It's difficult to gauge the overall success of a country’s player program from a single World Cup tournament. The sample size of games is small, a call can drastically shift the outcome and untimely injury can mean a ton. In fact, the harshest judgments are generally reserved for countries that have already established themselves by winning a World Cup.
The United States offers an exception. Because not only will the 2014 World Cup tell us a lot about the program, it'll tell us a lot about a domestic league this country supports, and whether our players are helping or hurting their development by playing in it.
The recent transfer of Michael Bradley from Italian Seria A club AS Roma to Toronto FC of Major League Soccer means that the team’s three biggest (outfield) stars -- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and now Bradley -- all play in the country’s domestic league. Further, the fact that manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s current January camp includes 25 MLS players means that the success of the United States in World Cup 2014 hinges almost completely on the strength of its domestic league and the competition it provides.
The Bradley move is probably not Klinsmann’s preference, but the manager is resigned to the fact that bouncing around Europe on loan deals (as many Americans abroad appear to be doing) does not bring much more return than being settled in one place and establishing a presence at one club. In Bradley’s case, a loan deal probably could have been worked out to keep him in Europe. But on the same day the former Roma midfielder joined Toronto FC, Klinsmann, in an interview with ESPN FC’s Roger Bennett, summed up the general European thinking toward American players when he asserted, “There is no demand … it’s just a sign of reality, the demand is not there.”
This is not to say that the talent is not there; Klinsmann has seen firsthand how capable his players are, both for club and country. But it does suggest that there is a significant credibility hurdle that American players have to climb when proving themselves in Europe, and for Klinsmann the only way to climb that hurdle is to be there. This is not a short-term concern for Klinsmann, as Bradley’s need for playing time is directly linked to his form and confidence in the summer. However, the lack of playing opportunities Americans are receiving overseas is becoming a disturbing trend, and ultimately that absence of a high-pressure European football culture will have a negative impact on the United States national team as a whole.
Bradley's development, obstacles at Roma
Like other American players, Bradley proved that he is capable of playing in Europe. The midfielder appeared in 30 games for Roma in 2012-13 and showed great box-to-box potential by recording 49 tackles and completing 87.8 percent of his passes. But Bradley’s playing time was most affected by Roma’s shift to Rudi Garcia as manager, and specifically the former Lille m...