Of all the players in the Olympic men's soccer tournament, few have as much to gain over the next few weeks as American Michael Bradley.
The attacking midfielder is still relatively unknown in the United States, but after a standout season with Dutch club Heerenveen in which he scored 19 goals in all competitions, the 21-year-old has become a hot commodity, with a number of high-profile European clubs mulling whether to sign him.
How Bradley performs in Beijing will likely have a bearing on his eventual destination, as well as the value of the check Heerenveen cashes around Sept. 1 after the transfer window closes.
Heerenveen – a solid, competitive outfit in the Dutch first division but in no position to reject a transfer fee between $8 million and $15 million for Bradley – is resigned to seeing him move on. French league club Monaco, which has a French-American president in Jerome de Bontin, has already snapped up fellow U.S. Olympian Freddy Adu and is leading the race for Bradley.
Other interested teams include Everton, Blackburn and Middlesbrough of the English Premier League, Scottish champion Celtic and Werder Bremen of the German Bundesliga. All have been attracted by signs that Bradley is continuing to emerge as a powerful midfield force and is displaying a good temperament.
If he can help the U.S. make a deep run in the Olympics, his stock will soar higher.
Bradley, the son of senior national team head coach Bob Bradley, may have his mindset helped by the knowledge that there are no bad options among his possible destinations. However, he refuses to accept that he is under any more pressure than his U.S. teammates. He claims to be more concerned about gaining recognition at home than international acclaim.
"I think there will be a certain amount of pressure that we put on ourselves to make sure that we go there and play well," he said before the team left for its tuneup games in the ING Cup.
"The better we do, the more coverage we'll get here at home and the more people will start to take notice. If we can go there and are able to put some good games together, I think people in America will really take notice of that and we will be encouraged by that."
With the World Cup in South Africa still two years away, Beijing provides the U.S. youngsters with an ideal opportunity to get themselves noticed on the big stage.
"I think the pure magnitude of the Olympics in our country puts this event on such a pedestal above everything else," Bradley said. "People in our country maybe don't know about the World Cup or the Champions League, so for people in America, competing in the Olympics is the most prestigious thing you can do as an athlete."
Bradley started his career with the New York MetroStars, now the Red Bulls, before moving to Heerenveen at the start of 2006. His attacking play has blossomed in Europe and he has developed physically to become a strong all-round player.
Although another 12 months remain on his Heerenveen contract, there is little chance he will return to Holland. The next step beckons, but where, and for how much, may be determined by events in China.