On Monday, one week after the rumors started flying on Twitter, Toronto FC and Major League Soccer officially unveiled their newest signing: Michael Bradley.
Bradley’s signing is a massive coup for MLS—though, there are certainly many angles to the signing, including Bradley’s own personal reasons for wanting to move to Toronto and the move’s implications for the United States men’s national team.
Bringing in Quality
Bradley, at 26 years of age, is in the prime of his career.
Nicknamed "Il Generale" in Italy, Bradley has become one of the world’s best midfielders. Last season, he started 29 games for AS Roma, one of the top clubs in the world. And, for the USMNT, ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, Bradley is widely considered the team’s most important player.
Having the power to bring Bradley back to Major League Soccer, only five months after luring back Clint Dempsey (just one year out from his best season in England), says a lot. While there are still plenty of fans and pundits throughout the world who view MLS as a league for players who are past their prime (or even worse, those who never had a prime), it is becoming increasingly clear that the league has its sights set on continuing to increase the level of play.
To bring in the best talent, the league has had to prove it has the resources to do so. The transfer fee for Bradley is believed to be about $10 million, slightly higher ($9.3 million) than what Sunderland offered Roma for the American midfielder last summer.
If MLS has the money to compete with the biggest leagues in the transfer world, the sky is the limit.
Even though the transfer fees for Bradley and Dempsey are comparative to what the two U.S. stars would have garnered from other European clubs, the big difference for them comes in their annual salaries.
That’s not to say MLS doesn’t have issues with salaries—it does. For example, while Dempsey’s salary is in the multi-millions, his former teammate Eddie Johnson—a top scorer for the league in 2012 and 2013—made a comparatively meager $150,000 in 2013.
However, in football, money makes transfers happen. If the league is willing to shell out the big bucks for the big stars, they will come.
Besides the opportunity to earn comparable money in MLS, an added bonus for American stars is being closer to home. Neither Bradley nor Dempsey are originally from the cities they signed with, but they are certainly much closer to friends and family than they were while living in Europe.
Living abroad certainly represents a unique opportunity to players and their families alike, but the chance to raise one’s children close to relatives and in a country with a familiar language and customs is a strong draw.
Former USMNT and Fulham star Brian McBride was a pioneer in this line of thinking when he moved back to the U.S. in 2008. He decided then that raising his family near home was more important than continuing his career in Europe.
If MLS can be competitive in terms of pay and offer the added incentive of a more family-friendly environment for North American players, it will continue to keep more and more American players home.
Playing Time and National Team Ambitions
It used to be commonly accepted among American players that to truly have a chance to improve one’s game and make a serious run at the U.S. men’s national team, a move abroad was necessary.
That is slowly starting to change.
Landon Donovan is the only key U.S. star to spend the majority of his career in MLS, but over the past year, MLS has begun keeping some of its best talent from moving to Europe.
In 2013, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, representing some of the best talent the U.S. system has to offer, all signed MLS extensions rather than moving abroad. All had opportunities to play in the top four European leagues and all chose to stay home.
Not only does staying home no longer hurt a player’s chances with the national team, it can even help them by offering consistent playing time. Over the past year, Americans like Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona and Maurice Edu have seen their status with the national team slip due to a lack of consistent playing time with their clubs.
Staying in MLS makes playing time for Americans much more likely, in part, because at home, they are a team’s biggest stars.
The league obviously still has room to grow.
Television ratings this season were disappointing and the quality of play is still inconsistent. While players like Bradley and Dempsey have proved they can hack it in the best leagues in Europe, that remains a doubt for many other players in the league.
Clint Dempsey, who struggled this year with Seattle, has walked right into Fulham’s starting lineup this January without even having a true pre-season to prepare.
Billy Schuler, on the other hand, who would have been a top MLS pick just two years ago, struggled to make an impact in Sweden’s second division and is now returning home.
And numerous other Americans have moved to Europe and struggled.
However, the same can be said of world football stars coming to MLS. Some stars, like Robbie Keane, become the class of the league, while others like Rafa Marquez flop. Still others, like Thierry Henry, produce impressive goals, but fail to make a difference for their team in the playoffs.
Now that the league has once again demonstrated its commitment to bringing home big-name American stars as well as keeping the stars that are already here, the next step will be to bring home its up-and-comers.
Although it won’t likely happen anytime soon, MLS moves for players like Mix Diskerud, Fabian Johnson, Aron Johannsson, Terrence Boyd and Josh Gatt would make a strong statement that the league is committed to becoming the premier venue for American players to showcase their talents.
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