At just 20 years old playing central midfielder, Michael Bradley set the American record for total goals scored in a European season.
Bradley led his team with 18 goals in all competitions playing for smaller club Heerenveen of the Netherland’s Eredivisie, a remarkable tally from a midfielder previously known for his defensive presence. Behind his leadership, Heerenveen finished fifth in the 2008 league table.
Now Bradley is set for a move to the world’s biggest stage. Everton, West Ham, Middlesbrough and other clubs in The Barclay’s Premier League of England are reportedly competing to secure his rights.
Michael’s father is Bob Bradley, head coach of the United States national soccer team. Bob Bradley previously coached three different Major League Soccer (MLS) teams, most notably the Chicago Fire. Before assuming an MLS head coaching position, Bob served as an assistant coach to Bruce Arena.
Arena first asked Bradley to assist him at the University of Virginia, then at DC United in MLS’ inaugural season, then again with the US Olympic Soccer Team in 1996. Michael grew up completely immersed in all levels of US Soccer, surrounded by its most influential characters.
The ugly cloud of nepotism followed Michael Bradley anywhere he went. In 2002, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) invited Michael to participate in the Bradenton Academy, an exclusive development program co-funded by Nike. At 14 years old, many saw Bradley as a smallish, slowish, undistinguished player.
Bradenton spaces are extremely limited, and demand is extremely high. The USSF invited only 30 players to join Bradley’s class, one that included standouts like Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, and Jonathan Spector. Some wondered if Bradley wasn’t invited only because of his father’s connections within the federation.
The culminating event for any Bradenton class is the World Cup held for players 17 years old and younger. In 2003 Bradley watched as Adu led the US to the quarter finals where they lost to eventual champions Brazil. Bradley never got off the bench.
Bradley and his classmates graduated from Bradenton in 2004. Each graduate was left to work out their respective futures. Professional teams from Europe and MLS offered those who had shown well in the U17 World Cup professional contracts.
Other graduates who either hadn't played or hadn't stood out when they did play went home, hoping to return to offers from American Universities to continue playing soccer on scholarship.
Again, US Soccer extended Bradley an advantage. In 2004, MLS awarded Bradley a Project-40 (P40) contract. The P40 contract enables MLS teams to draft and develop a player without that player's salary taking a piece of the very small MLS salary cap pie.
The principle benefit of a P40 contract to the player is if a professional career doesn't pan out, the player is guaranteed college scholarship money.
Nepotism sceptics got even louder on draft day. For MLS teams, there is virtually no downside to drafting a P40 player. In theory only the best prospects get P40 contracts, and MLS teams typically draft those players early. In the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, Bradley watched as every other P40 player was taken before him.
Bradley was taken in the fourth round of a six-round draft by the New York MetroStars, coincidentally coached by his father. Rumblings within US Soccer circles were there was a "hands-off" agreement on Michael. Insiders speculated the Bradleys had negotiated the contract with the understanding Michael would only be truly available to the team his father coached.
Bradley’s MLS career started slowly. He was sidelined the entire 2004 season with a foot injury. In front of him on the MetroStars’ depth chart, second year professional Ricardo Clark finished off the 2004 season strongly and solidified his place as the team’s defensive midfielder. Then before the 2005 season, the MetroStars surprised the league by sending the 21-year-old Clark in a draft day trade.
The job became Bradley's to lose. He never did.
A much bigger, more developed player, he started all but two games of the 2005 regular season. Just 17 years old, Bradley could make the occasional mistake and was tentative to impose himself physically in defense. Yet he showed he knew how to play a simple, fundamentally sound game that translated well to the professional level.
His vision, passing, anticipation, and habitually being in the right place at the right time were evidence he had spent a lifetime learning the game as the coach's son. Bradley scored the game winning goal in the last game of the 2005 regular season to secure the Metrostars an MLS playoff spot.
Then it happened again. In 2006, MLS quietly sold Bradley to Heerenveen. For years, MLS had stood in the way of its best young prospects being sold to Europe, either forcing its players to play out their contracts or only selling them when it was clear those players wouldn't re-sign with the league.
The terms of the Heerenveen deal have never been disclosed, but typically MLS has rebuffed European offers if the club's profile or the contract isn't deemed significant enough. Again, insiders rumbled if it were any other player with any other father, the contract and the club wouldn’t have convinced MLS to sell a promising young American prospect.
At Heerenveen, free of his father's shadow and in an environment where only performance mattered, Michael continued his development in the same system that had developed world stars like Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
In the 2006-07 campaign, Michael apprenticed under veteran Paul Bosvelt, earning the occasional start and frequent substitute appearances. He continued to show the smarts required of the central midfield role, and he complimented his intelligence with a newfound defensive bite to his game.
His first Eredivisie season earned him a call from the United States' new national team coach, Bob Bradley. Given the history, US Soccer raised yet another collective eyebrow.
Fans protested more loudly against Bob Bradley when Michael received favored treatment even after making questionable decisions and getting himself ejected from the 2007 Gold Cup quarter final. His ejection proved costly as Canada stormed back to equalize at the end of the game, only to see its equalizing goal wrongfully called offside.
Bradley then played for the US U20 team in the Youth World Cup with mixed results. While he scored the game winning goal to send the US to the quarter finals, his occasional errant passes and questionable fouls hurt his case and his US team.
After the up-and-down summer of 2007, Michael returned to Heerenveen to put remaining doubts about his ability to bed. Bradley became his club’s engine, running box to box and showing an uncanny ability to finish opportunities. He scored 16 goals in league play this past season.
Bradley’s typical goal was scored by trailing the attack, then losing his defender by timing a last minute run into the area to finish off an opportunity. By mid season, it was clear this would be his last season with Heerenveen.
The only remaining questions would be where he would go next and how much he would go for. England appears to be Bradley’s next destination.
Bradley’s ability today is undeniable. Even those most critical of his past concede he has a bright future in front of him. Maybe US Soccer insiders saw something in a young Michael Bradley everyone else missed. Or maybe the skeptics were right all along and Bradley’s family connections afforded him opportunities no other player of similar ability would have been given.
What cannot be denied is that Michael Bradley has taken his opportunities and made the most of them.