Michael Bradley glances out of the window of an executive box at the Red Bull Arena. He’s here as part of Major League Soccer’s national media day, ahead of the season kick-off on 8 March, and the former New York Metrostar is looking round the state-of-the-art facility.
As he does, he reflects on the changes that have occurred since his first spell in the league, almost a decade ago. Now he has returned as one of the marquee signings of Tim Leiweke’s big-money revolution in Toronto:
“I was just saying to somebody last night, in 2004 and 2005, when I was playing for the Metrostars, we’d show up at the old Giants Stadium, we’d go into the locker room, change, we’d get back in 15-seat passenger vans, drive out to Rutherford, train on field turf that’s 100 degrees, get back in the vans, go back to Giants Stadium.
Then the people at Giants Stadium wouldn’t know who you were because Eminem would be in town and they’d be setting up the stage.
Bradley is just one of several USA national-team players whose return to MLS for 2014 represents one of the most significant transformations of the public face of the league since the arrival of David Beckham in 2007. Looking at the players representing MLS teams at the media event, it was striking that a significant number of them were not in the league last season. Several have returned from Europe.
The likes of Bradley, Maurice Edu (Philadelphia) and Clarence Goodson (San Jose) are typical of the recent trend – but there are also Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy) and Graham Zusi (Kansas City) who have committed to MLS rather than make what, for Gonzalez and Zusi in particular, would once have been the obvious migration.
Asked if the lure of Europe was diminishing for young American players, Gonzalez said: “I re-signed with the Galaxy because I really, truly believed this was an exciting time in this league’s history and it was something I wanted to be a part of. We’re continually expanding with new clubs, players from around the world are coming at a younger age.
“In my first five years in the league, I’ve felt that my game has continually progressed and I see no sign of slowing down … I think the attraction of going abroad is still there, but I don’t think it’s as strong anymore. Sure if you get an opportunity to play for a big club, I’d want to go to Europe, but I wouldn’t go just to go to a mid-league team. I’d rather stay here and get good games.”
Another star from the Galaxy, Donovan, spoke of the increasing quality of games in MLS, or at least the rise in expectation around more of those games.: “There’s a swell of momentum around our league and it’s truly special and fun to be a part of,” he said.
“It’s almost surreal to see Michael [Bradley] walk out of this room and say ‘hi’ to him, a guy who’s spent his career in Europe — it’s really exciting for me. I’m excited for the teams. Every time you go somewhere there’s a real feel around each game.
Now if we go to Toronto it’ll be an experience, and when they come to us there’s going to be great hype around it. [It used to be] there were no story lines, there’s nothing to write about, there’s nothing to talk about. Now it seems like every game there’s some storyline and that makes it a lot more exciting.
Donovan was not the only player name-dropping Toronto, whose off-season acquisitions of Bradley and Jermain Defoe drew attention to a team who had long since fallen out of many MLS conversations. Zusi talked of “every player in the league” looking forward to seeing Toronto play, while Bradley talked about a noticeable difference in the team’s young players: “You can see the happiness in their eyes to be part of something. [Before] people had stopped knowing or caring what was going on at the club.”
Bradley continued his “before and after” take on the changes in the league by waxing lyrical about the Toronto training facilities – not only in relation to his hardscrabble Metrostars start, but in comparison to any of his experiences playing with Aston Villa, Chievo and Roma.
Another former Metrostar, the 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee, agreed that this is a key moment for the league by claiming to have no regrets about the 12 years of his career so far, but admitting to envying young players just coming into the league. The Chicago star joked about seeing New England’s tyro Diego Fagúndez bounding into an elevator earlier and looking impossibly bright-eyed and full of energy: “I feel so old, man.”
A tipping point?
The broad agreement that the league is steadily improving was perhaps hardly surprising – a league media day is made for such platitudes. That said, the number of returning top US players does represent a potentially meaningful tipping point, particularly in a World Cup year where we could see a USA team containing half a dozen MLS starters. To put that in perspective, as journalist Leander Schaerlaeckens pointed out, the 2010 squad featured four MLS players in total.
Brazil was on many players’ and journalists’ minds throughout the day. The likes of Gonzalez and Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman were focused on the January national team camp which included a trip to Brazil, both enthusing about how the experience made visualising the World Cup much more concrete.
The prevailing impression of the day was that the league’s ambition to retain top domestic talent has also become more concrete. Admittedly, this is not in entirely celebratory circumstances. Bradley noted that for many European coaches:
There’s still a feeling now that if you can have an American or an Argentinian, you’re taking the Argentinian. That’s something people can look at as you’re feeling sorry for yourself – for me, that’s reality.
Maurice Edu agreed, somewhat: “From when I went over to Europe to where it is now, the perception of Americans has slightly changed. Not dramatically. But slightly changed. In saying that, we are still slightly viewed as Americans, so ‘This isn’t your first sport. You guys play basketball, you guys play baseball. But soccer. Really?’”
Edu, at Philadelphia, is one of several players in the league who have gone from fighting for places in Europe to being potential leaders back home. Others are starting this season with new teams, such as Magee getting a first pre-season with Chicago and Eddie Johnson lining up in DC. Johnson may have felt his ears burning as a former team-mate, Brad Evans, talked about Seattle’s offseason overhaul and noted that they had replaced personnel “who might have been better players with better people”.
One person staying exactly where he is is Thierry Henry. The Frenchman is entering his last year for the Red Bulls – “on paper”, as he put it – and as well as being a career veteran, now finds himself something of a veteran of MLS, able to reflect on changes from a privileged vantage point. The Red Bulls striker was very positive about the wave of returning players.
“You know what? You have to give a lot of credit to some of the teams in this league who’ve tried to bring those guys back. I’ve said all the time, sometimes you guys [the media] focus on the big European names that are coming, and this and that, and rightly so sometimes for the league – that’s the way it is.
“But I’ve said so many times we’re all in it together to make this league progress, whether it’s a guy who played 100 games for his country, or a guy who came through the youth system and is going to play in university then MLS. We’re all in it together.
But for me it speaks volumes when I see Bradley, Edu, Clint Dempsey coming back … when you know they could have found a team in Europe.
“I think bringing your best talent back home is good – it’s a start. PSG is trying to do that in France, by bringing [Yohan] Cabaye back. I heard they want [Paul] Pogba back. That’s what you do – you start with your guys.
“For me … it’s not to be out of the picture, but for me when you guys break out a story on Donovan, me or Beckham … it is important, don’t get me wrong … I’m just saying for me that’s more important than anything else. That those guys want to come back.”