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Comparing Bradley to Källström may be flattering, but it doesn’t reflect reality for U.S. stars

Jun 5, 2014, 5:40 PM EDT

Egypt team coach Bob Bradley stands during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Ghana at the Baba Yara Sports Stadium in Kumasi Reuters

Should Michael Bradley have gotten a look from Arsenal in January? Implicitly, that’s what his father, Stabæk head coach and former U.S. national team boss Bob Bradley, is saying when he compares his son to Arsenal loanee Kim Källström.

The argument, recently articulated to Slate, seems to be this: The Swedish international, who arrived at Arsenal in January from Spartak Moscow, is not as good as the now-Toronto FC midfielder. Therefore Bradley, who would have entertained a move to London in January, should have garnered more of Arsène Wenger’s attention.

From Slate’s post:

… the coach says that Michael had hoped to join a prominent European club and felt like Arsenal would have been a good fit. Michael, though, didn’t get the consideration from manager Arsène Wenger that he felt he merited.

“I think American players and coaches have to fight really hard for respect,” Bob Bradley said. “In January, Arsenal [was] looking to add a midfielder, and they chose Kim Källström. Kim Källström’s not a bad player, but I think Michael feels pretty strongly that he’s better, and so Arsène Wenger must not feel that way, and [Arsenal chief executive] Ivan Gazidis must not feel that way. So sometimes, no matter what you do, you don’t get the respect you think you deserve.”

Perhaps Bradley truly has been slighted, but this is a poor way of illustrating it. Essentially, Bob Bradley is saying that if a midfielder is better than Arsenal’s worst player at the position, he should feel slighted if he’s not on the team’s payroll. So if you accept the Källström is not the player that Michael Bradley is (a safe but perhaps disputable claim), then Arsène Wenger was wrong to let the U.S. international slip through those professorial digits.

source: Getty Images

31-year-old Swedish international Kim Källström failed to make an impact during his loan at Arsenal, making four appearances in six months. (Source: Getty Images)

This is a fallacy that’s used time and time again, one that assumes a favorable comparison to the worst part of a population means you belong in the pool. In sports, we most often here this with Major League Baseball Hall of Fame candidates, but the logic behind it is just as flawed in other circumstances. Somebody from outside a group being better may not be an argument for inclusion. It may be an argument for excluding a flaw from the group.

The Källström case is a good example. When he was acquired by Arsenal, few thought he would help the Gunners’ pursuit of a title. Those doubters were proved correct.  Between injury problems, ineffectiveness, and the mere depth of midfielders Arsenal already had in its squad, Källström was a non-factor. While Bradley may be a better player, he also may have just been a slightly more talented non-factor. The argument here isn’t Wenger should have acquired Bradley. It’s Wenger shouldn’t have acquired Källström.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of Källström only being on loan, not permanently transferred to Arsenal. Perhaps Bradley could have also been loaned, but given how the price Roma was able to get from Major League Soccer for its midfielder (around $10 million), it’s easy to believe the club when its says moving Bradley was not necessarily part of its plan. In the face of an unexpected, eight-figure offer for him? Sure, change the plan. But a loan deal to Arsenal? Might as well just keep Bradley as depth for its title pursuit.

Then there’s the idea that being better than Källström makes Bradley the most qualified candidate to fill that spot. That’s clearly not the case, a status that becomes only slightly less clear if you narrow the field to just the available candidates. For a club like Arsenal, though, it is instructive to ask: Among all the available midfielders in the world, was Michael Bradley the best option? That seems unlikely. Just because Arsenal made a poor choice in Källström doesn’t mean in a perfect decision would have landed Bradley in London.

The premise to this whole line of thought seems to be Americans have it harder than other players. That may be true, but let’s remember where Bradley was when this Arsenal rejection occurred? He was at AS Roma, one of the bigger teams in one of the world’s most storied leagues. True, there is now a heavy American influence at Roma, but doesn’t that represent a paved road instead of a bumpy one?

Clint Dempsey was recently at Tottenham. Tim Howard played for Manchester United. Landon Donovan has played for Bayern Munich, and Oguchi Onyewu was once under contract with AC Milan. How do those opportunities jive with the idea of an anti-American bias? Can we really say that any of those players deserved better opportunities than they’ve seen? No.

Some suspicion in this area is justified, but right now, suspicion is all we have. There is no evidence that there’s an established mechanism depriving Americans of opportunities. A far more reasonable explanation: At this point, there isn’t a player whose talents justify that kind of attention.

  1. jslip1 - Jun 5, 2014 at 5:46 PM

    Honestly, I think the reality is somewhere in the middle. Just as some would say “Oh, it’s an anti-American bias!” there is another end of the gamut that says, “Well, if they didn’t suck they’d get more opportunities”.

  2. tridecagon - Jun 5, 2014 at 6:08 PM

    I think there may be something to the fact that because the American development system and coaching pool differs from European models, American players tend to have different styles and skill sets than players developed in Europe. So there may be particular attributes that some European coaches tend to expect in their players where American players are lacking (or perhaps just different). It’s not that this makes American players less effective on the field; it just makes it more difficult for certain coaches to appreciate the talent package.

    • mknow406a - Jun 5, 2014 at 10:06 PM

      It’s the pay to play model. The focus here is to win. The more the trophies the team racks up, the more “exclusive” they become and the higher rates they can charge for camps, try-outs and participation. In this model, the players are seen as a means to an end… and one you make a team, and pay your fees, there is no chance of losing your place if you start going 70%. Hence, the over emphasis on athletic prowess over everything else. “Speed kills” is a motto you hear often. Coaches pick the most athletic players because it gives them the best chance to win now with very little development needed. This is the fast way to increase their overall salary via winning and then leveraging that into bigger opportunities. The American coach gets NO compensation once a player leaves, other than being able to market that alumni as justification for higher pay to play fees. Hence, their is no long term development approach. Compare that to the European model where players are seen as assets and even if the player doesn’t succeed to the highest level, the compensation the team receives (via transfer fees) is based upon a combination of potential and overall development. European teams have an economic incentive to fully develop players that the US system currently lacks… and NCAA regulations (via amateur status) play a big part in maintaining the status quo.

  3. wwsiralexd - Jun 5, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    When there is a “systematic” bias, you can’t just throw out a few examples and say the bias isn’t there.

  4. bdh75gunner - Jun 5, 2014 at 7:09 PM

    If I were MB I would be pissed at BB. MB is a man, he doesn’t need his daddy whining over what might not even have been.

    Side note: the loan for Källström was rather…dull.

  5. andynormile - Jun 5, 2014 at 7:13 PM

    Being ‘American’ does not appear to have stopped Gedion Zelalem from joining Arsenal

  6. pf1977 - Jun 6, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    i think the move for kallstrom was an emergency move to bring in some experienced depth due to injuries that hit arsenal in the winter and not a move to bring in a star midfielder.

    kallstrom was an excellent midfielder in his prime but injuries have really hampered him and diminished a lot of his ability (especially his speed) in recent seasons.

    bradley surely had other options than an MLS club (especially toronto). or did he want to go to a team where he was sure to start all the time instead of having to fight his way into the team like he did in holland and germany?

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