For David Richardson, coach of the Sockers FC Chicago youth club, MichaelBradley serves as a perfect example for his current players.
"How he is now compared to how he was as a youth player, it's a neat story," says Richardson. "What we relate about Mike to the young guys we have now is that Mike was one of the smaller guys in his group.
"He was the runt of the litter. Athletically, he wasn't, let's say, fully developed. Sometimes when you look a youth team, people say the best guys are the ones who are the better athletes. Mike wasn't that. But he loved the game. He had a passion for it. He was a soccer rat. And he always had the desire to improve."
Bradley moved to the Chicago area in 1998 at age 10 when his father, Bob, became coach of MLS' Chicago Fire. The boy's favorite hangout was the Sockers' headquarters -- the Soccer City indoor facility in Palatine, where his mother, Lindsay, would drop Michael off almost daily after school.
"Some young players shy away from the things they're not good at," says Richardson. "Mike understood his weaknesses. He focused on them rather than avoiding them, whether it was defensive play or the fact that he wasn't the fastest guy."
Bradley would arrive at Soccer City and jump in with whatever teams were in action. Often they were the older groups.
"The kid wanted to play, all day, every day," says Lindsay Bradley. "It didn't matter with whom or when."
Bradley was always a midfielder. Now 20 years old, he's in the midst of an amazing scoring run with Heerenveen of the Dutch Eredivisie, where he broke the scoring record for an American-born and -bred player in a European first division. By mid-February, he hit 13 goals, which according to Voetbol International already puts him sixth on the all-time list of highest-scoring midfielders in a Dutch Eredivisie season.
"No idea," says Bradley when asked about the last time he scored at such a pace.
Richardson says Bradley scored occasionally in youth ball.
"He was more of a setup guy," says Richardson. "Mike was the bow, and Will Johnson was the arrow."
Johnson, now a Canadian international, also went to Heerenveen and is on loan to Dutch club De Graafschaap. Another Sockers alum and friend of Bradley's is U.S. international Jonathan Spector, who plays for English Premier League club West Ham.
Like Spector, Bradley entered U.S. Soccer's U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. John Hackworth was the U.S. U-17 assistant coach when Bradley was in Bradenton for two years.
"When Michael first got into residency, he was a really small kid, with really good technical ability," says Hackworth. "He was up to my shoulder when he arrived. He was taller than me when he left. Now he towers above me."
That Bradley didn't hit his 6-foot-2 height until his late teens may have benefited him.
"Certainly, for all of us who are involved in youth soccer there are times when you say that it's true," Bob Bradley says. "That a younger player who is smaller has got to develop his other qualities, so it's a plus. It can work that way. But I don't think it's an automatic."
With the U-17s, Michael was in the younger age group -- a 1987-born player in the '86-87 group -- and didn't get selected for the U-17 World Cup squad. But Hackworth says he and head coach John Ellinger believed then he had the potential to be "a phenomenal pro" because of his work ethic and because he was a student of the game.
"Michael might be the best example of how important it is to recognize that kids develop at different ages," Hackworth says. "He wasn't really fast. He's still not very fast. He was always a really good player. He just needed time to physically mature and continue developing. Michael is the example of a player who recognizes the educational aspects on the field, but also off it. He understood what it takes to dedicate yourself to the game and have focus and commitment."
The soccer lessons started early, when Bob coached Princeton and Michael hung out with the team. Manfred Schellscheidt, longtime U.S. Soccer staff coach and Seton Hall head coach who coached New Jersey youth ball with Bob, saw much of Michael when Schellscheidt's son played at Princeton.
"Mike was always around," says Schellscheidt. "To be on the scene he had a chance to get a better picture of what the game could be like at a very early age, and to jump in as the little guy."
In 1996, Bob left Princeton to become Bruce Arena's assistant coach at D.C. United.
"I was always hanging around," says Michael. "And after training, sometimes I'd get to play some 3-v-3 with the players."
Bob helped out with Michael's youth teams but never coached one. Was it important to him that his son would become an exceptional player?
"No," says Bob. "You hope to help your kids find things that they have passion for, things that they really love, and things that they want to put something into. That was just the way we always approached it.
"Our oldest daughter, Kerry, loved ballet and was a very serious dancer for a long time. Our youngest daughter Ryan has played soccer and tennis. As a young kid, Michael was always around the game, and he was around good soccer people. I'm sure that had a lot to do with his love for the game."
Familiarity with pro sports went beyond exposure through his father. Michael's uncle, Scott, played nine seasons of Major League Baseball. Another uncle, Jeff, is a sportswriter, currently with ESPN The Magazine.
Jeff Bradley said he didn't see that much of Michael's youth soccer after the family left New Jersey, but remembers when he attended MLS Cup '98, where Bob's Chicago Fire defeated D.C. United. Before the game, he saw 11-year-old Michael on the Rose Bowl field.
"He was playing two-touch keep-away with pro players," says Jeff. "I was pretty impressed."
Michael decided to turn pro after graduating early from high school at age 16. "At one point it looked like he would go to the University of North Carolina and I was fired up, because that's where I went to school," says Jeff. "When he decided to go pro, my father and I were excited, but a little nervous. Project-40 [the MLS-U.S. Soccer program for players who skip college] had been hit and miss. Mike was an excellent student and could have gone anywhere. But there are different paths to education and Mike is a real smart kid."
Michael's decision to go into the '04 MLS Draft came after long discussions with his parents about the pros and cons.
"Tough discussions, for sure," says Bob. "They took a long time, but he felt strongly this was something he wanted to do. You try to raise your kids to make decisions for themselves and there is a point where again you get tested as a parent as to whether or not you know what's best for them or how you discuss those things. And they're not easy things."
Michael was drafted in the fourth round, the 36th overall pick, by his father, then entering his second year as MetroStars head coach. Bradley didn't see action in his first season because of a foot injury that may have been related to his growth spurt. In his second season, during which he turned 18, he started 30 regular-season and two playoff games. He scored once.
In January '06, Bradley became the youngest MLS player transferred to a foreign club when he joined Heerenveen, where in his first full season ('06-07), he made 21 appearances, mainly off the bench. Bradley nailed down a starting role this season and is the leading scorer on the Netherlands' highest-scoring team, and helped it to second place. He also scored twice in the Dutch Cup and twice in the UEFA Cup.
"My wife is starting to get tired of me calling her over to watch his goals from every angle on YouTube highlights," joked Jeff. "But when we watched him give interviews in Dutch, we were both amazed."
Jeff isn't that surprised that Michael mastered a new language. He recalls Michael helping translate Bob's conversations in Spanish with players on the Chicago Fire.
"When it comes to being a pro, he gets it," says Ron Waxman, the player agent who represents Bob and Michael Bradley. "He's gone there, learned the language, is respected by his teammates and his coaches."
Michael earned his first two U.S. caps under Arena in friendly games before the '06 World Cup. Bob became U.S. head coach in December '06 and in '07, Michael became a regular in the midfield, starting in 10 of 12 games while scoring his first U.S. goal in a friendly win at Switzerland. His performances laid to rest any questions of familial favoritism and for Michael having dad as coach is just a bonus.
"It's pretty special that I get to spend more time with my father," he says.
After he played in a 2-2 tie with Mexico in Houston, Bradley flew back to the Netherlands on a Thursday, arrived Friday morning in time for practice, and on Saturday scored in a 1-1 tie with league leader PSV Eindhoven.
The scoring run has come as a surprise for a player usually pegged as a defensive midfielder.
"I'm a midfielder," says Bradley. "When you look around the world, and you see midfielders who can attack and defend and chip in with their share of goals, that really helps their teams. That's what I'm trying to do."
Schellscheidt says he saw Bradley become a more attacking player while with the MetroStars.
"He's really come a long way from initially being this dedicated hard-working kid who had pretty good feet," says Schellscheidt. "The question was always, does he have the pace? Or could he deal with the tempo of the game, not from the mental standpoint -- he was always pretty sharp -- but the footraces. He's still not the fastest guy, but he's definitely found a way to compensate by being pretty fast upstairs."
"When he first got his chance at the MetroStars, it clearly fell on him to do most of the dirty work and chase, defensively do the best he could. But as the season went on, he started doing much better going forward and sliding balls in the holes and finding guys up front around the box. It was a pretty natural way of playing safe first and then doing more and more on the attacking end."
Bradley's contract with Heerenveen runs through June '09, which means that Heerenveen would have to sell him in the offseason to get a transfer fee. Bradley's age and scoring output make him a hot commodity.
"The thing about Mike is you don't worry what you're going to get from him," says U.S. teammate Landon Donovan. "A lot of times with younger players you see a lot of ups and downs. Not with him. And if someone tells him he's great, he won't believe it. He just keeps trying to improve."
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine. Click here for a free three-month subscription.