Michael Bradley is the ' best player, a mix of the effort and physicality that has long defined the American game, and the skill and tactical nuance that the country has for so long strived to instill in its players. He is a coach's son, and not just any coach's son; he's the son of the former national team manager who led the U.S. to their first group win at a in more than 70 years. From the U-17 national team to the U-20's, the Olympic team and now the senior team -- where he is expected to be captain before he retires -- he has been a star and as close to American soccer royalty as the country has had.
Bradley is also leaving AS Roma for MLS. At just 26 years old.
Once an amusing suggestion, then a silly rumor and finally, a done deal, Bradley's move from Serie A's second-place club to MLS hasn't yet been digested. The transfer fee is still unknown (although rumored to be as high as $10 million) and Toronto FC have yet to unveil him (that's reportedly coming on Monday). In fact, the club haven't even cleared out a Designated Player space for him yet, but America's best player is joining MLS.
Bradley isn't doing this on the wrong side of 30, or even all that close to it. He isn't doing it because he didn't have any European interest, either. This isn't a retirement league move or the move of a player who struck out in Europe.
The best U.S. player is joining MLS to put himself in a good position ahead of the World Cup, for the money and because sometimes, lifestyle trumps soccer.
That MLS would be the place for such a good player to re-establish himself before the world's biggest sporting event was once laughable, but it's true in Bradley's case. He is scarcely playing for Roma and with the club's purchase of, his relationship with the bench only figured to get closer. Now, he's one of six MLS players who are expected to start for the U.S. in , while as many as six other players from the league could populate the bench. If MLS is a feeder league right now, it feeds to the U.S.
Of course, nobody would argue that a player as good as Bradley is best served, from a purely soccer sense, playing in MLS. Bradley's options weren't simply the Roma bench or MLS. He's long had interest from Premier League clubs, and could have certainly found another home in Serie A. Offers in, Spain and were likely to be on the table too, but there is more to a player's decisions than soccer. There is more to life than soccer.
Toronto FC is paying a hefty sum for Bradley, not just covering the transfer fee, but a salary reported at $6.5 million annually. That will put him on par with some of Europe's better players, including , who just signed with Bayern Munich.
And while Bradley is collecting that hefty paycheck, he will be living in North America. It may not be the United States, but Toronto isn't far away. For a person whose family is scattered about now, and who moved often as a kid - from New Jersey, to Washington D.C., to Illinois and to Florida all before signing with the New York Metrostars as a 16-year-old - the idea of home has to be more vague than it is for most. So Toronto, a city very similar to many in the U.S. with a culture not too different, will suffice. Bradley will get to live at "home," in a fuzzier sense of the word.
That last point can't be overlooked, especially for a new father. Bradley, along with his wife and young son, will get to put down roots somewhat similar to those tenuous ones he had as a child. Just liketouted the opportunity to move his young children to the U.S. and raise them similarly to how he was raised, and within a shorter distance of his family, Bradley has the chance to do the same.
It is a chance that would not have been available to Bradley or anyone else even as recently as six years ago, when the midfielder left the MetroStars to pursue his European ambitions.
MLS being a viable option for the best American players is a recent phenomenon, a few, idiosyncratic exceptions aside. The seasons were 30 matches long, not 34, as it is today, and the CONCACAF Champions League didn't even exist- not that MLS would have wanted it too. The quality of play was laughable compared to what it is today. Even in 2010, the league provided just four players to the U.S. World Cup team. The product on the field wasn't befitting of America's top players.
The league couldn't offer Bradley - or any other player aside from- a competitive salary either. It wasn't until 2007 when the Designated Player rule made big money signings a possibility, and even then, if you weren't Beckham, you weren't getting more than a couple of million dollars a year. Now Beckham is gone, but Bradley is one of several players getting paid upwards of $4 million, joining , Dempsey, , and, in all likelihood, fellow Toronto FC man .
The idea of players going home isn't new. There is always that allure, especially for those with families. There is a reason most ofbest players play in the Premier League, best players play in La Liga and best players play in Serie A. It's a lifestyle and comfort choice for many, albeit with the added bonus of still getting to play against some of the world's best players, but even so, it is one that wasn't available to most Americans.
If a U.S. player wanted to push his soccer career forward, he had to leave for Europe and, to a degree, that is still true. But Bradley has had his European adventure and it could have continued, had he wanted it to. Instead, Bradley put lifestyle ahead of soccer.
And that's a good thing.
At least for Bradley, lifestyle is most important right now. The same was true of Dempsey, and it has always been true of Donovan, but the sudden rush of Americans returning to MLS isn't coincidence. It is opportunity.
MLS is finally good enough and competitive enough, both soccer-wise and financially, to make itself a viable option for Americans. Donovan rode out the rough years to take advantage of it now and Dempsey took advantage of it in August. Now Bradley is taking advantage of it and others are sure to follow.
It would be foolhardy to believe that all of America's top players are going to join MLS. The best soccer is still played on the other side of the Atlantic, and some want to play at the highest level above all. That was true in previous eras and will be true in future eras, but this is also the start of a new era - one where MLS is a real option. Just ask Bradley.