A for a perennial MLS bottom-feeder? Critics contend that Bradley did it for the money, bagging his Champions League dreams for a $36 million MLS payday. And U.S. fans fret about what it means for America's World Cup chances that one of its biggest stars couldn't find a more promising opportunity in a more prestigious league.
"People act like I've given up by leaving Europe," Bradley says. "That's a load of crap. For every person who thinks I'm giving up and following the money... it's motivation to shove it back in every one of their faces."
YOU DON'T NEED to understand soccer to appreciate what Bradley brings to a match. His role is that of instigator, the guy who touches the ball more often than any other player and dictates the flow of the game. In an increasingly specialized sport, he remains a box-to-box midfielder who can defend, distribute and, when asked, finish. He may not be the fastest, strongest or most talented player on the field. But he's often the most valuable.
"Everyone looks at Landon Donovan and his numbers, but you can put Michael right up there in terms of the best players our country has ever had," says former U.S. national team assistant Mike Sorber, now a coach with MLS's Philadelphia Union. "People say Michael is the key to our team this summer? Well, he was the key to our team as a 22-year-old in South Africa too."
Playing for his father, Bob Bradley, Michael was on the field for every minute of every match during that 2010 World Cup, and his tying goal in the 82nd minute of a 2-2 draw with Slovenia saved the U.S. from a group-stage exit. That determination and grit stem from his dad, one of the most successful coaches in U.S. soccer history.
When Bradley was a teenager, he often tagged along with his dad, who then coached the Chicago Fire. Summer mornings began with a bagel, orange juice and a man-to-man chat on the drive to training. Subjects ranged from the sacrifices it takes to achieve greatness to the leadership skills of champions such as Mark Messier, Kobe Bryant and former Manchester United captain Roy Keane. The message was always some variation on standing his ground: Speak your mind. Don't be afraid to pour yourself into something you believe in. And don't shy away from challenges.
Growing up, Bradley never shied away from anything. But his intense, all-in approach to everything boiled over into confrontations -- with teachers, parents, coaches, anyone he didn't agree with. "You go through moments where you feel like if you don't stand up for what you believe, you're a phony," Bradley says. "I'm sure at times people thought, Who is this little s---?"
Especially when Bradley started playing for his father's teams, which led to whispers of nepotism. In 2004, as head coach of the MetroStars, Bob selected 16-year-old Michael in the MLS SuperDraft. Six years later, after stints with pro teams in Holland, England and Germany, Michael suited up for his father on the national team. At the time, both refused to discuss their relationship publicly to avoid affecting the team's chemistry. (Bob, who now coaches in Norway, still refuses to talk about Michael on the record. "I just don't see what purpose it serves," he says.)
The younger Bradley knew he first had to earn the respect and trust of his teammates. He could sense when they felt uneasy about what they should say around him. He realized that as long as his dad was the coach, he'd never be just another player. "So much was expected of him when his dad was the coach," says U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan. "And he felt he had to carry a certain standard day in and day out."
Bradley, wired like his dad, struggled to understand why some players needed a day off or others wanted to eat somewhere other than at the team hotel. "It would drive me crazy," he says. "I'd be walking back to my room, shaking my head, thinking, We've got problems if this many guys think the most important thing is getting time off to have a meal on their own. But you learn that you can't change people or fight every little thing."
That's the more mature Michael Bradley talking. Five years ago, he was ready to fight anyone, even his own father.
IN JUNE 2009, after the U.S. ended Spain's 15-match winning streak with a 2-0 victory in the Confederations Cup semifinals in South Africa, both Bradleys should have been celebrating. Instead, Michael, then 21, stood in a tunnel beneath Bloemfontein's Free State Stadium, fuming. A questionable red card for a tackle in the 87th minute had cost him the chance to play in the final against Brazil. He was crushed. And pissed. "I wanted the referee to know the call was bulls---," he says.
He waited in the tunnel for the ref, and when he approached, Bradley confronted him. The dispute escalated, and then his dad showed up. "He lost it," Michael says. "He was telling me, 'You can't f---ing do that!' The floor was tiled, and I had metal studs on my cleats, so as he pushed me I was struggling to keep my footing. He pushed me into some bags. Then I shoved him into a bag of balls."
Players and coaches looked on, stunned. "They were basically going at each other," Sorber says. "Most of the guys had never seen that level of intensity or that sort of a war between a father and a son. Everybody was like, 'Whoa ... what was that?'"
A coach finally stepped in to separate them. Bob later stood before the team and apologized. Michael also addressed the team, expressing remorse about his outburst. By the time the bus returned to the hotel, father and son were walking together as if nothing had happened. Today, despite living on separate continents, they talk every day. They're extremely close. Bob was even the best man at Michael's wedding.
Guzan says that marriage, fatherhood and time have mellowed Bradley off the pitch. Sort of. "He's able to let go of things a little easier," Guzan says. "But when I say 'easier,' I'm talking in the very smallest amount possible."
Bradley still sees the blowup in Bloemfontein as an example of doing exactly what his dad had always taught him to do -- speak his mind. "That drive and passion and fire is just who I am," he says. "I'd like to say it wouldn't happen again. But the devil side of me says, 'You sure as hell better do the same thing.'"
BY THE SECOND half of Bradley's opening match in Toronto, fans were already chanting his name. Less than two months earlier, he could not have imagined such a scene. Roma -- where fans had nicknamed Bradley Il Generale for his once-commanding presence on the pitch -- was supposed to be a destination, not a layover. But when Rudi Garcia was hired as Roma's coach in June 2013, everything changed. Garcia viewed Bradley as more of a complementary player, not a centerpiece. And the American's playing time dwindled.
"I was thinking, I'm not playing; how am I going to get better?" Bradley says. "It was clear that it was time to go." He wanted to be the man, for club and country. He wanted the pressure, the attention, the freedom and the responsibility of knowing that his team's success would rest largely on his shoulders.
Bob Bradley had been fired as U.S. coach in July 2011 after a 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. That hit Michael hard, but he gradually gained the trust of the man who replaced his dad, Jurgen Klinsmann, who gave Bradley a more central role with the national team. Bradley wanted a club team to do the same. But in Europe, that was a big ask.
Last August fellow American Clint Dempsey had transferred from Tottenham to Seattle and was welcomed home with open arms. In January, Bradley's agent, Ron Waxman, who knew that Toronto was looking for an on-field leader, floated an idea to FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko: If Bradley wanted to play in MLS, would Toronto be interested? Turns out the new GM had one player on the top of his wish list: Michael Bradley.
Bradley called his dad to discuss the pros and cons. But to Michael, the decision was obvious: Spending 40 games a year marshaling the midfield for Toronto would benefit him more than playing 15 games a year as a reserve for Roma. Within days, the deal was done. Toronto paid Roma a $10 million transfer fee, then signed Bradley to a six-year, $36 million contract. "Is the quality of the roster from 1 to 30 at Roma better than Toronto FC's?" says Bradley. "Of course. But the training's better here. The tempo's faster. Guys compete harder."
His reinvigorated game has paid dividends for the U.S. national team. In his first international game after returning to MLS, a friendly against Mexico, Bradley was everywhere, completing 56 of 66 pass attempts, winning tackles, clearances and recoveries. The key was a new diamond midfield formation that featured Bradley at the point. After he scored off a corner kick and added an assist, Mexican coach Miguel Herrera said, "Bradley looked as if he was the best player in the world."
The only place where Bradley can win that title -- and win over his doubters -- is in Brazil. Klinsmann plans to use the new alignment at the World Cup, meaning Bradley will be even more of a playmaker. And so U.S. success will rest largely on his ability to recognize when to pass and when to make one of his trademark runs downfield. Bradley will finally get the chance to be the man in the middle of everything. "I'm going to win that battle," he says.
"That's just who I am."