It’s hard to tell if any young player will grow up to be elite. Beyond skill level, so many factors play in to the equation: size, fitness, physicality, athleticism and mentality all seem to matter. Yet one very underrated quality is the soccer brain – the understanding of the game and what it means to be successful in it.
While you certainly couldn’t have predicted with a ton of certainty that Michael Bradley would earn 100 caps for the United States, few if any American players can compare to the soccer schooling the U.S. Gold Cup captain received from a very young age.
Former U.S. assistant coach and current New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch played under Bob Bradley at Princeton in the early 1990s, where his first glimpses of Michael’s soccer potential came when the U.S. midfielder was only three years old.
“His mom would drop him off at our college practice sessions after he was done with day care,” Marsch told ussoccer.com. “He’d come running out of the car onto the field and start kicking balls with the guys right away. He was just so hungry for the game, he was so hungry to play with the guys after, to watch the team train, and you could always see glimpses of his soccer mind.”
Even at five years old, Marsch said you could see the makings of a great soccer player in Bradley in the way that he arranged for his first touch and he would deliver and receive passes.
As time went on, Michael moved from training sessions at Princeton to his dad’s post as an assistant coach at D.C. United and the head job with the Chicago Fire – two of the most successful clubs in the early days of Major League Soccer. Like Michael, Marsch followed Bob each step of the way.
“Whether it was with Princeton, D.C. United or the Chicago Fire, he’d wait patiently and watch training for 90 minutes just to get a chance at the end to maybe play 2v2 with a couple guys on the team,” Marsch continued. “It’s not to say any of us saw that he would become what he has, but I think we could all see he loved the game and he tried to hone his skills on a daily basis. It was going to give him a chance to be pretty good.”
Bradley spent his most formative years in Chicago. When young American players were spending time at a week-long soccer camp, Bradley was spending his entire summer watching and honing his skills against the likes of international icons Peter Nowak and Hristo Stoichkov as well as rising American stars Marsch, Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Josh Wolff and Ante Razov.
“He wasn’t like a regular kid who was interested in doing other things,” recalled Razov. “Everything he wanted to do was soccer.”
“We’d put him into some possession games and sure he’s a little kid, but he was still able to connect passes and move. The way he carried himself and went about his business there, you could kind of sense that he was different. He was willing to do anything – haul equipment, clean shoes, anything to be a part of the team. Some guys might have wondered why they were training against this kid, but there were a lot of times where he wasn’t the worst one at training as a 12-year-old.”
Having impressed with his club side the Chicago Sockers, Bradley joined the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. It was clear that the skills and soccer brain were there, but according to Marsch the question of whether or not he could make the next step came down to his physical growth.
“Michael was a late bloomer in terms of his maturity so he didn’t physically seem like he was going to be that athletic,” said Marsch. “No one knew how his body was going to grow or how athletic he was going to be. He always had the feel for the game, but you never knew if the physical part would come along. He’s down in Bradenton and then all of a sudden at 16 years old he just shot up over 6 feet. He must have grown six or seven inches over a year and the next time I saw him, he was a man.”
In 2004, Bradley left U-17 Residency at age 16 to sign a MLS contract and was drafted by the MetroStars, where Bob had taken over as head coach the season before. In his first two seasons as a pro, Bradley appeared in 30 matches, but endured his difficult challenge when Bob was dismissed as head coach with a few matches left in the 2005 seasons.
Having watched Bradley grow as a player in Chicago, Razov played as his teammate with the MetroStars in 2005.
“You could see through what was a difficult time for everyone in New York -- with the situation of the club and Bob being the coach and then not being the coach -- you saw this young man who had to handle pressure that most that age wouldn’t have any idea how to deal with. He took it in stride and kept working.”
After the 2005 season, Bradley transferred to Dutch club Heerenveen and got his first run with the U.S. side as a substitute in their final two send-off friendlies prior to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. When his dad took over the U.S. side later that year, Michael was part of a new wave of young players that began the 2010 World Cup cycle for the United States.
Just before the 2007 Gold Cup, things came full circle when Michael had the opportunity to suit up with Razov and Marsch in a U.S. friendly against China. With both playing for Chivas USA, who were idle that weekend, Bob called the duo up to help fill out his training camp roster.
“I was on the bench watching the game and I remember thinking that he belonged and deserved to be there,” said Marsch. I was excited to watch his progress over the years and see what he had developed into and then to top it off, I played the last 10 minutes of the match next to him in midfield.”
Days after the U.S. lifted the 2007 Gold Cup title, Bradley was off to Canada to play in the FIFA U-20 World Championships where he starred with future senior teammate Jozy Altidore as the U.S. advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinal stage.
Eight years on, Altidore has played with Bradley at two FIFA World Cups and in 50 of his 99 international appearances. The fact that the 27-year-old Bradley will become the fourth youngest U.S. player to hit 100 caps on Tuesday night comes as no surprise to the U.S. forward.
“From the first day I met him, he struck me as a guy that was always eager to improve, always eager to learn and give his best,” said Altidore. “His mentality is what sets him apart from a lot of professionals. His will to win, improve and give everything everyday is phenomenal – it’s not easy at this level. It’s the reason he’s already hitting 100 caps.”
“Beyond the playing side, as a person, he’s got a good heart. He’s a good guy and deep down he’s soft as a marshmallow,” Altidore joked. “He cares about people close to him and that’s just as important as anything else when you talk about a great teammate.”
Hitting the century mark at such a young age will inevitably bring questions of how close Bradley can come to Cobi Jones’ U.S. record of 164 caps, wherever he lands when his international career comes to an end, according to Marsch, he’s already done much to cement himself as one of the top U.S. midfielders of all-time.
“I would say Michael is the best box-to-box midfielder the U.S. has ever had. The physical attributes along with his soccer mind and technical ability, his fearlessness, proficiency around the goal, mentality to defend and make plays that matter for the team. The whole package is unique. I don’t know that the U.S. has ever produced a player like him.
"He has talents and gifts, but it’s so much more about the mentality. His mentality to be the best, to work on his game, to be good in the hardest games and hardest moments, that to me is what’s made him unique and special. I can’t imagine another box-to-box midfielder being more suited for the way that the U.S. plays than Michael and it’ll be a long time before we see another play like him.”