Originally published in Howler Magazine, whose latest issue is a celebration of U.S. soccer's centennial. Follow the magazine on Twitter, @whatahowler.
By the time I arrived at the Stadio Olimpico for the Rome Derby this April, ultras had already knifed four people, cracked open someone's head with a bottle, and terrorized an ambulance with rocks and explosives. Uprooted flagstones lay strewn about the foot of a lonely obelisk dedicated to Mussolini. Copies of Corriere dello Sport scurried in the wind like tumbleweeds in a spaghetti Western. Clearly, this was a showdown that mattered.
Inside the stadium, over 50,000 AS Roma and Lazio fans were in full throat. Their teams were battling for Serie A's final Europa League spot, not to mention local ascendancy. The Derby della Capitale promised to be one of those high-stakes contests that make Europe a crucible for the world's best talent. It was the kind of match in which Americans appear too infrequently. And that was why I'd come: to watch the American.
Even from the last row of the upper deck, Michael Bradley was easy to spot. At six feet two, Bradley has long legs, short arms, and a truculent, upright running style not unlike that of a large rooster. His commanding demeanor has earned him various martial nicknames here such as Il Generale and Il Marine. The Italian press dubbed him Captain America during a standout season for Chievo Verona last season. Other monikers, such as Lex Luthor, Alien, and Megamind, have to do with his bulbous bald head, easily his most recognizable feature.
When Roma acquired Bradley for €3.75 million in 2012, some grousing went up that the team's American owners only wanted to use the now-26-year-old center midfielder to secure a foothold in the U.S. market, which he undoubtedly provides. But Bradley soon earned a starting spot under Czech-Italian coach Zdenek Zeman, who let him bomb forward as a box-to-box intermedio the way he often does for the U.S. men's national team. Bradley played well—so well at times that he made the pricier Daniele De Rossi look expendable. In February, however, Zeman lost his job, and Bradley's role grew less certain under interim coach Aurelio Andreazzoli (since replaced with Frenchman Rudi Garcia). Fewer starts. Less bombing forward.
Against Lazio, Bradley was canted to the right with De Rossi at center in a 4-3-1-2 formation, ostensibly to stifle Lazio's dynamic wing attacks. This idea failed as soon as the whistle blew and the biancocelesti began to shred the Roma midfield. In the 16th minute, Lazio's Brazilian midfielder Anderson Hernanes caught De Rossi loafing and hammered home a spectacular long-range strike. "Asshole!" a Roma fan next to me screamed. "Fuck your dead ancestors!" Ah, the derby.
In the second half, Roma fared better and converted a penalty to make it 1–1. But the tactical shift came moments earlier when Andreazzoli substituted De Rossi and switched to a 4-3-3. Bradley moved to the center in a defensive destroyer mediano role. For the rest of the game, which would end in a draw, he patrolled the area in front of his defenders, repelling Lazio's midfield probes and zipping passes forward to Francesco Totti. The Italians have a term for this gig: tergicristallo. It means "windshield wiper."
Italy had polished Bradley's game. He was savvier in space and less prone to the reckless challenges and positional drift of his earlier career. He'd assimilated so readily it was easy to forget he was a pioneer—the first American to appear in this historic derby, the first to catch on at a major club here. (Apologies to Alexi Lalas and Padova.) "The first from the New World who comes to play in the old one," wrote Emanuela Audisio in La Repubblica. "To break through, to confront, not to mess around."
Ten days later, Bradley and Roma would break through to the Coppa Italia final, with a Europa League spot going to the winner. Their opponent in the final, as if chosen by Il Duce himself, would be Lazio. It would be a derby of derbies. Before the match, Roma fans would call up Lazio players and threaten them; the ultras would make a peace pact; the teams would have an audience with Pope Francis; K-pop singer Psy would be booed while performing "Gangnam Style" at the Olimpico; and a cache of axes, homemade spears, and other weapons would be found outside the stadium.
Afterward, Roma fans angry about a 1–0 Lazio victory would go wild in the streets. Some would even ride out to Roma's training center to throw eggs and rocks at the team bus as it re turned home.
An American would be in the middle of it all.
There are many words in Rome for Michael Bradley. The first I heard came from a rough-featured man working the desk in an AS Roma store near the Colosseum. Outside, scruffy Curva Sud types were lining up to collect match tickets. Inside, the jerseys of Totti and other legendary Roma players festooned the walls.
"What do you think of Michael Bradley?" I asked the man. "Che pensa di Michael Bradley?"
"He's good," the man said. "Better than a lot of guys on the team." Then he paused. It was often this way with Italians: a moment of deliberation followed by a burst of conjecture presented as unassailable fact. "Puntiglioso," he stated with authority. "Bradley è puntiglioso."
Puntiglioso: punctilious, precise, persnickety.
It's a fair description of a midfielder with pinpoint passing skills. In Serie A this season, Bradley completed 1,205 of 1,348 passes for an 89.4 percent accuracy rating, according to WhoScored.com. Among starting midfielders, only Javier Zanetti and Valon Behrami had higher connect rates, and only slightly. Not bad company. But Bradley completed more long balls, through balls, and passes that led to scoring opportunities. Yes, puntiglioso felt apt.
"No," Roma team manager Salvatore Scaglia told me a few days later. "No puntigloso. No, no, no." He looked at me with a certainty that left no room for debate. "Molto disponibile."
Disponibile: available, willing, helpful. Molto: very.
This, too, seemed a fitting label for a young player with 79 international caps who cracked the Roma lineup by doing whatever was asked of him. A first-to-arrive-last-to-leave sort, Bradley. Molto disponibile. And molto "serious," molto "professional" and molto "tough, like a warrior," according to people with the team. "He sucks," joked Andreazzoli before adding "continuità e affidabilità" to the list of Bradley's attributes.
Continuità e affidabilità: continuity, steadiness, reliability, trustworthiness, dependability.
Descriptions of Bradley tend toward the abstract, as if it is hard to clearly apprehend his abilities. In the American press, he's routinely defined in a welter of character notes: "stoic," "fiery," "cerebral," "emotional," "heady," "gritty." A versatile midfielder should resist tidy categorization; Bradley can defend, pass, and, occasionally, score. But his success also owes to more recondite talents than, say, Landon Donovan's ability to serrate a back line with a single run. Bradley is consistent and inexhaustible. He plays simply and makes sound decisions. He specializes in dirty work. His contributions, while prized by teammates, rarely induce rapture among American observers. In Italy, however, fans fixate on tactics and extol the selfless play in which Bradley takes pride. What he's achieved in unassuming fashion is nothing short of remarkable, and not just overseas. At a relatively tender age, he's become the heart of the U.S. national team, its irreplaceable engine and likely future captain. This transformation was apparent during the 2010 World Cup, after which David Beckham singled him out as one of the tournament's top players. Bradley isn't the best American soccer player alive. He's simply the most important. And he's earned that distinction by dint of sheer will, which is why the only label for him that doesn't in some way diminish his achievements is the one he gives me after practice one day at the Roma training center: "determined."
A bright orange soccer jersey. That's what four-year-old Michael Bradley wanted for Christmas in 1991 (along with jerseys in several other colors and assorted soccer paraphernalia). No easy assignment for Santa in the pre-Internet era. Michael's father, Bob, the soccer coach at Princeton at the time, procured team patches. Uncle Jeff bought tiny colored shirts at the mall. Grandma did the sewing. The homemade jerseys went on display in a mini goal.
"On Christmas morning, Michael came down, and before he opened any of his other presents, before anybody had anything to eat, he was trying on the shirts and we basically had a pickup game in the front lawn," Jeff remembers.
The creation story of Michael Bradley the player has, by now, been well documented: boy prowls Princeton sidelines, grows into tireless soccer rat, and finds inspiration in the hard men his dad coaches on the Chicago Fire. (In those early years, Chicago employed two excellent models for the player Michael would become: Peter Nowak and Chris Armas.) Boy overcomes all limitations thanks to a Protestant capacity for labor. This is how future pros are forged, at least the ones we feel good about admiring. But they're also born. They're whelped during pickup games on Christmas morning with a special family. Chase your dreams, they told Michael. Don't be afraid to take risks.
The Bradleys are an athletic bunch. Bob led the Princeton soccer team in scoring as a senior. Michael's mother, Lindsay, was a lacrosse star at the University of Virginia and still holds school records in points and assists. Uncle Scott played major league baseball for nine seasons. Sports are in their blood. "I have been around soccer since the day I was born," Bradley says.
But destiny is also what you decide, and Bradley chose his fate early. At 13, he moved to Bradenton, Florida, to join the U.S. residency program. At 16, he signed with the MetroStars, where his father had taken over as coach after leaving Chicago. At 18, Michael left for Holland to play for Heerenveen. Growing up alone overseas wasn't easy. Bradley would return to his spartan apartment where there was no one to talk to. He says it strengthened him. In the 2007–08 season, his second with the club, he scored 21 goals in all competitions for Heerenveen—more than any American had in Europe at the time—then transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga, where he helped the side avoid relegation. A brief and unfruitful loan to Aston Villa followed, the only real blemish on a sterling résumé. Then came the sunshine of Serie A.
If there's a lesson in Bradley's career, it's that young Americans should go to Europe as soon as possible. In 2006, Heerenveen was the only European team that wanted Bradley. He didn't hesitate. Still, many of his peers who've crossed the Atlantic early haven't found the same success. It's hard to know what makes Bradley different. But his approach to his work, in a way his philosophy on life, is revealing:
"For me, like everybody, the dream is to play at one of the biggest clubs in the world, to play in the Champions League, to play in the biggest games on the biggest stages. That's the dream from the time you are five years old. But when you show up for training every day, none of that stuff counts.
"People look at me funny sometimes when I say this, but from my first week at Heerenveen to now, all I ever have tried to do is think about things in a week-to-week kind of way, where I give myself the best chance to play on the weekend and say to myself, Okay, I need to have a good day in training today, and it needs to be followed up with another good day tomorrow. You have to take each day one at a time. You have to take each moment as it comes. That's how you improve, that's what it's all about. You could call it pragmatic. I would call it the only way to do it."
Let's be clear about one thing, though: Bradley had a better chance of making it as a soccer player than almost any American kid of his generation. That he did is worth celebrating, but not because he bootstrapped his way past so many obstacles. From a very young age, he recognized the opportunity available to him and maximized it. Each day. Every week. That degree of focus is a different quality, one no less admirable. It requires an appreciation for thankless, incremental effort. And in the Bradley family, that's what chasing a dream looks like.
The A.S. Roma training facility in Trigoria is a walled compound of stucco buildings and practice fields in a pastoral area south of Rome. It has a youth academy, an on-site chef, and a bronze statue of Romulus and Remus by the entrance. During the season, fans gather outside the gates and perch on the walls, hoping to catch a glimpse of the players.
Bradley met me here one afternoon in April on a patio adjacent to the team's espresso bar. He lives in nearby Casal Palocco and spends most of his free time at home with his wife, Amanda, a former University of Rhode Island tennis player, and their son Luca, who will be a year old in September. In Verona, he and Amanda could take a passeggiatta unmolested by fans. In Rome, Bradley must call ahead to restaurants to arrange for private dining areas where he can nosh his favorite carbonara al tartufo in peace.
An attendant appeared on the patio with an espresso for Bradley. He took it like an Italian: sugar, stir, shoot. He was wearing a gray T-shirt, low-riding jeans that exposed his underwear when he stood up, and dazzlingly white, untied, un-Velcroed Nikes. It was a fastidiously casual uniform. At one point, he picked a tiny piece of lint off his shirt that nobody else had noticed.
Bradley was talking about the U.S. national team, about how far the team has to go before it's a contender with a championship mentality—and championship ability—at every position. American fans need to be patient, he stressed.
"When we played Brazil in Maryland, Stevie Cherundolo and I were sitting on a bus after the game, talking," he was saying. "Talking about the game, talking about their team, talking about different players, and now we start talking about Marcelo, the left back. And at a certain point I said to Stevie, I said, ‘If you think about it, it's incredible. This guy plays for Real Madrid and Brazil. I mean, he can go a year and lose like two, three games playing at that level, playing for Real Madrid and playing for the Brazilian national team. Playing fifty, fifty-five, sixty games a year and could go a year and win two, three trophies, and along the way, honestly, lose two, three, four games. And if you think about it, if you take a second to think about it, it's incredible, because it's not just him. They have ten of those guys.'"
Bradley's accent was hard to place. There was no Jersey in it. No Chicago from his four years there. If anything, Italy had crept into his vowels. Always gifted with languages, he now speaks Italian almost fluently (along with Dutch, German, and Spanish). He answered my questions in a measured cadence, weighing each word as if to gauge its impact should it appear in print. He was composed, almost eerily so. He'd learned to brick in the heat.
For much of his career, Bradley held out Roy Keane as his idol. True to form, he'd once gone after a referee in a tunnel, cussed out the media, and nearly attacked Eric Wynalda for suggesting that other players might deserve more time on the field. During photo ops, he scowled. ("I smile when we win," he once said.) When the national team visited the White House and took a photo with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Bradley was in the back row mad-dogging the camera. He is a fierce competitor, his teammates say, the type of guy you'd want beside you in a trench. That was never going away. "It can't go away," Bradley told me, "because it makes me who I am." But Italy had matured him, if not mellowed him. His role model is now the less-combustible Demetrio Albertini.
And yet there it was, the ember flickering, when I asked about his father losing his job as national team coach. Bradley sat up, green eyes boring into me, and launched into an analysis of the 2011 Gold Cup defeat to Mexico that led to his father's ouster. He'd inherited Bob's near-perfect soccer recall and described the ebb and flow of the game in detail, the various goals and near misses, how the U.S. continued to create chances until the end. As he progressed through the postmortem, you could hear the mounting sense of unfairness in his voice.
"This idea that now you look back and say, what a terrible team, what a terrible game, it's just not how it was," he said. "Obviously, for me, the disappointment was magnified. I think nobody sees what goes into it and how much heart and dedication gets put into it by my dad more than me."
There's a theory going around among would-be U.S. soccer cognoscenti that the coaching change somehow liberated Bradley as a player. But he plays the same way. What Bob's firing did was end the absurd talk of nepotism that dogged Michael almost from his first international appearance (under coach Bruce Arena, it should be noted). On BigSoccer.com, you can find over 40 pages of comments in just one thread on the subject. Michael claims the chatter never bothered him. But I wondered if his father felt the same way, and if he'd be willing to speak to me about raising and coaching his son.
"About this? About me?" Michael said. "I will ask him, but I don't think your chances are real high with that one."
Bob was somewhere in the Olimpico, but I had no hope of spotting him from my seat in press row. All around me, beat reporters were chain-smoking and shooting bull. They consistently gave Michael solid but unspectacular ratings in the papers, commending him for his work rate and defense—he now had more tackles for Roma than anyone but the right back. But Andreazzoli had left him on the bench against Pescara, the worst team in Serie A , starting De Rossi at center in a 4-3-3.
From kickoff, it looked like a repeat of the derby. Pescara ran through the giallorossi midfield and scored in the 14th minute. "It doesn't matter," one journalist near me said, perhaps optimistic that Roma would ultimately prevail. But it did matter. A draw would undermine Roma's hopes for Europe.
Roma arguably had the talent to contend for a Champions League spot, but the team frequently played down to its competition. The one consistent bright spot, as usual, was Totti, flicking brilliant passes into the box for teammates to run onto. "The best player I have ever played with," Bradley called Totti. "As good as you think he is, I can tell you a million percent that he is a million times better when you see him up close every day."
Not even Totti, however, could level the score by halftime, at which point I made my way to a VIP lounge, which bore all the hallmarks of Roma's American ownership. In a sleek room staffed by models, the premium-ticket holders tucked into a dessert buffet of cake and biscotti. Bartenders poured drinks. A mako shark in a blazer who doubled as the Roma CEO circled the crowd. Already, a sizable chunk of Roma's ticket revenue came from VIP seats. Big sponsorship deals had been signed with Nike, Disney, and Volkswagen. (Bradley appears in one VW commercial giving Totti English lessons.) The team even had a Harlem shake video in the works. Roma was going global, and Bradley was part of the plan.
"We're already using him," said Christoph Winterling, the team's marketing director. "He's an international guy. He's very, very professional. People love him. He's of more interest than simply in an American market."
What "using" Bradley looked like beyond the VW ad wasn't clear. He'd been a hit with fans when the team visited Disney World in the winter, a trip Roma planned to make annually. I didn't doubt that he was marketable in the U.S., where Roma will play against the MLS All-Stars in July. But elsewhere? He'd first have to get off the bench against Pescara.
When the second half began I headed for the VIP seats to hunt for Bob's distinctive head, bald and more feral-looking than his son's. I counted at least 20 gleaming pates before I saw him, five rows from the field, wearing a black jacket, jeans, and wire-frame spectacles, his ice blue eyes fixed in that familiar squint. He was with Lindsay, Amanda, and baby Luca, who was clad in a tiny Roma jersey. Michael was warming up on the sideline. When he came on in the 72nd minute, Amanda bounced Luca excitedly on her lap. Bob removed his glasses and wiped something from his eye that could not, in any universe, have been a tear.
Michael was playing a different role than in the Lazio game. For the same reason that Italian culture has dozens of pasta shapes to convey different sauces to the mouth in myriad ways, Calcio has numerous, highly differentiated positions. Bradley will, for example, never be a Totti-esque trequartista, an attacking playmaker who sits behind the strikers. In Chievo, however, he'd performed admirably as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker who initiates the offense from in front of the back line. (Andrea Pirlo is the gold standard.) This was closer to what he was doing against Pescara. And he did it well. He made tackles, moved the ball around the midfield, set up a shot with a smart one-time pass, and created another chance with a nice chip into the box.
When allowed to play like this for the U.S., Bradley has impressed. In the Brazil friendly last year, he completed elegant long balls and through balls to his attackers. Against Scotland a few days earlier, playing more as a defensive mediano, he hit a wicked, bending half volley into the upper 90. It was a world-class goal that made teammate Terrence Boyd shake his head in amazement. Bradley has also scored when making intermedio-style trailing runs into the box, no goal more important than the one that tied the game against Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup.
All of which has presented USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann with a dilemma similar to the one faced by Andreazzoli: how to pair two excellent defensive central midfielders in Bradley and, in Klinsmann's case, Jermaine Jones. Who goes forward? Bradley could improve in the final third, but he's more dynamic on offense than Jones, a quality evident in June against Panama. With Geoff Cameron filling in for a concussed Jones in a destroyer role, Bradley was free to barrel forward and drive the attack. The Americans played as well as they had in any game under Klinsmann, who last year described Bradley as "an ideal connector."
Yet Jones has often been given more freedom to roam upfield than Bradley. "The danger for us now is only if Bradley and Jones go and we lose the ball and get caught in transition," Klinsmann told me. "Both players are top international caliber, box-to-box players. This is the international game now: it goes both directions full speed. And they can do that, but still we need to be disciplined and not open up our back line too much. They understand that now. So I don't mind whoever goes as long as the other one stays. They can figure that one out."
Back in Rome, I'd been studying the stern of Bob's head for most of the second half of the Pescara match, wondering what he was thinking. The only time he reacted was when Michael struck a half volley outside the box that was headed for goal until a defender intervened. Bob climbed out of his seat, then sat back down. That was it. When the game ended in a draw and the players filed off the field, Michael passed within shouting distance of his family. He didn't look up. His family didn't acknowledge him. Molto serious.
As the VIP section emptied, I made my approach. It did not go well. "Michael told me what you're doing," Bob said as soon as I introduced myself. "What did he tell you my answer would be?" I explained that I was writing a profile of his son and, naturally, wanted to speak with my subject's father.
"As his father, it can't come from me," Bob said. "It can't be done where I'm talking about him as my son because of everything that's gone on. How much have I spoken since I got the boot? Have you read one quote? I'm not starting today."
Baby Luca began to cry.
"Have eyes," Bob suggested. "Watch."
As if the way to understand the mysteries of a person—the father-son dynamic, the nepotism nonsense, the daily phone calls when Michael was a teenager overseas, Michael's transformation into national team star, the many labels and words for him—was to watch quietly from the stands.
I had watched—what else could I do?—and I had seen un giocatore: a player.
One last Italian phrase came to mind, the poetic addendum to Bob's instructions. It was something Michael had told the local press not long after arriving in Rome, and it seemed both to demarcate the boundaries of two private men and to perfectly distill their shared worldview: Il campo è onesto, dà il suo verdetto.
The field is honest and gives its own verdict.
Luke O'Brien is a Deadspin contributor and a former staff writer. He writes for other places, too. For more Howler, visit howlermagazine.com. Follow the magazine on Twitter, @whatahowler.
Photos via Getty.