The Americans, or Major League Soccer Comes Home

Michael Bradley is one of America's best players. So what is he doing in Major League Soccer?
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The Big Signing has quietly been king of MLS publicity, if not substance, throughout its brief history. From Preki to Beckham to Henry to Dempsey, the conquering hero’s arrival has established itself as a well-worn and well-needed trope. A burgeoning league like MLS requires star power to compete on those heavy days filled with football and basketball and baseball and hockey, especially given that this is a league in constant struggle with the very notion of quality control. We know David Beckham; perhaps through him we can know MLS. It’s not the best idea, but no one has yet had a better one.

And now Michael Bradley, 26 years old, has arrived. Only a few days ago, Bradley plied his industrious trade for one of the world’s most notable and currently successful clubs, the Italian squad Roma, and now he has returned to the American league, one far different and greater than what he once knew, but one still without a team to match any of the clubs he has previously played for or against.

The tricky thing about this move, the Thing We Need To Know, the words whispered now like there’s really something behind the voice, is quite simple: Michael Bradley, for most soccering and footballing considerations, did not need to do this. He should be in Europe right now, should be dancing in Valencia or trudging up stairs in Southampton. He should be making Volvo commercials with Mattia Destro and trading tense glances with Daniele De Rossi. Instead, he’s headed to one of the worst teams in MLS, and to one of the struggling franchises in modern American soccer. By choice, mind.

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David Beckham needed Major League Soccer just as much as it needed him. Astonishingly, their marriage of convenience mostly worked. Beckham’s arrival brought MLS the most instantaneous publicity in its history, spurring countless thousands of Americans into a half-decade of saying, “Oh, the thing with David Beckham?” The world’s foremost handsome soccer star put MLS on the West Coast map of vagueness, and MLS removed the late Real Madrid years-sting from his symmetrically furrowed brow. A win-win, as the repetition goes. Los Angeles remains a great place to be good-looking and vaguely useful.

More than that, though, it sent a message: you can come to MLS now, you aging stars. The league does not owe most of its success to these almost-legends, but high-profile signings allowed credibility in a time when there was little available. It began with Preki, so long ago, but now it’s here, in the land of overwhelming mass media and a desperate need for alternative sport. The last patch of American frontier, still open: kick a soccer ball around, get your own little cult fiefdom.

And they followed Beckham to L.A, those sojourning strikers, from Thierry Henry to Robbie Keane to Marco Di Vaio -- all European nations represented with both impressive age and ability, all carefully placed into Designated Players’ spots that allowed the league to circumvent its smallish salary cap for some timely reaching. The MLS can be broadly qualified into two groups: these aging, exotic stars, and the hard-working types, the Chris Schuler’s and Dax McCarty’s and Graham Zusi’s with their solid games, some technical ability, and a strong sense of team will. This league dies and rises again every night on the shoulders of players like the long-haired Kyle Beckerman and graying Henry.

Michael Bradley is neither of those types. He is the full-blown, fully bald reality of what the Dempsey-Sounders transfer suggested just a few months ago. No conception of MLS can hold the player Bradley is -- at least, not the one known in the side-nettings of our memories. He is the most important player for a good national team; he is a player of both relative youth and skill, already good but still capable of a bit more; he is someone who could feature, however lightly, for almost any club in the world. And here he is.

Thus, the complete bewilderment present in the rarefied air of MLS Twitter when Toronto FC’s bold $7-$10 million dollar move was announced, when the league cried out in hopes of garnering the sporting world’s attention for the second time in a matter of months. Bradley could have gone anywhere in the world. But he came to Toronto, where he’ll be joined by English striker Jermain Defoe. All strange, all true.

If we are to indirectly ask The Why of Bradley, we’ll perhaps find a two-fold answer: his reported salary is $6.5 million, a gigantic increase in comparison to what he made at Roma and likely more than he could’ve made anywhere in Europe; and second, that perhaps Bradley saw what Dempsey saw -- a chance for pure stardom in a league that is not so far away, not anymore. MLS is not some bleak joke, now. It’s home. It’s an okay enough place to be a star.

The defining characteristic of the league’s current state, the one reputable commissioner Don Garber has proclaimed into the French horns of ESPN2 broadcasting and various league publications, is that MLS is a league of slow and careful growth. “Slow growth, slow growth,” he’s thematically whispered into Taylor Twellman’s convincing ears, time after time. And it’s a wise enough thing to whisper. A decade ago, the league was in chaos; through careful growth, it’s now at a point of possible near-future legitimacy. Few fans alive, anywhere, have watched a league pull this particular trick off.

But it’s not quite there yet. We know this when we ask someone on the street about MLS, or during any typical sports conversation. MLS is known to those who follow sports, popular in most of the cities where a team is present but mostly irrelevant to thousands of miles of American country. It’s bigger than bowling and well on its way to challenging hockey for Unofficial Fourth American Sport, but is still covering tough terrain along dusty roads, still clearing sand out of its eyes in the Saharic wastelands of American sports entertainment. Depending on where you start, a slow and thoughtful pace will only get you so close to water before you die of thirst.

And so MLS, thanks to the Northwest and our Canadian neighbors, has chosen to reach in this moment, with a possible $70 million/year TV deal waiting as buoy. After Defoe arrives, the league, which shares (or covers) transfer costs with its clubs, will have spent at least $25 million in the last year on transfers. That’s a lot of money for a mid-level league, whatever the endgame.

Bradley, in many ways, is built for the MLS style of play. He’ll dominate as a physical and skilled presence, too clever and too careful to be checked by the league’s current brand of harsh center-midfield wringing. Toronto should catapult from the basement of the table, revitalizing what was once a successful franchise for MLS. And in the red seats of BMO field, they’ll look out at their brisk new midfielder and cheer.

The question for the league will be who watches beyond the stands, who smiles from couches and who nods on barstools. This consideration remains as it ever was, fixed in television sets and glazed monitors. But it cannot be said that the answer hasn’t changed.

It’s different, now. The mold’s gone, and you can feel it. It’s not quite clear what it will be, but this is no longer David Beckham’s league. That’s just fine.

 

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