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Michael Bradley's World Cup form remains great mystery

In this Dec. 22, 2013, photo, AS Roma's Michael Bradley controls the ball during a Serie A soccer match against Catania in Rome. Roma coach Rudi Garcia says American midfielder Bradley is on the verge of joining Toronto FC. Italian media report Roma has accepted an offer of 7 million euros ($9.5 million) for Bradley from the Major League Soccer club
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In this Dec. 22, 2013, photo, AS Roma's Michael Bradley controls the ball during a Serie A soccer …

CARSON, Calif. – Swapping Italy's second-best team for one of Major League Soccer's worst has prompted some to swiftly dismiss United States national team star Michael Bradley's jaw-dropping move to Toronto FC as soccer lunacy.

Yet while the impending blockbuster deal, one that reportedly involves a $7 million transfer fee and an annual salary of $6.5 million, was certainly a surprise, it is far from a catastrophic blunder devoid of all common sense.

The U.S. national team training camp was abuzz on Thursday with talk of the Bradley saga, which looks likely to be completed within the next week and is a major signal of Toronto's ambitions. It is also part of a growing trend of elite American talent either returning home from foreign sojourns or spurning them in the first place, even players smack in the peak of their career like 26-year-old Bradley.

"It is great for our league," said Landon Donovan, for so long the figurehead of the stay-at-home brigade. "Another American player in their prime wants to come home and play here.

"I think it is a testament to our league that people want to come back and play here, particularly six months before a World Cup."

The World Cup is actually a shade over five months from now and with Bradley having suffered a dip in playing time at Italian giant AS Roma, an arrangement whereby he could secure some valuable regular minutes made perfect sense.

However, that could have been achieved had he gone to a number of other European clubs. And the length of the Toronto contract, thought to be at least five years, crushes any suggestions that this is a temporary pit stop.

U.S. soccer fans still like to deride MLS despite its intensity and improved play, but there is no question now that the national team is embracing the domestic league as a viable place to ply your trade, even for elite performers such as Bradley and Clint Dempsey.

"The league is a lot better," Donovan said. "The league is different financially, it is more stable in all ways. There is more media. There is more attention. Everything is different and everything is constantly changing.

"We always say it is not where we want it to be, but when guys like Michael and Clint make decisions like that, when Omar [Gonzalez], Matt Besler and Graham Zusi make the decision to stay here when they could have gone abroad, it makes a big statement.

"The way you make the league better is by having better players. And certainly in the last six months we have got two of our better players back in the league."

The five players mentioned, plus Donovan himself, all have a strong shot at being named to Jurgen Klinsmann's starting lineup for the USA's World Cup opener against Ghana on June 16 in Natal. Such a situation would have been unthinkable a year ago, when Dempsey and Bradley were seemingly happily ensconced in Europe and Gonzalez, Besler and Zusi were all beginning to attract significant overseas attention.

From Bradley's perspective, he can only hope that Toronto's fortunes begin to lift – and quickly. The Canadian club has been in existence for seven seasons but has never once made the MLS playoffs.

However, TFC is determined to bring in high-quality talent around Bradley. English forward Jermain Defoe is set to sign next week and Canadian favorite Dwayne De Rosario is also returning to the club.

Whether the moves guarantee success is anyone's guess. Even though Bradley is moving closer to home, his decision is still a step into the unknown.

 

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