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Jun 17, 2007

Bradleys proving their value to the U.S. national team

It sure beats a tie or a new electric razor.

As part of the starting lineup that beat Panama on Saturday, Michael Bradley was an integral part in giving his father, U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, a unique Father's Day gift. With the win, the U.S. has booked a trip to the semifinals of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and Bob Bradley has silenced the critics for a while.

It would be hard to find a family under more scrutiny in the soccer community than the Bradleys. After a high-profile search to replace Bruce Arena, USSF President Sunil Gulati tabbed Bob as his man to lead the team through the next cycle of qualifying with the goal of reaching a sixth consecutive World Cup. The fact that he now coaches his son on the national team adds a certain level of intrigue to the mix.

"The most important thing in his life is our family," said Michael of his father. "Soccer is next. He puts everything he has into our team, and all the other time is spent with our family."

The relationship enjoyed by Michael and Bob Bradley is a unique one that has been cultivated on the club and national levels. When he was drafted by his father in 2004, there was an outcry from a number of MetroStars fans who feared that the younger Bradley was selected based purely on his family ties. Missing his debut season due to injury, Michael rebounded in 2005, leading the team in minutes played and learning a new position as a defensive midfielder. It was a difficult year for the younger Bradley, battling the stigma of being the coach's son and having to fight his way through his first true MLS season.

"The talk of nepotism comes only from people that don't know much about soccer and even more so about the kind of special relationship Mike and Bob have as father/son and player/coach," said Nick Sakiewicz, the former MetroStars' GM who oversaw both the hiring of a Bradley as coach and the drafting of a Bradley as a player. "If anything, Mike worked harder to play and Bob worked harder to coach because they never want to let each other down."

Few can deny that Michael left it all on the field. An attacking player in his days with the youth national team, he was asked by his father to slide further back and play as a defensive midfielder for the MetroStars. For a team very much in flux, Michael was a steadying force on the field, serving as the link between the defense and the attack and earning the respect of his teammates.

Tim Ward, a defenseman for the Columbus Crew, played with Mike Bradley for two years with the MetroStars. He noted that as coach, Bob "treated Michael like everyone else."

As far as the nepotism banter was concerned, Ward said: "Bob never addressed the team for it and I don't think there was a need [to]."

"Obviously there have always been advantages and disadvantages for having my dad be a coach, but it has never got in the way of what I am trying to do," said Michael on the role his father played on the field and at home. "He taught me how to act, how to carry myself, and taught me that if I came in to training everyday and gave everything I had to the team, that people on the inside would respect that."

The separation of home and field wasn't an easy sell in a tough New York market. Despite Michael's solid, hard-nosed play, many fans grimaced as the younger Bradley continued to earn playing time.

"Sadly, many fans chose to not look past the last name on his jersey, even after Michael started to turn solid performances," said Dan Ryazansky, the editor of MetroFanatic.com. "After the Metros traded away Ricardo Clark to acquire Youri Djorkaeff, Michael was given a fair shot to win a starting spot, and did so, unseating the incumbent Gilberto Flores. By the time he scored the winner that put the Metros in the playoffs, many of those fans came around."

Father and son have been connected through soccer as long as Michael can remember. Looking back, Michael reminisces about trips to Italy as a young boy when Bob was coaching at Princeton and watching AC Milan play at the San Siro. When Bob was coach of the Chicago Fire, Michael would venture onto the field after practice and kick the ball around with the squad. The younger Bradley would be included in games of keep-away and 5-on-2, sharing the ball with the likes of Hristo Stoichkov and Piotr Nowak. It was an opportunity to learn from the best for Michael, but a chance for a father to share his sport with his son in a most unique way.

Now, after playing in Holland the past two seasons with Heerenveen, Michael Bradley has ventured out of the protective wings of his father. Across the Atlantic, the young man who once carpooled with his father to practice is now an established player on a quality team and a veteran who has seen UEFA Cup action. He is expected to be a starter for the club this fall when the Dutch season gets underway. It is no surprise to those who know him best that he's encountered such success and is still a teenager.

Jeff Bradley knows this father-and-son tandem as well as anyone. A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, Bradley is the brother of Bob and the uncle to Michael.

"Michael has definitely acquired Bob's attention to detail and discipline," Jeff Bradley said. "I can remember when Michael was about seven, I decided to take him to one of my favorite places to eat, Chick-Fil-A. When we got there, I ordered my usual fried chicken sandwich and fries. Michael ordered grilled chicken and a salad. He said to me, 'Uncle Jeff, grilled chicken is better for a soccer player than fried chicken.'"

Now, though, both are removed from the days of visits to Chick-Fil-A. The youngest Bradley, who turns 20 at the end of July, has proven himself in friendlies for the national team leading up to the Gold Cup and started twice in the opening round of games. He's no longer an outsider in practice, but instead making a valuable contribution.

"A great understanding of the game," said U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who will coach Bradley this summer in the U-20 World Cup. "There is real progress, real development in his game. Physically, he has bloomed in terms of size and strength and speed. Technically very sound. Michael has emerged as a bright young star."

However, the depth of the relationship between father and son extends far beyond just the playing field and the sport.

"He's been an unbelievable role model and hero for me my whole life," Michael said. "We've always loved doing things together. We'd always talk about the game, and he said he would always be glad to help as long as it was something I loved doing, but he never pushed me to do it if I didn't want to. As much as anything, he showed me and taught me how to act. How to be a good person, how to act like a man, how to work hard and be someone that earns people's respect. The things I've learned from him will stay with me my whole life."

Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com