Michael Bradley, 23-year-old U.S. Men's National team member, completed a loan deal until the end of the season sending him to Aston Villa from his German club Borussia Moenchengladbach.
A move to the English Premier League, especially to a club that has seen recent success, is often viewed as a promotion.
But for Michael Bradley, is this loan deal a sign of better things to come or the beginning of the end in top-flight, European football?
Recently benched at Moenchengladbach, Bradley isn't exactly in top form right now. Excuses abound, Moenchengladbach's manager, Michael Frontzeck, released a public comment stating he is trying everything, including the right combination of players, to improve his club's position in the standings and that is the only reason for Bradley's benching.
If Michael Bradley was considered a member of the "right combination," wouldn't he be included in his manager's experiments?
Instead, rumors surfaced that the relationship between Bradley and Frontzeck had deteriorated to the point where a trade became the only option.
Still, if Bradley is good enough to play for Aston Villa, how can Frontzeck risk his departure when his team might end up being relegated? This situation reeks of what's left unsaid, but Michael Bradley may have lucked out in the end (a unique and reoccurring characteristic of his young career).
Being a central figure for his German side since their promotion in 2008, his manager and coaching staff had ample opportunity to assess his value and contributions to the cause, and with mid- to low-table results since promotion, Bradley wasn't exactly the answer to perpetual top-flight football and certainly not this season considering the team's relegation battle and a paltry three goals form for the midfielder.
Not that the team's struggles can all be placed on Bradley's shoulders, but with a relatively disappointing display at the World Cup--which was supposed to be his breakout moment--and a lack of impact this season, Bradley's value hasn't exactly sky-rocketed.
Plus, with the likes of Jermaine Jones, Stuart Holden, Mikkel Diskerud and Maurice Edu being viable options for the U.S. National team's central midfield, the questions have started to mount as to whether or not Michael Bradley should start for his country.
So even though Bradley, Gerard Houllier (manager of Aston Villa) and many U.S. pundits claim the loan is a sign of Bradley's talents, hard work and success, the deal was anything but a triumph for the youngster.
Moenchengladbach needs to move in another direction since the current team isn't going to keep the club competitive, and Bradley, being a central figure in that failed plan, isn't needed, so getting someone else to pay his salary for the remainder of the season is great.
Since it's a six month loan deal with an option to purchase at a later date, Aston Villa gets to try out the goods before buying.
The deal makes sense for both clubs involved which is the only reason why the transfer was made, not because Bradley has established himself as a superstar waiting in the wings.
But in the end, this may be a turning point for Bradley, one that makes him an indispensable player for the U.S.
Bradley possesses a number of inherent attributes many midfielders would die to have: tremendous endurance, the ability to scratch and scrape for a goal and a feel for timely runs. But he also exhibits a number of flaws in his approach.
He struggles with his positioning and discipline, lacks a strong understanding of the mental aspects of the game (a criticism that can be applied to many U.S. players) and tries to make up for his drawbacks through his athleticism. Unfortunately, at the top level, the initial mistake is all the best players need to take advantage of the situation.
So rather than improving or mitigating his flaws as much as possible, he plays a more reactive, rather than proactive game.
Also, Bradley's touch, dribbling and passing can become erratic, and he's not the type of player comfortable creating opportunities for himself or teammates. Furthermore, he demands the ball, wishing to dictate flow, possession and the attack, and when his skills have failed him, he tends to disrupt his team rather than improve it.
The right coach could sort this out for him.
Bradley needs to be taught how to play a role. Being young, having a more or less free role for his father's national team and if the rumors have any validity, not getting along with his last manager, have all combined to limit his growth.
Perhaps Aston Villa will be the place where all of this can change.
The 23-year-old needs assignments. He needs to recognize that defensive wanderlust creates a ripple effect throughout a defensive unit. He has to understand that off-the-ball positioning separates the average players from the great ones, and he will need to trust his teammates to fulfill their duties.
In theory, the players surrounding Bradley should force the American to figure out how he can help the team.
The majority of the offensive duties will be left to the more creative and high profile players (like Downing and Bent), and he'll have other talented midfielders to ease the burden in the center of the pitch.
But if he doesn't figure out his place, there may not be many opportunities at Villa Park either.
Bradley wasn't the only midfielder recruited during the January transfer window. Jean Makoun has come over from Lyon, and it's not like Houllier is going to bench the rest of his midfield in order to get two new recruits onto the field. There will be competition for playing time.
And that's why it will be that much more important for Bradley to realize he can't do everything.
Houllier claims he signed Bradley because he's a "very hardworking midfielder that can score goals." If Houllier realizes misdirected hard work is just as ineffective as laziness, and Bradley's goal tally doesn't rise, then Bradley will find this loan opportunity a long and difficult spell.
However, even if Bradley struggles to earn playing time, perhaps the coaching, the atmosphere and the other players could help him streamline his game. No matter how the transfer has come about, this is a tremendous opportunity for the youngster.
In response to the transfer, Bradley mentioned his desire to become a "complete" midfielder in Roy Keane's mold, claiming that's what he's been trying to do all along. If this is true, then it's time for Bradley to assess just how to get there (something Keane did as his game changed due to age and team changes).
There isn't a surplus of box-to-box or defensive midfielders in the EPL, so there is an opportunity here. Considering the exposure connected with the EPL, even if Villa isn't sold on Bradley, a strong performance over the coming months could lead to a great opportunity next year.
However, it's becoming a bit of a broken record with young American players filled with untapped potential heading overseas and burning out before they even hit their prime.
There's a good chance Bradley finds himself at a similar crossroad. Is his loan move a sign of meteoric progress or a last chance transfer on the big stage?
Hopefully, his luck will hold out.
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