USMNT Report: Bradley’s Move a Bad Precedent for Yanks

Michael Bradley's move to Toronto FC is good for MLS but may not be a positive step for the USMNT
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, January 15, 2014

USMNT Report - coverage of the United States Men's National Team

Many fans of MLS and the United States Men’s National Team were giddy this past week when news surfaced (from Taylor Twellman) that Michael Bradley, the often-touted general of the USMNT, was on his way from AS Roma in Italy to problem-laden Canadian club, Toronto FC.

Like Clint Dempsey before him in summer 2013, Bradley became the latest breakout USA player in Europe to return home to the United States rather than finish the prime years of their career overseas. And, also like Dempsey, the magic of having the talented Bradley return home came with a price: a reported $10 million league-funded transfer fee and a near $6.5 million a year contract.

Like with Dempsey, those are very big investment numbers for MLS.

Bradley just isn’t that type of player to warrant that kind of money.

Roma was giving him about $1.1 million annually, and that was in Serie A, which, despite its issues with stadium construction, racism and attendance, is a top tier European league and leaps beyond where MLS is at this particular moment.

But that’s TFCs and their owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s money to spend and they are welcome to throw down the cash if Bradley – a tireless running box-to-box defensive midfielder who has negligible playmaking ability and who often bites off more than he can chew in his career, like when he moved to Aston Villa of the EPL and failed to secure a spot or success – is the player the Reds want.

This sets a bad precedent for USA players moving forward, though. A common ideal among soccer players in the Americas is that if you’re successful enough, you’ll be discovered or pursued by a European club and you’ll get paid. Making it to the EPL, La Liga or Germany’s Bundesliga will be your passage to more dollars. This has been especially true for Americans in MLS, where some players, despite their talents, can’t break past a ceiling that offers them wages akin to normal, day-to-day jobs, rather than those of a professional athlete.

Bradley’s move changes this formula. Now, it goes a little something like this:

- Start in MLS
- Transfer to Europe
- Play consistently well for a decent European club in top league - make good money
- Return to MLS while still in your prime … and get paid, a lot

In less than 6 months, we’ve seen both Dempsey and Bradley – both tremendously gifted players for the USMNT that deserve playing time in the bigger soccer leagues of the world – return stateside for greener pastures made of cash that might not be equivalent to their worth.

Does Bradley really deserve 20 times the salary of RSL captain Kyle Beckerman, a player directly behind him in the USMNT depth chart? Does Bradley really deserve a transfer fee close to Dempsey’s, who has more marketable value in the US and who as a goal-scorer can likely be more impactful?

Be honest, your barely-soccer-following buddy or co-worker likely knows Donovan, may know Dempsey, but has no clue who Bradley is.

While it’s exciting for hardcore USA and league fans to see Bradley back in the United States, and the move surely raises MLS’ prestige and attractiveness, it’s setting a bad precedent by giving USMNT players abroad the confirmation that if you do mediocre overseas, you can return home to MLS and get an impractical amount of cash.

Besides the huge salary increase, Bradley surely returned home for playing time ahead of the World Cup, which is a smart move given that he was on the bench for AS Roma and played little recently. Dempsey wasn’t getting the minutes at Tottenham in the last year, either, so he returned to the US to grab a starting spot and get time and touches on the field. USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann, like any national team coach, wants players competing on the field in high level situations consistently. Playing abroad for a club that’s well above a players average ability is only helpful if they get minutes on the field. Otherwise, they’re left squandered on the bench watching world class players blaze by, and they gain little experience.

Bradley will now return to a league that Italian and Dutch clubs found him to be a step above. He’s going to get minutes and touches, sure, which is smart for building the USA’s skill ahead of the daunting task that waits in the 2014 World Cup. But it leaves a precedent on the table that USMNT players might not have thought of before MLS clubs decided to double down domestically on Donovan-Deuce-Bradley: It’s OK to play abroad and overseas, achieve mediocrity at a consistent level, return home and get paid handsomely. That drive to reach the highest levels – the Barcelonas, the Real Madrids, the Bayern Munichs – fades when players know they can fall back to a well-paid safety-net stateside, negotiate a high transfer fee and spend the rest of their careers earning wads of cash while playing in a league that hasn’t fully grown yet with a marginal continental club tournament above it.

And by doing that – by succumbing to a lesser league and not gaining the skills and experience older, wiser and more talented players abroad can offer – will only damage the humility, skill and class that the United States team can offer the world. The respect national teams gain is often related to how their players are perceived in domestic leagues. But because MLS is still far away from reaching the on-field levels the EPL or Serie A have, these moves throw the talented American players back into the still building league, which ultimately damages the reputation of the USMNT.

It’s a great move for MLS to garner attention and bring in another talented player in their prime. But the precedent both Bradley and Dempsey have set could damage not only their own careers, but the prestige and reputation of the national team.

NEXT UP: February 1 – Friendly: United States vs. Korea Republic, StubHub Center, Carson, Calif. 5 p.m. EST, ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas.


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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.