January 9, 2014
By Michael Lewis
Bradley joining Toronto is good for MLS, but is it good for Bradley and USMNT?
So, Michael Bradley is heading to Toronto FC, huh?
Well, that's certainly good for Toronto FC and certainly good for Major League Soccer.
But how good is that for Michael Bradley as a soccer player and the U.S. National Team, particularly heading into a World Cup year?
That, I am not certain and am quite doubtful.
While Toronto has been one of the jokes of MLS during its eight-year existence, there are signs the Canadian club is making significant improvements to be more competitive and to finally secure its first MLS playoff berth (yes, I am not kidding, Toronto has been November outsiders since joining the league in 2007, making one major mistake after another).
But at this juncture, my concern is more about Bradley and whether he will receive the proper competition and challenges to continue to hone his skills as a soccer player.
It's not that MLS is a bad league, but it is still nowhere in the class of Italy's Serie A, where Bradley has toiled for Roma, and England's Premier League, where Clint Dempsey had starred for Fulham and Tottenham before returning home to play for the Seattle Sounders.
Just take a look at Clint Dempsey. Since joining Seattle in August, he scored but one in 651 minutes spanning nine matches and six starts. Yes, he battled some injuries, but ultimately, I am looking at his production. With all due deference to Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, whom I hold in the highest regard among the best American coaches, do the Sounders have the same type of players as Tottenham to give push Dempsey to another level?
I don't think so.
Likewise for the rest of the league.
Bradley's return to North America is a big deal for MLS and it should be after he let the MetroStars prior to the 2006 season.
But with AS Roma, Bradley has battled every day for a starting position. While I know he pushes himself in every practice, somehow I don't think the challenges with Toronto will be anywhere the same as it has been with the Italian team.
That's why I had hoped that Landon Donovan would have decided to play a few seasons with Everton after his successful loan stint several years ago. His short time with the EPL club raised his game. While he was a big fish in a small pond in MLS, it was the exact opposite in England. Still, I believe he came back to the LA Galaxy better for it because he was pushed.
Beyond individual players, to truly improve the league, you have to do it from the bottom up.
As we learned from the foibles of the original incarnation of the North American Soccer League in the seventies and eighties, you cannot build a pyramid from the top. You build it from the bottom.
The NASL boasted some of the greatest names in the sports, including and not limited to Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. But the soccer structure as we know it today -- youth players in the millions, not the thousands, and fans -- highly educated supporters -- was not in place at that time.
Not surprisingly, the league collapsed and it took a dozen years before another top-flight first division league emerged in North America -- MLS in 1996.
From a player standpoint, MLS has brought in a number of impressive foreigners over the past several years. Thierry Henry, Marco Di Vaio quickly come to mind.
But as they say, you are only as strong as your weakest link, and that is the player pool. One telling sign is when MLS rookies have to room together because their salaries are so meager because they cannot afford to live on their own. Is that being a professional soccer player? Well, that might be meat for another column.
Until it improves its overall player pool, MLS will not make great strides that will keep the challenges for the Michael Bradleys and Clint Dempseys of the world at the highest level.