Michael Bradley, left, and Landon Donovan have seen MLS grow in stature, size and relevance over the years. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)
HARRISON, N.J. -- With eight years in between his time as a New York/New Jersey MetroStar and his return to professional soccer in North America, Major League Soccer has become hardly recognizable to U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley.
During Bradley's first stint in the MLS -- as a promising teenager -- the MetroStars (now the Red Bulls) played in the old Giants Stadium. Before practice, players would change in the locker room at the stadium before loading into passenger vans to head out to the team's practice field, either at Rutherford High School or New Jersey Institute of Technology on a turf field. The players would then head back to Giants Stadium, where employees wouldn't even recognize them.
"The people at Giants Stadium wouldn't even know who you were because Eminem would be in town," Bradley recalled Monday at Red Bull Arena -- the Red Bulls' state-of-the-art home -- as part of the MLS media and marketing tour. "You'd be fighting to get back in the locker room."
After playing professionally in Europe, the league to which Bradley is returning is completely changed from the MLS he left in 2006. Several new franchises have debuted. New soccer-specific stadiums have rapidly been constructed. David Beckham may have come and gone as a player (and is on the verge of transitioning to the owner's box), but a number of other big-name stars currently suit up for MLS clubs. Popularity continues to reach new heights, and the league continues to grow.
"Over the last few years, you continued to get the sense that things were going in a great way. There's new teams, new stadiums, new owners coming in," Bradley said. "There's more buzz around the game. There's more media attention. In all ways these are things that needed to happen for soccer in North America to continue to grow and grow. It's exciting."
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Though Landon Donovan has played overseas for clubs like Bayern Munich and Everton, he has chosen to play out the vast majority of his career in MLS. As a prominent figure in the league over the last decade, Donovan, who is a goal shy of becoming the league's all-time leading scorer, has seen first-hand the seismic shifts.
"It's an interesting time because there's this swell of momentum around our league that's really special and fun to be a part of," Donovan said. "It's almost surreal to see Michael walk out of this room and say hi to him, for a guy who has spent his career in Europe."
Bradley said he expects essentially every match to be high-pressure this year, a stark contrast to the early days of empty stadiums in the MLS.
"This is why we play: to play in big games, to play where there's pressure, to play where the stadiums are sold out," said Bradley, who completed a stunning transfer from AS Roma to Toronto FC this winter. "This is what we all enjoy."
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Added Donovan, while citing hype around LA Galaxy matches against teams like New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and LA's slate of Western Conference foes: "I'm excited for the games, because you feel now that there is a real feel around each of those games.
"There are so many games through the year in the past where you couldn't get excited about it. Now it seems like every game has some sort of storyline."