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Jul 5, 2007

Bradley the backbone of the U-20s

MONTREAL -- Most of the talk after the Americans' drubbing of Poland at the FIFA U-20 World Cup has rightly centered on goal-scoring stars Freddy Adu and Danny Szetela. But if the U.S. concludes its stay in Canada with a first-ever podium appearance, Michael Bradley might end up being the name on everyone's lips.

Playing the unglamorous role of midfield destroyer, Bradley will never be first to get the accolades. In that position, the less you notice him the better. But make no mistake: He was every bit as important as his more attack-minded teammates in Tuesday's 6-1 win over the Eastern Europeans.

Bradley's organization, tenacious tackling and cerebral distribution freed up the space that allowed midfield cohorts Adu and Szetela to shine. After a disappointing draw against South Korea in the tourney opener during which no American played particularly well, this was the Bradley cognizant U.S. fans came to appreciate during last month's Gold Cup. In that tournament, the 19-year old emerged as a first-choice selection playing for his father, Bob, on the full national team.

He has appeared in eight games with the big boys so far this year -- six of them starts. He saw time in every Gold Cup match save the final, for which he was suspended after being red-carded at the end of an otherwise brilliant semifinal display against the Canadians.

After his performance in the CONCACAF championship, it is now safe to say that Bradley has moved ahead of slowing veteran Pablo Mastroeni and fellow up-and-comer Rico Clark on the defensive midfield depth chart. His father certainly could have used his tenacious ball-winning ability, competitiveness and guile in Venezuela, where a patchwork U.S. squad was humbled by Argentina and Paraguay in its first two Copa America games.

Despite missing the chance to go toe-to-toe with likes of Lionel Messi and Roque Santa Cruz, "Little Bradley" is quite happy to be north of the border, helping his contemporaries try to bring home the nation's first-ever international title.

"I can't wait for the U-20s to start," Bradley said before the World Cup began last weekend. "I'm really excited about it."

Even at the highest level, Bradley is a lot more than a pure destroyer. He's composed on the ball, rarely turns it over, and is equally adept at playing the simple pass or splitting a defense with a pinpoint through ball. His combination play with Benny Feilhaber, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan on the senior squad led to numerous scoring chances at the regional event.

"Michael is a veteran already at his young age," says U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen. "He gives us a lot of leadership and experience."

Bradley also adds physical presence that was previously missing on both teams. He is noticeably bigger than he was when he left Major League Soccer in January of last year as the youngest transfer in MLS history, and he seems taller than his listed height of 6-foot-2. He has clearly added muscle to his once-lanky frame and now cuts a truly imposing figure on the field.

But his real strength is what coaches like to call his "soccer IQ".

Bradley is the archetypical coach's son, but one with the talent to match the intelligence.

Bradley made just 21 Eredivisie appearances for Heerenveen last season, mostly as a substitute. He did start a succession of matches at the tail end of 2006, helping the club earn a UEFA Cup berth.

Bradley will return to the Netherlands next month with an eye on a regular place on Gertjan Verbeek's team. But his Dutch coach won't be the only one monitoring his development this summer. A solid showing will not go unnoticed by the scores of scouts from major European clubs who have descended on Canada looking to snap up young talent.

And Bradley has already impressed. He has fit right in with his new teammates, most of whom he knows well from his time in U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency program.

"I lived with a lot of these guys for two years in Florida, so we're all close," he says. "The chemistry on the team is fantastic."

When the Americans' run in Canada is over, don't be surprised if people are saying the same thing about him.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.