Now that it’s official, we may as well talk about it. I would have liked to talk about it before it was official, but the news kept flying out so fast there wasn’t really enough time to keep up. Anyway, let’s get on with it.
After spending most of the week dealing with the aftershocks of Toronto FC’s now-announced seismic signing of Jermain Defoe, I think it would be safe to say nobody was prepared to see the Canadians involved another earthshaking move at the same time. The capture of the long-time Tottenham and England international striker would have been more than enough to be considered the story of the of the MLS offseason on its own. The earlier arrivals of Internacional’s Brazilian striker Gilberto as a designated player, and former league Most Valuable Player and Dwayne De Rosario already had made for a nice close season too. But getting Defoe on top of that is the stuff dreams are made of.
But any sane person knew that, for a club that’s been as abysmal as Toronto has been the last few years, further additions would absolutely be necessary to help support that star-studded cast.
Nobody, however, expected that further addition to be a bigger story (at least domestically) than the arrival of “Bloody Big Deal” Defoe.
Michael Bradley — you know, Bob’s kid, the one that had been playing for Serie A’s second best side AS Roma, and the one who some consider the best American player at the moment — is also joining Toronto FC this transfer window.
If you hadn’t heard that yet, go ahead and take a moment to pick your jaw back up off the floor. And even if you had heard the rumors since Taylor Twellman scooped the news on Wednesday, it’s quite possible that yours is still down. So go ahead and take the moment, too. Because this move back to MLS was completely out of left field.
Well, that’s only partially true. We knew the stoic midfielder was looking for a move away from the Italian capital amid concerns over limited playing time, but out of left field in that nobody realistically thought he would return to North American shores to find it.
But leaving one of Europe’s most storied clubs to head back “home” to one of the undeniably worst teams in MLS? Returning at 26 to the same league where he got his start at 16 and supposedly “outgrew” by 18? It’s safe to say his return left quite a few scratching their heads.
Why, then would Michael Bradley make this move?
Before I knee-jerk and go off ranting, it’s incredibly important to take a moment to stand in Mike’s shoes. And when I do, I can see why taking up Toronto’s offer makes at least some sense.
Roma have a midfield rich with talent — including the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Adem Ljajić, Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanić, not to mention the arrival of Radja Nainggolan. Unfortunately, there are limited places in Rudi Garcia’s three-man set up, and in a year where a dangerous World Cup group looms large, getting regular minutes is crucial for him to perform at a level to which Jürgen Klinsmann’s US side requires this summer. While options in Europe were undoubtedly available, going to an MLS team would ensure Bradley first choice minutes. He would face the same burden of expectation playing for Toronto that he does playing for the national team. Going to Ontario would mean he would get to play the role he’ll be playing in Brazil now.
Financially, Bradley’s incentive to return to MLS was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Though not hurting for money, Roma were only paying the American to make just a shade over $1 million this year, making him one of their less expensive players on the wage front. But the offer on the table from Toronto was reportedly a very enticing $6.5 million per year over at least five seasons. Speaking as a guy who also just recently became a dad himself, I wouldn’t bet on a young father bypassing that kind of job security.
And remember too that Bradley has spent the last ten years of his life abroad, plying his trade in four countries. Away from family, away from friends and away from the comforts of home. His wife, Amanda, is from the States, too. You nor I can deny anyone that reasoning, especially with a kid in tow these days.
But from a developmental and US Men’s National Team perspective, this move makes very little sense.
Our best overall player, trading down the daily test of playing and training alongside some of the world’s best players for a league that’s at least one step down and a team that’s in the process of being completely remade. And to do that just before the World Cup seems mad to me. Unlike his dad, it’s a complete break in a career trajectory that to this point has consistently gone up.
Klinsmann must be fuming. Again. It wasn’t long ago that the wily German politely requested that his players challenge themselves at the highest possible level. But now he’s seen two of his top three field players — with Bradley joining fellow national team start Clint Dempsey back in MLS — shun that request by opting for moves that take them away from the highest possible level.
Any number of clubs in European top flights would have gladly given a player of Michael Bradley’s caliber the time he needed. A postured return to Germany by way of Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke or Wolfsburg would have made sense. So too would theorized moves to Sunderland, Fulham or PSV. And staying in Italy with Verona or Bologna would have been viable options, too.
It’s not to say that maintaining or even developing your level of play in MLS is impossible. Look no further than long-time American golden boy Landon Donovan to see that world class players can ply their trade in the US and Canada and it not have any serious impact on their development. Donovan’s LA teammate Robbie Keane, too, has continued to see Ireland rely on him despite turning his back on Europe for North America.
So a return to MLS can work. But a sample size of one or two for success is far from definitive. Rating Dempsey’s move home to Seattle could at best be described as mixed so far, but it’s probably still too early to judge.
Either way, it seems very risky to see our best players — Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi — all turning down the opportunity to play at the highest level to stay here at home. Granted, there’s no doubt how great it is for MLS to hang on to players like them. It’s just a very strong argument could be made for each of those players benefiting from the increased competition that playing for one of Europe’s top sides might bring, too.
However, Michael Bradley’s time in Rome may offer a fine counter argument to that point. If it all goes wrong, so do your national team chances. Just look at what’s happened with Brek Shea and Maurice Edu’s time in the wilderness at England’s Stoke City. Nothing is guaranteed in the dog-eat-dog world that is European football, and few clubs give two shits about the well-being and of their players’ national teams.
For a player in Bradley’s position, of his class, and of his importance, it makes for a really tricky decision.
How this all plays out, whether the positives will outweigh the negatives or the other way around, we’ll likely know by July. Until then, we’ve got plenty of time to speculate about two of the biggest MLS acquisitions in years in just the space of a few days… and get our jaws back up off the floor.