Michael Bradley has returned to MLS with Toronto FC after eight years in Europe. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
HARRISON, N.J. - Before his return to Major League Soccer this offseason to play for Toronto FC, Michael Bradley was what has become more and more of an anomaly: an American playing top-flight soccer for a top-level club in Europe. But with standout players like Bradley and Clint Dempsey returning to play domestically in the last year, prominent Americans are an increasingly unusual sight in European soccer today.
With that as the backdrop, U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann recently expressed his desire for more American players to participate in UEFA Champions League competition, going as far as to tell ESPN that Americans lacked the "belief" it took to compete at the highest club level.
While Bradley's belief in his abilities has rarely been questioned anywhere, the U.S. midfielder does think there is a perception issue when it comes to Americans overseas.
"There's no doubt that as Americans we continue to have to fight for respect," Bradley said on Monday, speaking at Red Bull Arena as part of MLS media and marketing tour in the build-up to the 2014 season. "We have to continue to show that we have teams and players who can play at the highest level."
This year, no Americans are competing in the knockout stage of the Champions League, with Jermaine Jones departing Schalke prior to the German club's tangle with Real Madrid. And with many of the best Americans playing in North America, that trend doesn't look to change anytime soon.
"You would have hoped that now what's gone on with Major League Soccer, with the national team or whether it's certain individuals over the past 10 to 15 or 20 years would have done more for us," Bradley said. "But the reality is at the moment there is still a little bit of a feeling that if you can have an American or an Argentine, you're taking the Argentine. Some people can look at that as feeling sorry for yourself, but that's the reality."
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Bradley also noted the vast improvement in quality of play for the MLS since he last played in the league over eight years ago. But even with domestic club competition better than ever, he said that American players still have a responsibility to represent themselves well around the world.
"For every guy who steps on the field for the national team, for every guy who goes to Europe or for every person who steps on the field in Major League Soccer, it's up to us to continue to show and prove that we have players and teams that can play at the highest level," Bradley said.