Michael Bradley: A Serious Man
IRENE, South Africa -- It's easy to spot Michael Bradley. He's the one with the shaved head playing central midfield for the U.S. national team -- the one who covers just about every inch of grass over the 90 minutes. He's also the one guy in the team photo taken last month with President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the White House who couldn't muster a smile.
Bradley is 22 and living the dream. He's a starter for both a tradition-rich club in the German Bundesliga and his national side, and he's in the midst of playing in his first World Cup. To top it off, his father Bob is the U.S. coach. That should be enough to bring a grin to anyone's face, right?
Probably, but not in this case. Michael Bradley seems to be the modern embodiment of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who is famous for saying, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
Bradley is consumed with soccer. That fixation, forged as a boy while he hung out with the teams coached by his father (I even kicked a ball around with an 8-year-old Bradley when I interned at D.C. United in 1996), has helped create the player we see today. He is, without question, a lock to start for the national team, cementing his status with both goals in a 2-0 qualifying victory over Mexico early last year. He started 15 of the 18 qualifiers for this World Cup and was second on the team with five goals.
Bradley turned professional at age 16 and played for New York before joining Holland's Heerenveen in 2006, where he scored an astonishing 21 goals during the 2007-08 season -- the most ever by an American in a European top flight. That summer he transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he's established himself as a midfield fixture. He is smart, athletic, reads the game well and is strong in both the tackle and in getting forward. He's on the way to becoming a complete player.
But it's far from enough. Bradley seems perpetually unsatisfied, perhaps even angry. Even after one of the national team's greatest triumphs in recent memory, the 3-0 win over Egypt last summer that qualified the U.S. for the Confederations Cup semifinals after a rough 0-2-0 start, Bradley lashed out.
"All the f***ing experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer, they can all look at that score tonight," he said. "Let's see what they say now, all right? Nobody has any respect for what we do, for what goes on in the inside. Let them all talk now."
It was a stunning outburst, and revealed an intensity and anger that we'd already seen a bit of on the field. Bradley missed both the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup final and the Confederations Cup final because of late red cards in the semis.
Following the latter, he confronted referee Jorge Larrionda in the tunnel and drew a three-game ban from FIFA. Bradley also missed the decisive first-round game of the 2008 Summer Olympics after earning a stoppage-time yellow card against the Netherlands.
To his credit, his disciplinary record with Mönchengladbach last season comprised just six yellow cards. But there is still that intimidating intensity, even away from the field, that's both off-putting and compelling. He cares so much about his craft, and seems so convinced that no one outside his team's inner circle could possibly know or care as much as he does, that he gets antsy just talking about it.
Consider this exchange with a journalist during a roundtable interview session at the U.S. camp this week: The reporter asked Bradley how the Americans' first opponent, England, differs tactically from Friday's adversary, Slovenia. It wasn't the greatest question, but it was far from unanswerable.
Bradley grimaced and stammered a bit, then said, "They're two different teams!"
The surprised journalist agreed, then asked again how England and Slovenia contrast. Most athletes would come up something -- perhaps a thoughtful answer, or a reply that twists the question into one he can respond to, or at least some kind of cliche about how both teams are great in their own way and the U.S. will have to be at their very best to win, etc.
"They've got 11 different players!"
Okay, said the reporter. Well what about formation? Does Slovenia play a different formation than England?
Without missing a beat, Bradley launched into an analysis that sounded like he's been spying on Slovenia's practice sessions. He spoke in a somewhat exasperated tone, as if he was telling us something for the seventh time.
"Slovenia plays 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, that can even look like 4-2-3-1 at times. They work hard. They're organized. They're disciplined."
Earlier, he had rattled off half the team by name, offering his insight into specific players. "You see that right away when you watch them play what a key guy he is for them, not only on the field but his personality," he said regarding forward Milivoje Novakovic. "Certainly he's a guy that we have to make the game hard for."
Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, who plays for Italy's Udinese, Bradley reminded us, "is a presence and a good shot-blocker."
"The two outside midfielders, both creative, they like to come inside and are able to make good passes and are dangerous to shoot from distance," he added.
FanHouse asked the coach's son how much he enjoyed studying the game and his opponents.
"It's not really studying. You watch games and these are things you pick up on right away. It's not really like it's anything ..."
"Like schoolwork?" I replied.
"No," Bradley said.
One reporter asked him if he watched a lot of film. "Yeah, I mean, I watch a lot of soccer. I know Slovenia. I know their players," Bradley replied.
Another asked him if he'd like to coach one day.
He paused for a while, cutting himself off two or three times, before saying, "With all due respect, I'm thinking about Friday. I'm not sitting in my hotel room at night ... I love soccer. I've been around it since the time I was born and I'm sure I'll be around it until the day that I die."
Two German reporters, one of whom covers Mönchengladbach regularly, offered some insight on Bradley. Both said he's regarded as a talented player in Germany, but one who frustrates some fans because he often prefers to play safe rather than take risks going forward.
Nobody there doubts his offensive ability -- they're just waiting to see it in action. The pair agreed that Bradley is well-known for his intense temperament. They said they don't see him smile, and that they were not familiar with anything Bradley might do to interact with the fans or community.
This particular player, it seems, is most (or only) comfortable surrounded by people who understand both his commitment to soccer and who are intimately familiar with the unique inner-workings of the team. His comrades are his confidantes. The rest of us are aliens, and it is on the field and in the locker room where he feels at home. Perhaps not surprising for a kid who grew up there.
"We have a strong group of guys, a strong mentality," he said. "We have a mentality in our team that just says, 'No matter what happens when we step on the field, we're going to run for each other and fight for each other and leave everything on the field.' I think that has gotten us through tough games, tough situations and that'll be something that continues to help us.'"
Ricardo Clark, who partnered with Bradley (below, right) in central midfield against England, told FanHouse that his younger teammate does joke around now and then, but that "he's intense, and he shows it on the field." Clark said Bradley has "got a good mentality for a kid his age, and that's good to see because he's only going to grow. You hope players like that maintain that level of concentration."
And what about that demeanor, the one that resulted in the stone face in the White House photo, the one that's bemused so many of the American reporters here in South Africa?
"Everybody has that different spark. Not just in football, but in life," Clark said. "Whatever keeps him going, it's working for him, so hopefully he maintains that and hopefully he keeps improving."
Based on his current trajectory, Bradley should do just that. Before leaving for the World Cup, Landon Donovan called Bradley "a late bloomer."
He said, "I don't know if any of us thought he'd get to the level he's gotten to today. But when you get to know Michael, and you see how much he cares and you see how hard he works, there was only going to get one outcome, and that was going to be successful. ... He's now become an absolute staple in our team. And when he doesn't play, it definitely hurts us."
All the more reason Bradley will have to control that impulse to make the hard tackle 40 yards from his own goal -- refereeing in the World Cup is usually pretty strict. And it's perhaps all the evidence needed to forgive Bradley for his surliness. It's the byproduct of the determination that's helped him get to this World Cup and that has him on the cusp of, perhaps, claiming his place as a world-class midfielder.
Someone who follows soccer as closely as Bradley surely understands what that all means. He acknowledged on Wednesday that "it doesn't get any better" than the World Cup, and he expressed appreciation for the excitement the tournament has brought to South Africa. "All you need to do is walk through the hotel. The people who work at the hotel ... they're so excited to have us there. They have smiles on their faces all day."
But what about a smile from Bradley, at least for those of us on the outside? FanHouse asked him simply if he's enjoying himself so far.
"Yeah, it's been great," he said.
With a completely straight face.