As recently as two weeks ago, coming back to Major League Soccer was still a distant thought, something far outside realm of possibility for Michael Bradley. He was on the books at Italian giant AS Roma, fighting for minutes on a top team and setting the standard for Americans overseas.
That all changed two weeks ago, when a shrewd idea from Bradley’s agent sparked the series of events that would lead to Bradley returning to MLS eight years after leaving, becoming the highest-paid American in MLS history after signing a record six-year, $40 million deal that has turned the league on its head.
“It happened very quickly,” Bradley told Goal USA. “It turned from an idea or some interest into a reality. When I learned about Toronto FC’s interest, and was able to speak to Tim Lieweke and Tim Bezbatchenko and Ryan Nelson, I realized really quickly how committed they were to building something special here. How motivated they were. How excited they were by the potential at this club. The more I spoke to them, the more I thought about things, this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
The idea was originally the brainchild of Ron Waxman, Bradley’s New York-based agent, who just a week earlier had secured a deal to make Michael’s father Bob the first American head coach in a European first division. With Michael Bradley struggling for consistent minutes at AS Roma, and Waxman exploring options for a new destination for the 26-year-old American star, he came up with the idea of approaching Toronto FC, a club he knew had grand ambitions under new leadership.
“I know (Toronto FC general manager) Tim Bezbatchenko well from deals we had done together and I know (Toronto FC CEO) Tim Lieweke gets things done and is a winner,” Waxman told Goal USA. “Toronto FC just seemed like a perfect fit, and Michael was exactly the kind of player they needed, so once I knew Toronto was interested in making something happen MLS was made aware so the process could begin.”
That process eventually led to Toronto FC stepping up with the kind of offer never before made to an American player, a deal surpassed only by David Beckham’s MLS contract. That was enough to get Bradley to speak with TFC, and once the sides met, Bradley was sold on the idea of coming back to MLS, which paved the way for a move that shocked MLS and American soccer.
“This was an opportunity I didn’t want to let pass me by. If you’d asked me a few years ago if I’d be back in MLS at this moment I probably would have answered no. But I think there’s certain moments in life when you have to have the ability to forget about everything else and only look at what’s in front of you and then make a decision about what’s best for you. What motivates you, and for me that’s what this is all about.
“In speaking with everybody involved with the club, in speaking with Tim Lieweke and Tim Bezbatchenko about their vision, about the way they wanted to move things forward I understood and realized right away that these were people with drive and ambition that matched mine. As a player that’s what you want. You want to be somewhere where you are valued, but you are surrounded by people who are as committed to winning as you are.”
Bradley knows there are questions about his decision to come back to MLS, and leaving a league like Serie A, but he believes MLS is a tough league and feels concerns about his form potentially dipping are
“We can talk about how MLS maybe isn’t at the level yet of the top leagues in Europe. Everybody would probably agree that that’s the case,” Bradley said. “There’s still a little bit of work to be done, but MLS is a competitive league. It’s a hard league. It’s demanding. It’s punishing, and so this idea that I can walk into the league and do whatever they want and have success couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I realize that coming back is going mean doing everything I can to show people watching what I’m all about.”
Bradley returns to MLS eight years after leaving the New York/New Jersey Metrostars to sign with Dutch club Heerenveen, and as much as he has grown as a player, he sees the considerable growth by the league and admits the MLS he is joining now bears little resemblance to the one he left behind.
“It’s a totally different league now,” Bradley said. “There are more teams. More fans, more attention, more stadiums. On one hand, I’m lucky because I feel like I know what to expect, and what this league is about, and on the other hand I’m in for a lot of pleasant surprises along the way to see exactly how things have grown and improved.”
Despite that, there is still plenty of skepticism about Bradley’s return to MLS, and one person who probably wasn’t crazy about the move is U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has consistently preached the need for top U.S. players to test themselves in the world’s best leagues.
“Jurgen and I had a good conversation last week,” Bradley said. “I wanted him to hear where things stood from me. I wanted to give him the chance to understand what was going on in my head.
“At the end of the day Jurgen wants guys who aren’t afraid to take risks. Who aren’t afraid to put everything on the line. He wants guys who are committed. As players, as people, as leaders.
“Every decision I have ever made in my career has been about trying to challenge myself to become better,” Bradley said. “When I left home when I was 14 years old to go to Bradenton, and when I was 18 and went to Europe, these were big decisions but big decisions that were made with me challenging myself and improving. This move is no different.”