Michael Bradley’s Options
My, how opinions do change quickly. Two years ago, there remained large pockets of the United States’ fan base that still considered Michael Bradley to be an overmatched 20 year-old, his starting spot in the midfield still chalked up to raw nepotism. While that sentiment always gave of the waft of hopeless naiveté, it has been all but obliterated over the last eighteen months, as Bradley has gone about establishing himself as one of the best young midfielders in Europe.
Bradley’s transformation as a player–and the evolution of his talents and skills over such a short period of time–could serve as a case study for the development of a central midfielder. A professional at 16, Bradley became the youngest player ever sold by Major League Soccer with his move to Dutch club SC Heerenveen. After playing in a primarily holding/defensive role in MLS, his offensive prowess blossomed in his second full season in the Netherlands, as he found the net sixteen times in the Eredivisie and 20 times in all competitions—a record for an American in a European first division (and an accomplishment that remains under-appreciated).
Despite his growth as an attacking player at the club level, Bradley accepted a defensive role with the national team, quickly earning a reputation as a tough-tackling enforcer with something of a temper. He began to show a knack for scoring crucial goals, with his two against rivals Mexico in the February chill of Columbus marking his true arrival as an impact player on the international level. Entrenched as a starter by late 2008, only yellow card accumulation kept him out of remaining qualifying matches.
Yet the Bradley that many fans came to know only over the last two months—a true box-to-box midfielder at home against the world’s best teams—is a relatively new permutation, and owes as much to his natural growth as it does to the deployment of Landon Donovan out to the wing. As a result, Bradley has been handed to the keys to the American attack in the middle of the pitch, and he used his new freedom to dominate large stretches of the matches against England, Slovenia, and Algeria at the World Cup. For all the hype that surrounded Donovan and Dempsey, it was often Bradley who initiated the offense, leading the American counter-attack that provided so many opportunities.
Following his impressive showing in South Africa, the 22 year-old is expected to draw suitors from across Europe, with his potential growth as a player and reasonable contract (he’s signed for another two years) providing a tempting option for teams looking for a presence at the center of midfield. Until bids are confirmed, the rumors will continue to fly, just as (unsubstantiated) hints of interest from Arsenal percolated over the course of the last two years.
So, which club would make sense for Bradley? His options fall into two distinct groups. He could receive and consider an offer from a top club in one of the big four leagues, the type of traditional power who expect an annual appearance in the Champions League. In that scenario, however, Bradley would likely need to wait for regular playing time, a situation for which his drive and temperament do not seem particularly well suited. Thus, the more likely option is a move to a larger club in England, Italy, or Germany, offering the chance of European football, along with an easier path into the starting XI on match day.
Below are what I would consider to be the most likely destinations for Bradley, should he move in the coming weeks. This isn’t necessary where I would like to see him, but clubs whose needs could be met by Bradley, and vice-versa. Am I missing a club?
Aston Villa – In 2009-10, 31 year-old Stilliyan Petrov shared central midfield duties with James Milner, the latter of whom was transformed by a move inside from the wing, and the subsequent license to roam forward. Yet it’s widely expected that Milner will be on his way to Manchester City (because they really need more midfield help), while Petrov’s time is limited. Considering manager Martin O’Neill’s preference for British players, a more natural move for Villa may be to pluck Scott Parker from West Ham. Yet with the excessive fees placed on homegrown players by EPL clubs, Bradley could be a younger, fiscally prudent solution. Villa continues to lurk outside the top four; they have the steady resources needed to compete for a spot in Europe; and to the extent it matters, they have a well-respected American owner in Randy Lerner. Villa would be a strong move for Bradley, and two years in the EPL could set him on his way to an even bigger club.
Liverpool – Liverpool have issues—serious, short-, medium- and long-term issues. What remains to be seen is just how deep the cuts will be over the next year. Chelsea is hot on the heels of Fernando Torres, but the key for Bradley is the future of Javier Mascherano. If the Argentinean bolts the Merseyside, Bradley could well become a viable option, with Lucas—the young Brazilian—remaining as the only central midfielder left on the roster with any proven ability (aside from Steven Gerrard, of course). Roy Hodgson likes bargains, and is more willing to look outside of the British Isles for talent than most of his compatriots—which is convenient, since Liverpool can’t afford young English players anyways. If Bradley is going to join a traditional power, Liverpool could be a prudent bet.
Blackburn – Could Ewood Park be Bradley’s English destination? Steven N’Zonzi certainly made his mark over the past year, starting 33 games at the heart of midfield. Question marks remain about his ideal partner, with the veteran David Dunn expected to compete with Keith Andrews. There is some young talent on the books, but if the Rovers opt for some steel beside N’Zonzi, Bradley would present a nice option.
Others – Chelsea and Manchester United aren’t yet realistic. I would give my left pinky for Bradley to join Arsenal, but the wealth of young midfielders makes such a scenario unlikely. Tottenham has Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddleston, who don’t seem to be moving any time soon. Birmingham has an aging core Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer, but Michel, the Spaniard who drew premature comparisons to Javier Mascherano, was purchased in January.
Werder Bremen – If Bradley stays in the Bundesliga, perennial Champions League participants Werder Bremen could be the most likely destination. It seems nearly certain that Bremen will lose the mercurial Mesut Ozil to one of his many suitors, supplying them with the cash to make at least two significant moves. There’s no doubt they need help. The ancient Torten Frings served as Ozil’s midfield partner, but his time is coming to an end. Bremen does have the option of Philip Bargfrede, another member of Germany’s promising youth movement who saw significant time a year ago. Beyond that, however, the cupboard is relatively bare. Bremen would offer Bradley a significant upgrade over Monchengladbach, and Bradley would likewise fill an area of need.
Hamburg – Hamburg presents a very interesting case. Ze Roberto somehow made it through 22 matches last season, despite being just shy of his 37th birthday. David Jarolim anchored the midfield, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30. Hamburg does boast quality young players like Tomas Rincon (though his natural position remains unclear) and Robert Tesche, though the loss of Jerome Boateng to Manchester City deprives the club of some flexibility. For Hamburg, the decision comes down to the amount of faith they have in the young players already with the club, and their sense of how much Roberto still has in the tank.
Bayern Munich – Without a few precursor moves, this isn’t likely. Yet Bastian Schweinsteiger’s play has made him a target for Chelsea (joining Fernando Torres?), which could leave a hole in the middle of the Allianz Arena. Mark van Bommel is 33, and in addition to burnishing his reputation as the most despised player in Europe, his long-term effectiveness must be in question. Furthermore, aside from Thomas Muller, Bayern isn’t blessed with wealth of riches in the talent pipeline. 31 year-old Anatolly Tymoschuk serves as the main cover in central midfield, and while Ramires, the young Brazilian, is on Bayern’s radar, a move for Bradley could be a realistic option for the German champions.
Others – Arturo Vidal and Stefan Reinartz look poised to be the focal point of the Leverkusen midfield over the next few years, so that doesn’t seem like an option; Nuri Kazim Sahin and Sven Bender will do the same for Borussia Dortmund. Stuttgart or Wolfsburg? While both would be modest upgrades, neither seems likely as a destination.
Palermo – Palermo will remain steady contenders for a European spot, and with an aging midfield corps, they may be a nice fit. The club occupies a position in Serie A reminiscent of those held by Aston Villa and Tottenham in England—usually just outside of the top four, but rarely lower than mid-table. Palermo prefers a 4-3-1-2, with Giulio Migliaccio getting the most time in the central midfield spot. He’s not entrenched in the position, however, sharing roles across the middle four with other aging players such as Fabio Liverani, Mark Bresciano, and Fabio Simplicio. Only Antonio Nocerino provides relative youth, and Bradley could have a chance to start right away.
AC Milan – At first glimpse, Milan could appear to be a stretch. Yet as we noted in our discussion of Clint Dempsey, the Rossoneri’s old guard is beginning to fade into the sunset. Andrea Pirlo will occupy a playmaking role for another few years, but Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso are nearing the end of their time at the San Siro. Mathieu Flamini has struggled to stick in the first XI since his move from Arsenal two years ago, and there’s little in the way of young talent ready to emerge, with Matteo Brighi (29) and Simone Perrotta (32) the principle options. A move to Milan could portend a slow integration into the lineup for Bradley, but would be an intriguing long-term proposition.
Others – Roma? I’d love to see it, but it doesn’t make sense until DeRossi or Pizarro move on. Napoli? The combination of Walter Gargano, Michele Pazienza and Luca Cigarini seem to have things set. Juventus? Felipe Melo became suddenly more difficult to move after his meltdown for Brazil against the Netherlands (although rumors of a move to Arsenal persist); Christian Poulsen isn’t slowing down; and Diego and Mohamed Sissoko continue to wait for their shot. Sampdoria? Too much young talent in the midfield.
I didn’t bother listing any Spanish clubs, since I don’t see Bradley’s skills translating as well in La Liga, where technical ability is prized over physicality and grit. So, what do you think? Thought you’d see more options? Surprised to see Bayern and Milan? Now watch him end up in France.