1914_isi_bradleydempsey_usmntbb101612_12 Bill Barrett/isiphotos.com

The Good, the Bad, and the Michael Bradley Move

Everybody has an opinion on the Michael Bradley-to-Toronto FC news, including ASN's Brian Sciaretta. Here's Brian's take on the transaction, and what it means for both MLS and the U.S. national team.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 09, 2014
2:37 PM
CLINT DEMPSEY'S MOVE TO SEATTLE this summer was a blockbuster, no doubt about it. But Wednesday’s announcement that Michael Bradley will leave AS Roma to join Toronto FC surpasses it by a healthy margin.

Bradley is perhaps the best midfielder that the United States has ever produced and is currently the leader of the U.S. national team—even if he is not officially captain. Once one of MLS’s most promising youngsters, he has achieved success in the Eredivisie, the Bundesliga, and Serie A. This past season he was fighting for minutes among a ridiculously loaded Roma midfield which included Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic, and Daniele De Rossi.

Despite that, he was earning minutes, having appeared in 11 games (missing a month with an ankle injury) and Roma are a safe bet to qualify for the Champions League next season. Yes, it’s true that Roma's recent acquisition of Radja Nainggolan was going to further limit Bradley’s time on the field, but the American has always found ways to be relevant.

The point is moot now, as the move appears complete. The financial terms are not yet known but reports from the Toronto Star indicate that Toronto was going to spend $100 million to bring both Jermaine Defoe and Bradley to the team.

In other words, it was an offer Bradley simply could not refuse. We're talking about a quadrupled salary, after all.

Dempsey joining Seattle marked MLS's second major acquisition of a Europe-based American player. Combine that with the new contracts signed by Landon Donovan, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Omar Gonzalez, and MLS has shown it will outspend European clubs when it comes to top U.S. talent.

So what should we make of this deal?

It's safe to say everyone has an opinion on it, and if my Twitter feed is any indication, people feel passionately. The masses love it and the masses hate it. My take is somewhere in between.

It has to be said: It will be disappointing not to see the best American player try to push himself in a top European league. Even if Bradley faced an uphill battle to earn minutes at Roma, surely there were other clubs among the top four European leagues where he could excel.

Why is that important? Successful American players in Europe reflect well on the development of American players. In addition, American fans enjoyed watching him on a weekly basis in Europe. He also gave younger players someone to emulate.

As for the national team, it is important that the best players play regularly against the best opposition possible. Jurgen Klinsman and previous national team coaches have always stressed that they wanted this from their players.

But in the the long run, this moment could prove to be a turning point for Major League Soccer—which could have enormous benefits to American soccer. For years, it seemed like MLS existed only to benefit the U.S. national team. Now, however, it appears that MLS and the U.S. national team do not always have the same interests. That’s actually very, very healthy.

Why? Because in a growing and competitive league, the teams want to put a solid product on the field above anything else—even Klinsmann’s wishes. If the sport was going to continue to grow in the United States, going after top American players will always be a logical step. MLS never had it in its long-term goal to simply consist entirely of a mix of young American players and aging foreigners along with maybe a few former U.S internationals in the twilight of their careers. Growth was always going to see a shift towards signing better players – including American ones. The success of MLS is critical to the growth of American soccer. Without a strong domestic league, the sport will stagnate. Bradley’s addition helps the league and the money being thrown around is going to help MLS flex its muscle a little bit. The dollar values will grab people’s attention and it’s reassuring to see this kind of money in the league.

How much will it impact the U.S. national team? It’s hard to say. Bradley could turn out to be like Landon Donovan or Eddie Pope, both of whom enjoyed terrific international careers while playing mostly in MLS. Bradley was well-coached from an early age and has an incredible work ethic. It’s hard to envision him fading in MLS.

MLS still has problems, of course. The league needs to continue to invest heavily in youth development and find a way to improve television ratings. Making moves for Bradley and Dempsey helps raise the profile of the league and the overall quality of play of the field. One move isn’t going to change anything, but a consistent pattern of aggressive moves like those for David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, Donovan, Dempsey, Gonzalez, and Bradley could do precisely that.

If MLS continues to make these high-profile deals while still being able to develop American players, Garber’s ambitious vision of having MLS become a top-tier league could come to fruition. But the league isn’t there yet. And Bradley is absolutely taking a step down in competition level. So while it is a short-term setback for the player, we won’t know how history will judge the importance of this move for years to come.

Having said all of that, it is possible that this transaction could be a turning point for the league and, in turn, American soccer.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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