Looking Back

Michael Bradley as a Kid: 'He Was Always Consumed'

See the trophy in the above photo? Look just above it. Do you recognize that youngster standing next to C.J. Brown? This is a story about the young Michael Bradley, and the determination he displayed even as a child.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
June 24, 2014
3:15 PM
IT'S SAFE TO SAY that by his own lofty standards this World Cup hasn’t been Michael Bradley’s best showing in a United States uniform.

The Toronto FC midfielder came to Brazil having earned, through a series of consistently high showings, a reputation as both the United States' best and most important player. He has become so dependable that U.S. national team observers had begun to take Bradley for granted, and many were shocked when he wasn’t among the team’s best performers against Ghana and Portugal.

“He does so many things for the team. Whoever’s saying that he’s not playing that well, it certainly isn’t that way from us,” defender Matt Besler told reporters after the Portugal game. “There is so much that goes through him and he has a lot on his shoulders, but I know that he wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Bradley's teammates still have confidence in him, as do those who have known Bradley since he was a child. We tracked down some of his youth coaches, as well as some MLS and U.S. national team veterans, to talk about the U.S. midfielder's makeup and resolve—what they see today and what they remember from 10, 15, 20 years ago.

“No one is harder on Michael Bradley’s performances than Michael Bradley,” said former U.S. national team assistant Jesse Marsch. “He’s his own harshest critic.”

Marsch would know. Marsch has known Bradley since he matriculated to Princeton to play for his father, Bob, in 1992. Back then 5-year-old Michael would patiently sit and watch the team’s practices, soaking up the game and it’s nuances while waiting for a chance to practice with the players once the game ended.

Marsch and other prominent figures in the American soccer community fully expect Bradley to bounce back as the World Cup progresses, pointing to his mental acumen and drive to maximize his talent, as well as his obsessive desire to always get better.

“He’s such a student of the game,” said Marsch, who went on to play for the elder Bradley at D.C. United (where he was an assistant coach) and then with the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA. “He would attentively watch the entire training, waiting to play, and then want to play for an hour. Not five minutes. He would get mad if it wasn’t an hour."

"It was that way at Princeton, D.C. United, Chicago," Marsch continued. "I think that one of the things that made him so good was not just playing in games and sessions but watching the games. He wasn’t there as a kid or a bystander. He was there watching what guys were doing, wondering how he could do what those guys were doing.”

Bradley clearly had advantages that other kids didn’t have, as his father’s job gave him exposure to repeated high-end training and a professional environment since he first started playing. And while being able to play 2-v-1 with Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry or getting shooting tips from Hristo Stoitchkov is bound to help your development, those that watched a young Bradley suggest there’s more to his development than that.

“He was so self-driven. I think Bob Bradley provided him the environment he needed but I think it came more from him wanting it,” said Chicago Fire assistant coach C.J. Brown, a former U.S. national team player. “Yeah, being around us helped. But he has such a love for the game, a passion for it."

"He maximized his talent," Brown added. "He was a gym rat and would have gotten better. I think it’s more of his drive. I don’t think Bob pushed him; I think he said, 'Here it is if you want it.' It was all Michael doing it on his own."

Josh Wolff played for the U.S. in two World Cups but when he began his pro career in 1998 he was the Fire’s youngest player, meaning when the younger Bradley trained with the team he was closest in age and they were often paired together.

“He was always consumed by the game,” Wolff, now an assistant with the Columbus Crew, said of young Michael. "He has a willingness to get better and a drive and determination that makes him better. That’s why he’s able to cover the amount of ground he does in a game.”

As much as he benefitted from the professional exposure, the Bradley camp credits his youth club coaches, going back to Union, N.J. then McLean Youth Soccer in Northern Virginia and eventually the Chicago Sockers.

“He put in more work with the Sockers than he ever put in with us,” Brown said.

Michael Brady—not Bradley—is the associate men’s coach at Duke University, and earned a handful of caps for the U.S. in the 80s. He was Bradley’s coach with McLean, where despite being small for his age, Bradley played two years above his age group. Brady is reluctant to assume any credit for Bradley’s development.

"He was obviously younger than my boys and was not big for his age back, then so the size difference was very obvious," Brady said. "What allowed him to compete with the bigger boys was twofold. One was his technical ability, which was very high. And the other, and probably more important, was his understanding of the subtleties and nuances of the game.

"He would tug on shirts," Brady continued, "bump guys just before they received the ball, which took them completely by surprise because they just had not experienced this before, and frustrate the guys playing against him in training by being one step ahead of them intellectually—even though he was smaller and not as athletic as many of them."

"It took a while for the guys to not take it personally but before too long the boys who had potential were following his lead. He was not interested in anything other than competing and improving his game which was remarkable considering how old he was,” Brady said from Brazil, where he is traveling with the Duke team during the World Cup.

“We trained twice a week and before he joined my team I was always the first one to arrive at the field. After he joined I was always the third person—after him and his dad! Each time they would be standing 10-15 yards away from each other and passing and controlling the ball back and forth, back and forth. The really interesting thing was that it was clear that this was being driven by Michael, not Bob. Bob was clearly willing and happy to be there playing with his son but there was never a sense that Bob was pushing or suggesting this extra training. It was a very refreshing change from the reverse situation, where the parent was usually the one driving the child.”

Under David Richardson’s guidance, the Chicago Sockers have become one of the perennial top youth clubs in the country and have produced myriad pro and national team players like Jonathan Spector, Will Johnson, and Mike Magee. When Bob Bradley became the Fire’s first head coach, Michael became a fixture with the Sockers.

“It’s Chicago so we have long winters and we have an indoor training facility in Palatine (Ill.), and that’s where the Bradleys lived so it was close for Michael and after school Lindsay (Bradley, Michael’s mother) would drop him off every day," Richardson recalled. "His [age group] wouldn’t practice until about 6 p.m. but he’d get there at about 3:30 and would just train with whoever he could find to practice with. Girl’s team, older boys, whatever. He’d get in there and play."

He just loved the sport and wanted to get better.”

Bradley was only about five-foot-eight as a 16-year old, which Richardson says made a difference in his development.

“A lot of players are able to be good at a young age because they’re the biggest or the fastest or the strongest. But with Michael he was actually smaller. I know Bob bristles at this term but I called him the runt of the litter. But because he wasn’t dominant athletically he had to become smarter, read the game better, be better technically, tactically. He learned to compensate and then when his growth spurt came he became this force that he is now.”

Bradley is now about six-foot-two, tall for a midfielder and bigger than many center backs and target forwards, who are usually a team’s biggest field players.

“That growth spurt really put him over the top,” said U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Eddie Pope, who watched Bradley as a kid at D.C. United practices. “You could tell he had the drive because of the work he’d put in, and he had ability. But the question was whether he’d make it physically.”

As much as his physical and technical prowess, it will be his mental toughness and drive that Bradley will need to rely on to put the Portugal miscues behind him and re-emerge as the U.S. teams dominant player.

“He’s been preparing for these moments all his life,” said Marsch. “He knows how to put mistakes behind him. He’ll be fine.”

What kind of performance do you expect from Michael Bradley against Germany? Share your take in the Comments section below.

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. Follow him on Twitter.

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