This story appeared in the June 16, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Michael Bradley never went to college, but he was once part of a college soccer program—if attending games and practices, hanging around locker rooms, training alongside players and heading out on road trips with the team qualifies.
One of those trips came in the fall of 1995, when Princeton headed down I-95 for an NCAA tournament game at James Madison. About halfway there the bus stopped for lunch at a shopping-mall food court in suburban Washington. Michael's uncle Jeff, a journalist, excitedly steered the young boy toward a Chick-fil-A, which at that time would have been a relatively exotic fast-food treat for a kid from New Jersey. Jeff loaded up, then Michael ordered: a grilled chicken sandwich—no breading—and a fruit cup.
Stunned, Jeff tried to introduce his nephew to the wonder of waffle fries. But Michael, whose father, Bob, was the Princeton coach, said simply, "That's not what soccer players eat."
He was eight years old, and he was certain. Michael Bradley had already been a soccer player for quite some time.
On June 1—11 days before the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Brazil—Jeff Bradley drove to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., to watch a soccer player, one who might just be his country's most important. His nephew, now 26, was making his 78th start in midfield for the national team in a warmup game against Turkey. Jeff was joined in the stands by Michael's wife, Amanda, and the couple's 20-month-old son, Luca, who was wearing Dad's No. 4 jersey.
The toddler has no trouble spotting his father on the field. Michael stands out in part because of his large shiny head and erect posture—but mostly because he's almost always involved, as if tethered to the ball.
Bradley's knack for reading the game and anticipating play is peerless among his countrymen, as is his equal comfort in defense or possession.
He is the American most adept at shaping the course of a match. He solves problems, plugs holes and establishes rhythm, either as a deep-lying destroyer and distributor or as a box-to-box marauder with an attacking bent. He is precise yet forceful.
Against Turkey, Bradley started in an advanced role that had been created for him recently by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Midway through the first half, Bradley polished off a quick give-and-go with right back Fabian Johnson with an exquisite arcing pass that looped over the Turkish rear guard and dropped onto his teammate's left foot. Johnson's finish capped off a world-class goal that helped inspire the Americans to a 2-1 victory. It was smash-and-grab soccer with style—the sort that Klinsmann prefers and the sort that will be required if the U.S. is to win its critical World Cup opener against Ghana in Natal on June 16.
But the Turkey game was hard-won. The U.S. defense was under far too much pressure, and the seams in the midfield were too wide and welcoming. Klinsmann's solution: Pull Bradley back. The coach asked him to play alongside defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones when the Turks had the ball. When the U.S. recovered it, Bradley assumed his position behind the forwards. Because he can do it all, he must.
Says U.S. striker Chris Wondolowski of the deepening extent of Bradley's responsibilities, "He is absolutely the epitome of being a complete soccer player."
Tim Leiweke needed a soccer player to build around. In 2007, as the head of AEG, he had been the brains behind the sensational deal that brought David Beckham to the LA Galaxy. Six years later, Leiweke took over as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, whose portfolio includes the NHL's Maple Leafs, the NBA's Raptors and MLS's Toronto FC. Launched in the same year Leiweke landed Beckham, the MLS expansion team had a downtown stadium and a hungry fan base. But six straight seasons without a playoff appearance had sapped the city's spirit. A culture change was needed.
So last Dec. 31, Leiweke rang his good friend, Klinsmann. "I want to ask you a question about one of your players," he said. "Tell me about Michael Bradley.'"
And Klinsmann did. Typically ebullient and enthusiastic, the German-Californian was especially so when discussing Bradley, who then was halfway through his second season with Italian juggernaut AS Roma, his fifth European club. "He raved about him at the highest level I've ever heard Jurgen rave about anybody," says Leiweke. "Then he said, 'Why do you ask?' and I said, 'Well, what do you think about him in MLS?'"
Klinsmann's tone changed. "Oh, he'll never do it, Tim," the coach said. "He wants to play with a team that's going to be in the Champions League. You have to understand, this is a unique player. He is the most unique player."
Leiweke wanted Bradley in Toronto for the same reason Klinsmann thought it wouldn't happen: Both saw an athlete completely devoted to his craft, driven by an uncompromising old-school ethos. They saw an athletic idealist. They just differed on where that sort of soccer player might flourish best. Leiweke expected Bradley to identify with the risks taken by an ambitious team banking heavily on a young front office and expensive on-field talent.
New York/New Jersey MetroStars (MLS)
SC Heerenveen (Eredivisie)
Borussia Monchengladbach (Bundesliga)
Aston Villa (EPL - on loan)
Chievo Verona (Serie A)
AS Roma (Serie A)
Toronto FC (MLS)
Klinsmann, meanwhile, saw Bradley as his American paradigm. The coach had been hired in 2011 not only to guide the national team but also to topple the status quo at all levels of the U.S. game, from youth development and playing style to the way professionals ate and trained. He railed against complacency, insisting that the only way to overhaul soccer's entrenched elite was by doing more and refusing to settle. For any given player, he said, there's always a brighter spotlight, always a bigger club.
Bradley had embodied that ideal. He turned pro at 16, left the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) at 18 and fought his way to prominence with teams in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. He embraced every obstacle, learning new languages and tailoring his game to fit diverse demands, leagues and managers. No U.S.-born player has voyaged as far and wide as Bradley, whose determination always matched the increasing level of difficulty.
He has followed the ball, not the money, and in 2011 he even took a pay cut to sign with modest Chievo Verona because of the doors that might open with a strong showing in Italy's demanding Serie A. It worked. The following summer, Il Generale, as Chievo's supporters called him, earned a move to Roma.
Bradley was on the leading edge of his prime, and facing a choice—a relaunch in Toronto or back to the grind in Europe—that some believed would define him as a player.... Except he'd already defined himself.
As soccer players go, Michael Bradley wasn't born the most physically gifted. His lean yet imposing 6-foot-2 frame was the result of a teenage growth spurt that came long after he learned to compete. The fitness that powered him to a team-best performance on the beep test during May's pre-World Cup camp at Stanford—"I think he broke the machine," defender Omar Gonzalez told reporters—was forged.
Bradley had the right role models. Uncle Scott spent nine seasons as a catcher with the Yankees, White Sox, Mariners and Reds and now coaches at Princeton. Mother Lindsay was an All-America lacrosse player at Virginia. And father Bob, after coaching Princeton (for which he also played in the late 1970s), won two MLS titles as a D.C. United assistant and then a third in '98 as the boss of the expansion Chicago Fire. In 2006 he succeeded Bruce Arena as coach of the U.S. national team.
"The Bradley family is very traditional, value-oriented, respecting education, more blue collar than white," says Arena, whose family used to vacation with the Bradleys on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "Bob drove his children, but never in the wrong way, because Michael obviously developed a dedication and passion for the sport that made him what he is today. This kid was brought along to understand the game and respect the game. He was bred to be a soccer player."
After school and over the summers Michael was a frequent visitor to the D.C. United training ground, where he would clean players' cleats, juggle on the sideline and occasionally persuade one of the pros to stay late and practice with him. As much as he learned from taking free kicks with the likes of Marco Etcheverry, MLS's 1998 MVP, or knocking the ball around in Chicago with Polish icon Peter Nowak, Bradley was inspired equally by players of will.
He was drawn to grinders such as Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas, who did the tireless, often thankless work that gave teammates room to shine. From a greater distance he admired the likes of Mark Messier and Kobe Bryant, who lifted their teams in the clutch.
"Everybody says they want to be a professional. But when you actually become one, you find out what it's really like, that it's not all easy, that it's not all going to go perfectly every day," says Bradley. "I was able to see all that as a kid. I saw that the best players were the ones who loved it, who loved competing, who, when the pressure got bigger and the spotlight came on brighter, knew how to raise themselves. I was drawn to players who had that ability."
The learning continued at home. The Bradleys' house in Palatine, Illinois, where they lived from 1997 to 2003, had a basement finished with a ballet studio for Michael's younger sister Kerry and a small, bespoke indoor-soccer facility for Michael. In the evenings father and son would devour games on television. Michael became a fan of AC Milan, in particular midfielder Demetrio Albertini, who rarely scored but whose vision, passing and work ethic were celebrated by those who appreciated the finer points of the game.
"We'd talk about certain things, about different players, and that was something I always enjoyed, being able to share that together," Bradley says when asked about dissecting matches with his father. Through that immersion Michael developed a coach's affection for tactics and a world-class comfort with reading the game in real time. He's now the go-to interview among U.S. national team players for journalists who need a scouting report on a future opponent. And he is the Americans' coach on the field.
"He's my Derek Jeter," says Arena, a Brooklyn native. "Jeter's not the most gifted guy in every area, but you want him on your team."
The expectations Michael faces as a U.S. soccer star are welcome compared with what he's already endured. There was a price to pay for being raised in the Bradley household. The accusations of nepotism that began with the 2004 MLS draft, when Bob selected 16-year-old Michael with the MetroStars' fourth-round pick, only grew louder when father and son teamed up regularly with the U.S. Michael was young and unproven, but Bob, who knew him better than anyone, was certain of his potential.
He wasn't alone. Arena, who guided the U.S. to the '02 World Cup quarterfinals, gave Michael his first senior cap in '06. But the public complaint when Bob took over the American side put father and son on edge. Michael, especially, was reluctant to trust outsiders. They couldn't possibly understand the depth of his commitment and conviction. They didn't know what it took. He knew any slip-up would be magnified because his dad was the coach. So his standards rose. No retreat.
But there was tension. Michael might snap at a reporter, a player or even his father, with whom he nearly came to blows following his ejection from the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal upset of Spain. Learning to channel that aggression didn't come as easy as learning to avoid fried food.
"There's a natural process of maturing, of becoming a better person," he says. "I am who I am. I give. I leave everything that I have out there. What you see is what you get."
To this day Bob, who now manages Norwegian club Stabæk, will not discuss his son on the record. Michael keeps his comments on their relationship brief. But if you listen, it's easy to sense the bond.
Michael's inflection, deliberate cadence and confident tone—not to mention his values—reflect those of his dad, who was the best man at his wedding.
Father and son maintained steadfast faith in each other, and by 2010, when Michael played every minute of the World Cup in South Africa and tallied the critical equalizer against Slovenia, no one questioned that he was a player. He was 22.
Shortly after Bradley scored that goal in Johannesburg, a painting of the ensuing celebration was displayed inside the nearby Sandton Convention Centre. American Dream depicted the mass of teammates who piled up near the corner flag following Bradley's 82nd-minute strike: Herculez Gomez mid-scream; Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu jumping in; Oguchi Onyewu coming over the top.
Bradley wasn't pictured. He was underneath it all, in the middle somewhere, the catalyst but not the focal point. If he'd been asked to paint it himself, that's surely what he'd have come up with. He's happy to do appearances and meet with the media—the rough edges are gone, and he can be a fascinating conversation—but he's reluctant to celebrate himself. He has the names of his wife and son embroidered on his boots, not his own.
One of just two U.S. players at this World Cup who's not on Twitter, he maintains a focus on self-improvement for the sake of others.
"The way I was brought up by my parents, the life that I live, I don't have a million [other] interests," he says. "I do this. I play soccer, because I love it. I enjoy every day of it. I love coming into training. I love being a part of a group, challenging myself to give everything I have, to make myself a better player and to make whatever team I'm playing on better.
"The fakes always get found out. The guys who are in it for the money, the fame, in it for the wrong reasons, sooner or later they get found out. To be able to push yourself to improve every day and handle everything that gets thrown at you, you have to have a love and commitment and determination for the game that just says, 'No matter what, no matter who doesn't believe in me, no matter what anybody says, I have this mentality that says I'm not going to let anything or anybody throw me off.'"
Derek Jeter, of course, will start and finish his career with one team. Bradley, in pursuit of his soccer fix, has had to move and move and then move again. After establishing himself as a regular starter for Roma, one of Europe's premier clubs, he assumed he'd found a home. He and Amanda, who met as teenagers in New Jersey, loved the Italian capital. It seemed like an ideal fit.
"More than any other country in Europe that I played in, the Italians are the most passionate about football," says Bradley. "All parts of it. They pay attention to little tactical details and spend all week talking about games, talking about the next game."
"They drill down to things you never contemplated before," adds Alexi Lalas, a National Soccer Hall of Famer who in 1994 became the first modern-day, U.S.-born player to turn out for a Serie A side. "I think that's one of the reasons Michael enjoyed it and thrived in Italy. He's a junkie."
But as so often happens to American players abroad, the benefit of the doubt vanished with the arrival of a new coach. Bradley felt uneasy under manager Rudi García, who was hired in June 2013. Bradley had an opportunity to move to an English Premier League club that summer, with a nice bump in salary, but decided to stay in Italy. He feared he'd regret leaving, never knowing if he could have won over García.
Roma kicked off its 2013-14 campaign with 10 consecutive wins. But by Christmas, Bradley had started just five league games.
"The competition, fighting for your place, training every day to prove yourself—I love all that," says Bradley, "but it has to be a two-way street. You need the coach to see something in you."
When Roma acquired yet another midfielder in January, Bradley asked his agent, Ron Waxman, to find a team "where everything I'm about as a player and as a person is going to be valued and appreciated and used to the fullest."
Roma was asking for a transfer fee of roughly $10 million, and options were limited during the middle of the European season. Plus, the continent's elite teams tend to chase players of a more traditional pedigree. Likewise, Bradley wasn't thrilled about the prospect of joining one of the relegation-threatened clubs that showed interest. He'd been overseas for eight years and wanted to play for a team with big potential, whose ambition matched his own.
Only Toronto fit the bill. With its state-of-the-art training center, massive market, plans for a $120 million upgrade to BMO Field and the $43 million purchase of Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe, TFC had the means and the mission. The team lacked only a winning tradition. It was a perfect fit for Bradley, who was going to leave Europe only if he had a chance to make his mark, to fill the role he'd desired since he was a boy—to be an athlete who inspires.
In addition to the transfer fee, TFC agreed to pay Bradley $39 million over six years. He was unveiled at a high-profile event in January. Beforehand, Leiweke emailed Klinsmann and broke the news.
"I want to be a big player, and that's no disrespect to my [national team] teammates," says Bradley. "The reality is, if Toronto FC is paying me this amount of money to come back here, then guess what? It's my responsibility to be one of, if not the best guy on the field every time we play. It's my responsibility to make sure this team wins.
"If this goes well, then it has the chance to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
Bradley is now, for the first time as a soccer player, as important to his club as he is to his country. Clint Dempsey may be the U.S. captain, but Bradley is the engine. Klinsmann, once a doubter, now has total faith in his predecessor's son. For most of 2013 he was paired in central midfield with Jones, a robust, hard-nosed player who shares Bradley's appetite for moving the ball and covering ground.
But in spring exhibitions against Mexico, Azerbaijan and Turkey, Klinsmann fielded a four-man midfield featuring a more static, defensive anchor (Jones or Kyle Beckerman) and a playmaker (Bradley) underneath two forwards.
In essence, Klinsmann asked Bradley to be his quarterback. It represents an enormous vote of confidence from yet another coach who doubted but now believes.
"Michael is improving every year, and it's just wonderful," the manager says. "This is now a huge opportunity to put his face on this tournament."
Klinsmann means that figuratively, of course. Bradley won't be motivated by being the face of anything. But an opportunity to be the player his country counts on at a World Cup? He's been preparing for that his entire life.