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Michael Bradley-to-Toronto: Take a moment to suspend your whys, consider how far MLS has come

Jan 8, 2014, 6:05 PM EDT

Michael Bradley AP

Michael Bradley may be coming back to Major League Soccer. Even if he doesn’t — if he has some kind of last minute change of course that undermines all the news we’ve heard on Wednesday — just take a moment to consider what’s going on. This is a U.S. international that’s in the undisputed prime of his career – one that has played at the top-level in England, Germany, and Italy. He is fighting for time right now, but he’s fighting for time for the second place team in the Italian Serie A. And despite all of this — despite his earning potential, his stature at a big Italian club, and a World Cup on the horizon — Michael Bradley might be coming back to Major League Soccer.

[UPDATE: Report: Bradley to Toronto done, set to earn $6.5 million per season after $7-$10 million transfer fee]

What is happening with this league? Just five years ago, this circuit was struggling for international relevance ahead of a World Cup that would see only six Major League Soccer players feature in South Africa. The four MLS players Bob Bradley picked for the U.S. squad represented the lowest total since MLS came into existence in 1996. The question of whether the U.S.’s top talent should be playing domestically or in Europe seemed to be resolved (in Europe’s favor), while the league was still struggling to come to grips with the need to fit in the Beckhams and Henrys of the world in financially constrained business model.

Fast forward to 2014, and we have a league willing to pay Tottenham Hotspur $9 million to get Clint Dempsey to Seattle. We see Seattle (and other sources) willing to guarantee the U.S. captain $8 million per year to play in Major League Soccer, with another, younger, even better American set to follow. Add in the commitments to players like Beckham, Henry, Robbie Keane, and Tim Cahill (and nearly every team using the Designated Player rule), and you have a league that looks nothing like it’s pre-South Africa self. Either MLS is spending itself into the ground (unlikely, given the still modest sums going to total payroll) or a new, more financially viable era of Major League Soccer has produced a makeover.

[MORE: Defoe to Toronto FC official… and maybe Michael Bradley, too? (or “How Taylor Twellman broke Twitter”)]

Five years ago, there were serious questions about MLS’s direction. The league had recovered from its post-Florida contraction doldrums, had expanded into places like Salt Lake, Toronto, and Los Angeles, yet before the Pacific Northwest expansion, there were still major questions as to whether the league was capturing hearts and minds. Why those questions still remain, they’ve taken a different form post-Beckham: where market’s like Seattle’s, Portland’s, and Kansas City’s (re-branded) are generating new excitement; where the league is pushing on to a 24-team format that would have sounded foolish a decade ago. Now the question isn’t whether the league is growing. It’s how the league can grow responsibly.

source: AP

Even more than Clint Dempsey’s acquisition by the Seattle Sounders, Michael bradley’s potential returns represents progress from Major League Soccer. (Photo: AP.)

Even more than Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle, Michael Bradley’s potential switch to Toronto give us reason to appreciate that progress. Bradley is four years younger than Dempsey and isn’t being lured by a situation like Seattle’s. He’s willing to forgo four, maybe six more years in Europe to come back to a relatively struggling team, and while he’ll certainly be handsomely compensated to do so, there are still a number of factors here that force us to reconsider MLS’s new drawing power. Like the Dempsey deal, there’s no way something like this happens four or five years ago.

So as all this Michael Bradley news unfolds (and at this point, it sounds like an inevitability) , it might be worth suspending disbelief and considering the progress. Why is a 26-year-old returning to MLS? Why is he passing on Europe to come back home? Why is he choosing Toronto, and (for that matter) why is Toronto making such a huge commitment to him?

There are good answers to all of these questions, answers that we’ll dive into as news of Bradley’s arrival starts to be confirmed. For now, however, it’s worth putting those curiosities aside for a moment of reelection. Whether the move gets finalized or not, Major League Soccer’s now in a place where a $10 million transfer and $8 million salary can happen under the right circumstances. That those circumstances are even possible is a huge testament to the league’s upward trajectory.

  1. jslip1 - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:08 PM

    I’m so torn.

  2. rphillish - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:29 PM

    No. I get that the league has come a long way, but no. What does Bradley have to gain here? It’d be one thing if he was near the end of his career and just looking for some playing time, thinking of his family and things of that nature, but Bradley is in his mid 20s. He should be looking for bigger challenges, and seeing how far he can go in his career. MLS has come a long way, but what does playing in this league give Bradley other than a guaranteed starting spot?

    If Bradley chooses MLS that’s his choice, and I’d of course love seeing him play every week, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in the lack of ambition.

    • smorris793 - Jan 8, 2014 at 9:19 PM

      I dunno, dude is going to make 6x what he was in Italy, and is guaranteed to start every game, all season. I’m bummed too, but that is a ton of money to turn down.

  3. pecorasc - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:42 PM

    It’s delusional to think that the usmnt is a wc contender, whether all our players are in Europe or in mls. It’s myopic to think that dempsey and Bradley moving to mls is bad for the usmnt. The day our domestic league is one of the best in the world, with top academies and deep pockets is the day we can begin to think about being wc contenders. Bradley and Dempsey to mls is a step in that direction.

    • reedineagan - Jan 9, 2014 at 12:01 AM

      +1. Perfect comment, I agree with everything.

  4. mkbryant3 - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Me too, Jslip. Me too.

    Is Bradley that big a Drake fan? But, seriously. Bradley and Dempsey back to MLS = Europe ain’t all that? Just asking. Maybe Bradley thinks he gets playing time and showcases in WC for another move back to Europe?

    Who knows? But God this league is getting super fun for a long time (ageing) soccer geek. :-)

  5. 127taringa - Jan 8, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    Just a couple thoughts;
    1. Good money for Bradley.
    2. This does nothing for Soccer in the US
    – last time I checked Toronto was in Canada.
    -if TFC turns out to be real strong, that is potentially less exposure.
    – good for Canada
    3. For the most part the players around Bradley will be at a lower quality. Chances are this brings his level down more than everyone elses up.
    4. MLS teams dont have a high end style of play.
    5. He will likely be playing on Turf and alot more of it on the road.
    6. Hope that he likes Hockey and high taxes. (with no disrespect to Hockey)

    • pecorasc - Jan 8, 2014 at 8:30 PM

      You’re way off base with number 2. Number 3 is a toss up. A little off with number 4, and way off again with number 5.

      • 127taringa - Jan 8, 2014 at 8:48 PM

        How do you figure?
        Lets say TFC and the Whitecaps play for MLS cup 3 years in a row, it that going to cause US Soccers enrollment to burst at the seams? Are US sponsors going to be more likely to spend? What would it do for MLB or NBA if the Toronto teams were the perenial champions of their leagues?

        Do you know something I dont, are MLS teams all mandating natural grass? I think TFC were talking about using artificial turf so they can share the stadium with the CFL team.

      • 127taringa - Jan 8, 2014 at 9:02 PM

        Please do explain.
        For example, if TFC and the Whitecaps were to play for MLS cup 3 years in a row, do you think that would have a positive effect on all things US Soccer and MLS?

      • Sgc - Jan 9, 2014 at 6:01 PM

        First, that example is nuts, no two teams have matched up three times in a row in league history. Even twice in a row is fairly rare.

        But second, why are you working so hard to miss the point? The US and Canada happen to share the same league. If Toronto FC turns back into the proto-Seattle they looked like they were in 2007, this is good for everyone in the league. MLS being able to tout that the backbone of the US National Team plays in MLS is a major coup for the league, (which I didn’t really think I needed to point out is mostly a US league).

  6. jucam1 - Jan 8, 2014 at 7:49 PM

    This shows how far the MLS and USMT are away from seriously competing for a cup

  7. talgrath - Jan 8, 2014 at 7:51 PM

    I’m not quite sure why you’re so surprised by this move, if the numbers quoted are right. Bradley’s current salary is 800,000 Euros or about $1 million. For $6.5 million per year Bradley is getting a huge pay raise and guaranteed starter time and adoration. I don’t think any team in Europe would give Bradley that huge of a salary, there are very few teams in MLS that can give him that sort of salary. Toronto has a DP spot and some money to burn that most other teams in the league don’t have right now, they are betting that Bradley puts butts in seats and they are right.

  8. midtec2005 - Jan 9, 2014 at 12:30 AM

    While I think MLS has the potential to be one of the best leagues in the world in the future (not now obviously), I want to address the comments I’ve seen that are: “We can’t be world cup contenders until we have one of the top leagues in the world.” This is a factually incorrect statement. Brazil, Uruguay, Holland, and maybe even Portugal DO NOT have one of the top leagues in the world. Their leagues are really good, but not Germany, England, Spain, Italy, or France. Neither is MLS, but MLS isn’t bad and it seems to be getting better at a quick pace recently.

    I also think this could be a HUGE move for U.S. soccer. Bradley could go down in History as a turning point. This could be the moment that excellent players in their prime start considering MLS. And with the fan-base getting more and more knowledgeable, this could be a big PR gain also. He might actually become a household name with this move. He would really be the first U.S. soccer player to do so (maybe Donovan is… maybe).

    • zok82 - Jan 9, 2014 at 5:23 PM

      The problem with the theory in your first paragraph is that all those countries “Brazil, Uruguay, Holland, and maybe even Portugal” have kids that eat, sleep, and breath soccer from the age they can run until they die.

      All those kids play soccer and stick with (unlike in the USA) bc they want to make it big. make the $$$. and be famous.When you have an entire country with that mindset then you will see the results at the National Team level. Name one soccer power that does not consider soccer the #1 sport….

      Now, the US will never have soccer as the #1 most populat sport (football college and pro is king). But I think even has the #2 sport the USA can be elite globally (thats how good our athltetes are) Moves like this will make MLS more noticable. Moves like this improve the quality and more importantly show that you can get PAID to play soccer in the U.S. When they see it on Sportscenter before :53 after the hour people will take notice.

      That will incentivize this generations youth (<10 year olds) and their PARENTS to let them keep playing and stick with it. The US has more kids play soccer than any country in the world all parents want their kids running around getting exercise and being social. The problem is the best athletes and hungriest kids quit in middle school to focus on Bball, football, and baseball. Bc thats where the $$$ is.

      If/when MLS starts showing the money(like demps, defoe, Bradley) maybe less kids will make the switch….talent pool increases…when that happens US soccer will be elite. That's the only way to be good. Have a rich talent pool its the answer in every team sport. USA can't get that talent pool way without MLS being strong given all the other Major sports markets here. There isn't isn't enough demand by foregin leagues to snatch up young US talent (which would incenticize more kids). The MLS can/will fill that gap and hopefully develop them.

      Then if the Euros want to pluck them away fine. That's a different argument. US talent pool and MLS won't have that "problem" until they both get better though.

  9. gunner1095 - Jan 9, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    I think this is great for the game in the US. This makes Michael Bradley, a soccer player, one of the highest paid athletes in the country. With this salary he would be the 4th highest paid running back in the NFL, for example. This is a huge sign for the youth of america that you can be a highly paid super star playing soccer.

    With guys like, Dempsey, Bradley and Donovan making as much or more than guys like Henry, Keane and Martins our kids can follow their passion knowing there is just as much of potential payoff as if they played football or basketball.

    We will feel the effects of this in 10 -15 years when the next generation of up and coming young american soccer stars takes the world by storm.

  10. mikeevergreen - Jan 9, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    Why is Bradley coming back? Simple. JK (Klinsmann) wants him to be 90-minute-shape come June. And he’s not going to get that playing 15-20 minutes per game at Roma. Those 15-20 per game may be “high-quality” minutes, but they’re no substitute to 90 minutes every game that JK needs him to get to be ready for Brazil.

    This had EVERYTHING to do with the Cup. It comes, for TFC, with someone for him to pass the ball to (DeFoe), and a roughhouse (DeRo) to help him enforce the law defensively. TFC, say hello to the playoffs. And likely re-capturing the Candaian Championship and the CONCACAF Championship League spot that goes with it).

    Clint Dempsey was only getting sporadic time at Spurs, he came back. Bradley did too, and don’t forget, here comes Jermaine Jones, too. If Chicago Fire is smart, they’ll be first in line, even if they have to trade Mike Magee’s bodyguard (the thumper Juan-Luis Anongono) to get the spot.

  11. mikeevergreen - Jan 9, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    Here’s your why: Playing time. Jurgen Klinsmann, like any national team coach whose team is in the WC, is going to select a squald that’s not only talented, but also is STARTING EVERY GAME for their club team. Clint Dempsey wasn’t starting for Spurs, he came back. Michael Bradley is only getting 15-20 minutes a game at Roma. Not good enough, no matter how high-quality the opposition is.

    Linking mid is one of those positions that are 90-minute positions, subbing off hurts the effort. And subbing off is what MB will be doing if he’s not playing 90 a game starting soon. Same for Jermaine Jones, who also is looking to come stateside. Look for this every cup year in the future, now that MLS has some respect.

  12. mikeevergreen - Jan 9, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    And US players aren’t the only ones considering this: The rumors are flying about Chicarito (Javier Hernandez – MEX) heading to Cardiff or Swansea for playing time. If I were Chicarito, I’d head to MLS as well. Chicago Fire sold out almost every game Cuathemoc Blanco played when he was there, Chicarito would do the same. And he would play up fromt with Magic Mike Magee (which may be necessary for the Fire, given the arms race brewing in the MLS Eastern Conference).

    • Sgc - Jan 9, 2014 at 6:12 PM

      I know his name has been bandied about before by MLS honchos as a possible ‘coup’ signing.

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