Michael Bradley is proving there's more about his game than his name
This story appears in the April 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
It's another heated U.S.-Mexico match -- a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, in February 2009, before a typically crazed crowd -- and as usual, there's a flash point. U.S. keeper Tim Howard rises to grab a ball that floats in front of the six-yard box, and as he does he's kicked in the leg by Mexico's Rafael Marquez -- a flagrant red card. In a flash, American midfielder Michael Bradley has sprinted to the fallen Marquez to loom over him. Just as suddenly, U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra arrives to give his younger teammate a quick, hard shove. He does this reflexively, as if he's done it before. Which he has. When Michael Bradley is on the field, this kind of thing happens. "Probably a hundred times a game," says Bradley. "I'll want to have a word with the ref, or whoever, and then ... " And then Bocanegra or Howard or Landon Donovan or some combination of Yanks has to protect Bradley from his passion. They will intercede between their teammate and his new best enemy and issue a simple command: "Michael, enough!"
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Unfortunately, "enough" isn't a word Bradley understands. About matters of soccer, he is never satisfied. In his short career, the 22-year-old has already pushed the boundaries of what's possible for a U.S. field player. At 17, less than two years after becoming one of the youngest draftees in the history of MLS, Bradley played in 33 games for the MetroStars and scored the goal that clinched the playoffs. At 20, two years after becoming the youngest MLS player sold to Europe, he scored 21 goals for Heerenveen of the Dutch league, most ever by a Yank in a European first division. Now he anchors the midfield for Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach, having helped the club successfully fend off relegation in the Bundesliga a year ago.
Bradley has made a quick mark in international play, as well. He trained as a nonroster player at the U.S. team's 2006 pre-World Cup camp, and gained his first caps in friendlies under coach Bruce Arena. He played a vital role in the Yanks' win over Brazil that put them in the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup in 2007. And last year he had both goals in a tone-setting qualifier over Mexico and a key score in the Confederations Cup win over Egypt that put the Yanks on track for their monumental upset of Spain.
But it's the things he does away from the net, what Bradley calls "the dirty work," that make him invaluable -- the unsung, mentally and physically taxing chores like running down loose balls, winning tackles and covering for teammates when the field opens up. "He's feisty in the middle, and it rubs off on other guys," Bocanegra says.
And yet Bradley continues to be known more for his DNA than résumé. That's the downside when Dad is the national team's coach. Bob Bradley was his son's first pro boss, too, with the MetroStars, so no matter how much Michael accomplishes, their relationship remains the lead in almost every story about him. And while he's surely benefited from being kin to one of the most successful coaches in U.S. soccer history, Michael's profile would likely be higher if his last name were, say, Sheehan.
Sheehan is the maiden name of Bradley's mother, Lindsay, whose genes may have as much to do with Michael's rise as his dad's. Yes, Bob led Princeton in goals as a senior, and Michael's uncle Scott was a major league catcher for nine seasons. (Uncle Jeff is a senior writer for The Mag.) But Mom, a college lacrosse star in the mid-'80s at Virginia, earned a spot on one of the ACC's 50th anniversary teams, an honor shared with the likes of Mia Hamm, Arnold Palmer and Michael Jordan.
Bradley's profile, which pales next to other U.S. players of his generation who've achieved less, would also be higher if father and son didn't mostly avoid the topic of father and son. Actually, they tend to avoid the media entirely, doing as little as they can get away with. Still, in the right context, Michael is effusive about his family, which includes two college-age sisters. He will tell you that when he is overseas he speaks with his father almost daily. And about the role his folks play in his career decisions, he says: "They're involved in everything. I value their opinion over anybody's in the world."
Bob is more steadfast in ducking any question about the relationship. But his actions speak loudly. On a March weekend before a U.S. friendly in the Netherlands, Bob found time to take a train to western Germany for a Borussia Mönchengladbach-FC Freiburg match, packed in with the rest of the green-and-black-scarved, beer-swilling Gladbach faithful. One of only 32 men coaching in the biggest event in the world's most popular sport, he could have chosen to don a suit and sit in the club director's box. Instead, in jeans, sneakers and a black windbreaker, he opted to sit, as always, with the players' families.
Anyone who knows the Bradleys can't help but go on about the similarities between father and son, and the talk usually begins with their approach to the game. "Bob is a real blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone guy," says Des McAleenan, the Red Bulls goalkeepers coach, who served under Bradley when Bob and Michael were with the MetroStars. "To him, it's work-work-work, application and more work. Those things made Bob successful, and he's passed them on to his kid."
As a preschooler, Michael spent hour upon hour watching Dad run practices at Princeton, where Bob coached from 1984 to 1995. "Any 3- or 4-year-old thinks the world revolves around them, right?" says Mark Mulert, Bob's college teammate and close friend. "We all joked that Michael thought the fields at Princeton were just for him."
The kid couldn't get enough of the game. After Bob took over the Chicago Fire, in 1998, Michael was a constant at the local Sockers FC youth club. During the indoor season, the budding Bradley had two afternoon practices a week, and one weekend game. That wasn't enough. "I went every day," he says. Soon, club director Dave Richardson was letting him practice with the older teams and play games on the A and B squads in his age group. If there were vacant slots on older teams, Michael would jump to fill them, too.
The rest of the time he spent hanging around Dad's big club, observing the techniques and training habits of veterans like Ante Razov, Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubik. "They played the right way -- hard," Michael says. "I saw that up close. A lot of kids in America don't get that experience until they're older and in the game themselves."
He appreciated attackers like Nowak, but also realized that type of game wasn't for him. Says Michael: "The things I picked up that I value most were from guys like Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, who did all the dirty work. Every night they gave everything they had."
"BOB IS A REAL BLUE-COLLAR NOSE-TO-THE-GRINDSTONE GUY. THOSE THINGS MADE HIM SUCCESSFUL, AND HE'S PASSED THEM ON TO HIS KID.
Armas, a Fire star from 1998 to 2007, remembers a scrawny, small-for-his-age boy who soaked up everything and participated whenever he could. Armas once went on a three-mile training run to rehab an injured knee, and the preteen Michael tagged along. "I was pushing it, trying to beat the best time, and he kept up the entire way. You could see he had the lungs, the engine and the mentality not to get dropped." Today, that limitless stamina continues to leave an impression. Retired Dutch star Edgar Davids, on a recent promotional tour with the Champions League trophy, was asked if he remembered playing against Bradley at Heerenveen. "I know him," Davids said. "Runs the whole game."
Bradley's enthusiasm has always matched his fitness. He lingered after Fire practices, playing keep-away with the pros or challenging them to shooting contests. "He'd hit the corner," Armas says, "and run around yelling, 'Upper 90!'"
That energetic kid still reveals himself today on the U.S. team; "Mikey" is often in the thick of postpractice challenges. You can see one such contest on YouTube: he and Freddy Adu trying to hit the crossbar from midfield. Stick with it to see Bradley's reaction after he hammers the woodwork.
Soccer is Michael's business, but it is also his life. He has two overarching goals: win matches for the national team and land a job with a club like AC Milan or Manchester United. "It's been my dream for as long as I can remember to play for the biggest clubs in the world," he says. Anything that gets in the way of either is a waste of his time. Like, for instance, homesickness. Or college. Although he has mostly lived on his own since he was 13, when he joined the U.S. residency program in Bradenton, Fla., he says he's never thought about what he might have missed. When he had the chance to jump to the pros, the son of the Ivy League and Charlottesville didn't look back. "I was never going to college," he admits. And when he got the opportunity at Heerenveen, a club with a history of developing, then selling budding stars such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ruud van Nistelrooy, he wasn't about to stay in MLS. "If you want to get to the level I want to," he says, "you have to play in Europe." Even now, as he has begun to make a name for himself in the Bundesliga, he lives a Spartan existence in an uncluttered, bare-walled apartment in tidy working-class Mönchengladbach.
But making a name for himself doesn't include talking much, especially to the media. There's really no advantage in that for either Bradley. If Mikey holds court about a U.S. teammate, is he channeling Bob? If Bob spouts off about Michael, what's the rest of the team to make of it? So an already publicity-shy duo is even more so.
There was one notable exception. The U.S. had lost 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil to open last year's Confed Cup, getting red cards in both matches. TV commentators criticized the team's effort; a "Fire Bob Bradley" Facebook page bloomed. But then the Yanks routed Egypt, 3-0, and snuck into the semifinals on goal differential, and Michael issued a rant that is a classic of the nobody-believed-in-us genre. "All the [expletive] experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer," Bradley said, voice cracking, "they can all look at the score tonight, and let's see what they have to say now."
When an interviewer began a question with, "Nobody thought ... " Bradley cut him off. "Nobody thought -- you guys all made that damn clear. We played Brazil and Italy ... down a guy for 90 of 180 minutes. We didn't for one second feel sorry for ourselves. We kept fighting, and we did the same thing tonight."
Bradley doesn't regret a word, although he wants to make sure the fans know he wasn't angry at them. "When I say experts, I'm talking about the guys who sit in front of the camera, or the writers who pretend they have all the answers." In other words, the ones who questioned the team's heart. "When that happens, there's a sense on our team like, basically, F all those guys."
That fierce pride was honed well before Bradley's physical tools were. He was a late bloomer who played the midfield because he was too small and too slow to play anywhere else. He made up for his shortcomings with a clean first touch, a lot of guile and an intensity that makes frequent crossings into fury. Now listed at 6'2", 175 pounds, Bradley's physical presence ably complements his passion. The result is downright intimidating. And problematic. He has drawn fouls and cards at inopportune times, like when he was sent off for a tackle near the end of the Spain match, which forced him to miss the final against Brazil. Then he compounded the problem of that undeniably soft red card by confronting the ref in the tunnel after the match, earning a further four-game suspension from FIFA.
To be fair, cards and hard fouls come with the territory at his position. And no one who matters is particularly concerned. "If he gets after the ref a bit we'll talk to him," Donovan says. "But some people are wired that way. I was, David [Beckham] is, Michael is. You want that passion. You just want to make sure it doesn't go overboard."
Bradley agrees, mostly. "Clearly, there were times I didn't handle things the right way, when I lost my mind when I shouldn't have," he says. "It's a fine line, and when you cross that line, you hurt your teammates and you hurt yourself." But he wants to be very clear, too. "The way I play will never change," he says. "My passion, the commitment, the aggressiveness. These things are what make me who I am as a player and who I am as a person. It's important to know who you are and what you bring to a team."
Part of what he brings is hunger. People ask why he never smiles on the field. "I smile when we win, after the game," he says. "The feeling of winning together, and knowing every guy you look in the eye has given everything for the team, that part is addicting."
The game itself is an addiction for Bradley, one he can't kick. At the end of a practice in Pretoria, ahead of that historic Confederations Cup, most of the exhausted Yanks sat on the bench, slowly changing shoes like codgers at a golf course. A handful remained on the field, 30 yards from goal, ripping long shots as the sun set and the chill of a wintry southern hemisphere night crept in. One by one, they succumbed to the cold and the fatigue, until a lanky figure was left to fire alone at the target. Finally, the national team coach cut it short. He didn't sound like a coach, though. He sounded like a dad, calling his son for dinner, a son who never wants to leave the field that seems like it's there just for him.
"Come on, Michael," Bob Bradley said. "That's enough."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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ESPN The Magazine: April 19, 2010 Issue
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