Could Michael Bradley thrive in the Premier League?
Michael Bradley is the American Jason Statham.
A bald man who kicks ass, and in doing so makes all those around him feel both safe and full of hope. In the past, his physical commitment and mental tenacity have combined to make the midfielder a virtual security blanket simmering away at the heart of the U.S. national team. Bradley was unshackled in the U.S. team's 2-2 draw with Mexico last Wednesday night, thriving in a more advanced, buccaneering role at the tip of the diamond. No sooner had Bradley led the U.S. in touches (81) and passes completed (56) than Mexican coach Miguel Herrera was left to marvel that Bradley "looked as if he was the best player in the world." After watching the New Jersey-born star muscle in the Yanks' first goal and then use his head to create a second, I was struck by this question: With his fast-improving vision, consistent decision making, inventive passing and tireless pressing, how many Premier League starting lineups could Michael Bradley walk straight into right now? I posed the question on Twitter late Thursday night and the torrential response of "yes, please!" from Manchester United fans who believed Bradley’s skill sets are exactly what their team needs made me realize just how emotional the issue can be.
To be clear, this is not a question about who would match the salary Bradley is reportedly drawing at Toronto FC. It is purely about the American's ability and perhaps on a subconscious level, the prevailing instinct to downgrade a player's talent as soon as a Major League Soccer contract is signed. Bradley's career arc offers some hints as to why, yet they may be partial red herrings. The player's brief and curiously unsuccessful 2011 loan spell at Aston Villa began with tabloid talk of the arrival of "an American Roy Keane" but ended without the offer of a permanent deal. Yet this damp squib Premier League sortie took place against the backdrop of managerial turbulence at Villa as the midfielder was caught between regimes of three managers, including caretaker Gary McAllister, in quick succession. Since then Bradley's game has matured, both at Chievo and Roma domestically and at the national level through World Cup qualification with Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team.
The decision to curtail his Serie A career was the player's own. Roma coach Rudi Garcia had made it clear the American would not be starting regularly in an attack-minded midfield propelled by Daniele De Rossi, bolstered by Kevin Strootman and augmented by Miralem Pjanic. Bradley elected to head home to North America, craving the opportunity not only to start but to lead a team that was built around his ample talent. So exactly how many Premier League teams' starting XI's would instantly be improved by the arrival of Bradley? The magic number for me is 15 -- all of the teams apart from the five below: 1. Liverpool: Based on the belief that I would not have the temerity to mess with the midfield alchemy that has propelled the team on their intoxicating charge to the top of the table. 2. Chelsea: Jose Mourinho publicly craves a "real striker," which Bradley is not. The imperious return of Nemanja Matic suggests Bradley would be in danger of gaining a John Obi Mikel-esque number of minutes. 3. Manchester City: Hard to believe that in competing with coach Manuel Pellegrini's first choice of Yaya Toure, David Silva, Fernandinho and Samir Nasri, Bradley would not experience a Roma situation redux. 4. Everton: Though the Goodison Park faithful would no doubt welcome another team-first American with open arms, undersung heroes Gareth Barry and James McCarthy behind Ross Barkley would prevent Bradley from walking into the starting lineup. 5. Tottenham Hotspur: A gaggle of midfielders including Aaron Lennon, Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Mousa Dembele, Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Gylfi Sigurdsson present too many options and too many possibilities for a coach like Tim Sherwood, whose selection process can veer toward the avant garde. A real possibility exists that Bradley could be "Clint Dempsey'd" at White Hart Lane. Of the remaining 15, the biggest eyebrow-raiser would be Arsenal. Yet Arsene Wenger's arm-long injury list, which has claimed the erratic talent of Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, the suspect fitness of Aaron Ramsey and the degrading returns of Mikel Arteta must all be factored into the equation. Though Arsenal fans may resent the suggestion that a Serie A-defecting MLS player could immediately slot into their first team, with the North Londoners' grip on fourth place so tenuous the Toronto FC midfielder would be an instant upgrade. Though the question is theoretical, one thing is certain: There can be no doubting Bradley's professionalism and mental commitment. Last year, I sat down with him and he told me his dream of "playing on a big club... being a big guy on the team. The one who is counted on in the biggest of games in the biggest of moments."
For the time being, it seems, that team will be his national team and the big games will be in Brazil at the World Cup.