BOCA RATON, Fla. — U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann expressed his emphatic concern here on Monday afternoon that the competition level in MLS may not be high enough to keep several veteran players at their peak.
The manager focused his comments primarily on midfielder Michael Bradley, who left AS Roma last winter to join Toronto FC, a club that’s on the verge of missing the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. Forward Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders) and midfielder Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution) also signed multi-million dollar MLS contracts in the past year–plus, but each is in his early 30s. Bradley, at 27, is in the prime of his career.
“We follow every one of them in their club environment and it didn’t really go well for Michael at all,” Klinsmann said at Florida Atlantic University, where the U.S. will meet Honduras Tuesday night in its third friendly since the World Cup. Bradley missed the two previous matches in order to stay with TFC as it fights to make the MLS postseason.
“We’ll see now where he’s at. We’ll see now how the deals with all these issues. Obviously it looks pretty much like they’re not making the playoffs,” Klinsmann said. “We’ll see now how he deals with that, to deal with the disappointment.”
Despite spending some $100 million on a winter overhaul that brought Bradley along with strikers Jermain Defoe and Gilberto to Toronto, the club has endured a nightmare season. First, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke, the architect of TFC's ambitious signings, announced his intention to leave the company by next summer. Then coach Ryan Nelsen was fired at the end of August by first-year GM Tim Bezbatchenko. Defoe flirted with a return to England. Now, the club is in the midst of a three-game losing streak under new coach Greg Vanney and is all but eliminated from playoff contention with two matches remaining. Bradley’s composure has been put to the test — he was fined last month for accusing referees of bias — and Klinsmann said the veteran will have to work that much harder to maintain his form after spending a season on a struggling MLS team.
“I think he’s been faced with a very, very difficult year, making that decision, going from a Champions League [club] to a team, Toronto, now it seems like they’re not even going to qualify for the playoffs. It’s a huge disappointment that comes along,” Klinsmann said. “You have to adjust yourself to whatever environment you’re in. You have to adjust to the environment he’s in with Toronto, instead of maybe an environment that plays Champions League football. He’s going through that experience now and still coming in now for the first time since the World Cup, he has to prove that he hasn’t lost a bit. Obviously we’ll keep working and pushing but it’s down to him and his environment to see what level he’s capable to play.”
Referencing Dempsey as well, Klinsmann continued, “It’s going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest.”
The coach said MLS "is getting better and stronger every year, which we're all very proud about," and he acknowledged that the massive payday — Bradley and Dempsey each earn at least $6.5 million in annual guaranteed compensation, according to the MLS Players Union — as well as “many other elements” played a role in their decisions. Dempsey wasn’t a full-time starter at Tottenham Hotspur and Bradley felt he was being pushed out at Roma. Bradley wanted to join a team that would rely on him as an on- and off-field leader. He wanted to make his mark on a club and a community and in doing so, he felt he’d improve as a player thanks to that responsibility.
“Everything is right here,” Bradley told SI.com before the World Cup. “So to come to a place now, where I have to take a huge amount of responsibility every day and put that all on my shoulders and push myself to be a better leader, to be a better player, to do more … knowing that at the end, if it doesn’t go well, a lot of it’s going to come down on me. That’s what I keep saying. That’s why I’m here. I relish that.”
Klinsmann said he understood that reasoning when Bradley made the move, but it doesn’t mean he completely agreed with it. TFC hasn’t done much to alleviate his skepticism.
“The reality is for both players that making that step means you’re not in the same competitive environment you were in before. It’s not easy for Michael and it’s not going to be easy in the future,” Klinsmann said.
In the end, it will be up to Bradley, Dempsey and other MLS stars to push themselves to the point where they remain in top form. Not only are they among the country’s best players, but they’ll be relied upon to set an example for the younger talent Klinsmann is introducing into the program.
“Between two World Cup cycles, you push the restart button. You want the more experienced players to get challenged, you want the younger players to come out of their shell,” Klinsmann said. “You want the more experienced players to take those younger players under their wings. You want almost like a mentor situation … We have to help these younger guys and help them understand it takes different things at this level to be successful. It’s all part of the learning curve.”
It’s similar to the challenge Bradley faces in Toronto. He spoke to reporters later Monday and made it clear that he hasn't given up.
"There are obviously two parts to it as always — the team’s success and performance and then individually how you are able to work and improve and continue to push yourself along," Bradley said. "I think despite a less than successful season on a team level, I have still found ways to push myself and improve. Certainly one of the qualities of the league as a whole is that it is competitive and the difference on a lot of days between most teams is very small ... Until the table says that there is no possible way then we are going to continue to play and push ourselves and try to see if there is something there for us."