On Michael Bradley to MLS: A Thought Experiment

It’s early in the afternoon on Friday, January 10th, and, unless you have been living under a rock, you have undoubtedly heard about Michael Bradley’s unexpected transfer to Toronto FC. Journalists and soccer fans alike have opined on the groundbreaking move and the fallout of the transfer has been discussed ad nauseam (good discussions here and here). Many pundits have criticized the move and expressed their disappointment that the best American soccer player has decided to leave Europe during his prime, foregoing any opportunity to compete for major European league titles and playing in the Champions League. I thought it would be interesting to take a different perspective and assess why there has been such a public outcry in response to the transfer.

Source of American Outrage 

First and foremost, why has the overwhelming response to Bradley’s transfer been one of outrage and/or sheer lack of understanding? Well, American soccer fans, never the type to turn down an opportunity to showcase the sizable chip on their proverbial shoulders, are consistently looking to prove themselves to the rest of the world. It is natural that they would be upset that their best current player has elected to leave Europe in his prime. The question to be asked is “do fans have any right to be upset?”

I contend that the answer to the question is no. Sure, a fan can express that he would prefer for Bradley to have remained in Europe rather than to have returned to MLS. However, the public outcry is both unwarranted and inappropriate. Bradley does not owe anything to the fans, nor should he feel obligated to prove himself to them. Bradley exercised his fundamental right as a person to make whichever choice he deemed to be best for himself and his family (well-written piece on his reasons here).

American soccer fans need to rid themselves of this enormous chip on their shoulders. American soccer has improved steadily over the past fifteen years and continues to make strides, but the legacy of American soccer will not be made or broken by one player movement so suppress the urge to overreact.

That being said, here are the facts. Bradley has plied his trade in Europe for eight years (name Americans who have accomplished more than him in Europe…hint, the list is very short) and achieved noteworthy success. After excelling in the Dutch League, Bradley leveraged his success to move to the Bundes Liga where he became a stalwart for Borussia Monchengladbach for three seasons. Bradley then used his time in Germany as a springboard to move to Italy where he earned a starting position at Chievo Verona and impressed enough to pique the interest of AS Roma.

As has been documented and discussed thoroughly during the past year and a half, Bradley’s time at Roma consisted of mixed results. After securing significant playing time in his first season with Roma, Bradley saw his playing time reduced as Roma brought in additional players to an already crowded and talented group of midfielders.

Fans need to remember that these players compete with each other every day in practice. While Bradley may not have satisfied fans’ perceptions of what he should have achieved with Roma, Bradley knows exactly how he stacks up against players of the like of Totti, De Rossi, and Strootman.  Fans will never know whether Bradley was a victim of American xenophobia or simply a causality of an overcrowded midfield. But Bradley does know. He has played against the best players in the world and played with numerous superstars so he knows exactly where his abilities measure up against his peers. Fans need to respect his decision to pursue a life-changing opportunity and have faith that he knows what is he doing and will continue to work to improve as a player.

Thought Experiment

As an avid reader of soccer news, I found it impossible to avoid stories regarding Bradley’s transfer saga despite feeling inundated and numbed to the media uproar after just a few hours. Article after article espoused their views that Bradley was wasting his chance to play at the highest levels in Europe and panicked at the thought of American’s three best players choosing to play in MLS prior to a World Cup. I feel like the media’s response has suffered from tunnel vision, focusing solely on the story of an American player’s surprising move to MLS at the peak of his powers. I began to wonder what the response would be like if Bradley was not American, and the thought experiment was born

I set out to identify non-American players who could serve as Bradley’s doppelganger(s). I aimed to compile a list of players who met the following criteria, which I felt were emblematic of Bradley’s playing career:

  • Age: Close to Bradley’s age of 26 and experience (8 years in Europe, 200+ appearances)
  • International Career: Have played and will continue to play a significant role on their national team
  • Club Career: Similar progression from smaller European league to bigger European leagues and more established teams (e.g. Heerenveen to Borussia Monchengladbach to Chievo Verona to AS Roma) while facing some struggles to achieve playing time on a top tier team at some point in their career

Much to my dismay, this process proved more challenging than I had anticipated. I could not find any ideal comparables that mirrored Bradley’s career progression. However, I did find a couple of players who I felt were worthy of comparison. I wanted to think about what the story would have been in American soccer media if one of these players, who I will mention below, transferred to MLS rather than Bradley. I doubt the media would focus primarily on this player’s decision to leave Europe; instead, I believe the media would extol MLS’s ability to land a successful European player at age 26. Okay, now let’s look at the hypothetical dopplegangers.

Carlos Vela (24) / Giovanni dos Santos (24) – I choose to look at Mexican players first because they are the most similar soccer nation to the U.S., in terms of geography, quality of domestic league, propensity of national players to play in domestic league, etc… Although Vela and dos Santos each began their careers with prominent youth academies (Arsenal and Barcelona, respectively), they seemed to be the most similar counterparts to Bradley. In terms of comparability, I would admit that Vela and dos Santos have enjoyed higher highs in Europe than Bradley, but I would argue that Bradley has achieved more impressive consistency than dos Santos and Vela, though Vela’s last three seasons have been played at a very high level. If either Vela or dos Santos transferred to MLS (dos Santos was offered this summer, as discussed here), I believe that the media story would center on MLS’ coup of a talented, European-based player in their prime and the potential for MLS to tap into the hugely desired Mexican and Mexican-American market.

Dries Mertens (26) – Again, I recognize Mertens is not a perfect comparable to Bradley, but I felt he was worth noting. Mertens was a bit of a late bloomer, playing solely in the Dutch League until last season. Following a successful two-year stint with PSV, Mertens transferred to Napoli during this past summer. Mertens has appeared more times for Napoli than Bradley has for Roma, but, like Bradley, he has yet to break through a crowded roster to find a consistent starting position. If Mertens were to have transferred to Toronto FC, the story would laud MLS for its ability to land a talented player (80+ goals in the Dutch League) from a World Cup dark horse squarely in his prime and contemplate if this transfer will serve as a harbinger for more similar landmark transfers to follow.

Gervinho (26) – For this choice, I decided to look for a match on Bradley’s former team. Gervinho is an interesting comparable to Bradley. He used a successful stint in France as a launching point for a momentous transfer to Arsenal where he never fully broke into the team and was viewed as a disappointment by the fans. While Gervinho has seen more time at Roma than Bradley, he has still yet to reach his potential. Rudi Garcia and Totti have praised Gervinho’s talents, but it is only a matter of time before their patience wears out. Like Bradley, Gervinho will need to play a large role for his country, the Ivory Coast, to advance at the World Cup. Though Gervinho is a more innately talented player than Bradley, he has not found consistent success in a top European league like Bradley has. That being said, if he had transferred to MLS the story would commend MLS’ ability and ambition to sign such a talented player so far before their 30th birthday.

Conclusion

What is the point of this thought experiment? I’d like to summarize my three takeaways below. First, this is Bradley’s decision to make and Bradley’s decision alone. As mentioned above, the decision made sense for a number of reasons (financial security, playing time, proximity to home, chance to grow MLS, etc…). He does not owe anything to the fans and does not have to prove anything to anyone other than himself. I trust that a player of his caliber and professionalism has thoroughly considered all of the ramifications of this decision and will do whatever it takes to improve as a player. Moreover, what does this transfer really change? Is there anyone who doubts Bradley’s indispensability to the U.S. hopes at the World Cup this summer? Is there anyone who does not expect him to serve as the team’s linchpin in Brazil?

Second, please recognize the state of MLS vis-à-vis international soccer. There are a handful of nations, including Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Greece, Japan, and the U.S., who have experienced success at major international soccer tournaments with teams that rely heavily on domestic-based players. For instance, the USMNT’s most successful World Cup campaign (2002) featured line-ups consisting of 5-7 MLS players each match. Moreover, MLS has produced America’s best players (Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore), and MLS players, such as Cameroon, Donovan, McBride, Beasley, and Holden, have found near-immediate success in top European leagues shortly after playing in MLS. Finally, we’ve seen immensely talented players come to MLS and struggle to dominate like many would have expected – Henry and Cahill, for example. Finally, MLS players have shown the ability to achieve success on the international stage time and time again.

Third, let’s not forget what this transfer means for and says about MLS and American soccer. This is the most significant American signing in the history of the league and one of the most important signings ever. When has MLS signed a player with Bradley’s resume at his age in its history? Arguably, it has never done so before. The thought experiment was designed to illustrate the magnitude of the signing. It’s a testament to MLS that Bradley selected them because this would not have been a viable option both in terms of finances and quality just a few years ago. Perhaps, the media and fans have not yet realized what players in the know already have – MLS is not a retirement community. It is a respectable (and continually improving) league where players can grow their skills and compete at the highest levels internationally. Let’s not ignore the potentially enormous long-term impact that this signing may have on MLS. In twenty years, we may look back and cite Bradley’s transfer along with Caliguiri’s goal and the 2002 World Cup as the most pivotal inflection points in American soccer history.

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