March 22, 2008
Michael Bradley's All-Around Rise

It seems natural for the son of a prominent coach to become a savvy player, but young Michael Bradley's achievements have proved truly remarkable.

By Mike Woitalla
(from Soccer America Magazine, March, 2007 issue)

For David Richardson, coach of the Sockers FC Chicago youth club, Michael Bradley serves as a perfect example for his current players.

"How he is now compared to how he was as a youth player, it's a neat story," says Richardson. "What we relate about Mike to the young guys we have now is that Mike was one of the smaller guys in his group.

"He was the runt of the litter. Athletically, he wasn't, let's say, fully developed. Sometimes when you look a youth team, people say the best guys are the ones who are the better athletes.

"Mike wasn't that. But he loved the game. He had a passion for it. He was a soccer rat. And he always had the desire to improve."

Bradley moved to the Chicago area in 1998 at age 10 when his father, Bob, became coach of MLS's Chicago Fire. The boy's favorite hangout was the Sockers' headquarters - the Soccer City indoor facility in Palatine, where his mother, Lindsay, would drop Michael off almost daily after school.

"Some young players shy away from the things they're not good at," says Richardson. "Mike understood his weaknesses. He focused on them rather than avoiding them, whether it was defensive play or the fact that he wasn't the fastest guy."

Michael Bradley would arrive at Soccer City and jump in with whatever teams were in action. Often they were the older groups.

"The kid wanted to play, all day, every day," says Lindsay Bradley. "It didn't matter with whom or when."

Michael Bradley was always a midfielder. Now 20 years old, he's in the midst of an amazing scoring run with Heerenveen of the Dutch Eredivisie, where he broke the scoring record for an American-born and -bred player in a European first division. By mid-February, he hit 13 goals, which according to Voetbol International already puts him sixth on the all-time list of highest-scoring midfielders in a Dutch Eredivisie season.

"No idea," says Bradley when asked about the last time he scored at such a pace.

Richardson says Bradley scored occasionally in youth ball.

"He was more of a setup guy," says Richardson. "Mike was the bow, and Will Johnson was the arrow."

Johnson, now a Canadian international, also went to Heerenveen and is on loan to Dutch club De Graafschaap. Another Sockers alum and friend of Bradley's is U.S. international Jonathan Spector, who plays for English Premier League club West Ham.

Like Spector, Bradley entered U.S. Soccer's U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. John Hackworth was the U.S. U-17 assistant coach when Bradley was in Bradenton for two years.

"When Michael first got into residency, he was a really small kid, with really good technical ability," says Hackworth. "He was up to my shoulder when he arrived. He was taller than me when he left. Now he towers above me."

SOCCER LESSONS. That Michael Bradley didn't hit his 6-foot-2 height until his late teens may have benefited him.

"Certainly, for all of us who are involved in youth soccer there are times when you say that it's true," Bob Bradley says. "That a younger player who is smaller has got to develop his other qualities, so it's a plus. It can work that way. But I don't think it's an automatic."

With the U-17s, Michael Bradley was in the younger age group - a 1987-born player in the 1986-87 group - and didn't get selected for the U-17 World Cup squad. But Hackworth says he and head coach John Ellinger believed then he had the potential to be "a phenomenal pro" because of his work ethic and because he was a student of the game.

"Michael might be the best example of how important it is to recognize that kids develop at different ages," Hackworth says. "He wasn't really fast. He's still not very fast. He was always a really good player. He just needed time to physically mature and continue developing. Michael is the example of a player who recognizes the educational aspects on the field, but also off it. He understood what it takes to dedicate yourself to the game and have focus and commitment."

The soccer lessons started early, when Bob Bradley coached Princeton and Michael hung out with the team. Manfred Schellscheidt, longtime U.S. Soccer staff coach and Seton Hall head coach who coached New Jersey youth ball with Bob Bradley, saw much of Michael when Schellscheidt's son played at Princeton.

"Mike was always around," says Schellscheidt. "To be on the scene he had a chance to get a better picture of what the game could be like at a very early age, and to jump in as the little guy."

In 1996, Bob Bradley left Princeton to become Bruce Arena's assistant coach at D.C. United.

"I was always hanging around," says Michael Bradley. "And after training, sometimes I'd get to play some 3-v-3 with the players."

Bob Bradley helped out with Michael's youth teams but never coached one. Was it important to him that his son would become an exceptional player?

"No," says Bob Bradley. "You hope to help your kids find things that they have passion for, things that they really love, and things that they want to put something into. That was just the way we always approached it.

"Our oldest daughter, Kerry, loved ballet and was a very serious dancer for a long time. Our youngest daughter Ryan has played soccer and tennis.

"As a young kid, Michael was always around the game, and he was around good soccer people. I'm sure that had a lot to do with his love for the game."

PRO TIME. Familiarity with pro sports went beyond exposure through his father. Michael's uncle, Scott, played nine seasons of Major League Baseball. Another uncle, Jeff, is a sportswriter, currently with ESPN Magazine.

Jeff Bradley said he didn't see that much of Michael's youth soccer after the family left New Jersey, but remembers when he attended MLS Cup 1998, where Bob Bradley's Chicago Fire defeated D.C. United. Before the game, he saw 11-year-old Michael on the Rose Bowl field.

"He was playing two-touch keep-away with pro players," says Jeff Bradley. "I was pretty impressed."

Michael Bradley decided to turn pro after graduating early from high school at age 16. "At one point it looked like he would go to the University of North Carolina and I was fired up, because that's where I went to school," says Jeff Bradley. "When he decided to go pro, my father and I were excited, but a little nervous. Project-40 [the MLS-U.S. Soccer program for players who skip college] had been hit and miss. Mike was an excellent student and could have gone anywhere. But there are different paths to education and Mike is a real smart kid."

Michael's decision to go into the 2004 MLS Draft came after long discussions with his parents about the pros and cons.

"Tough discussions, for sure," says Bob Bradley. "They took a long time, but he felt strongly this was something he wanted to do.

"You try to raise your kids to make decisions for themselves and there is a point where again you get tested as a parent as to whether or not you know what's best for them or how you discuss those things. And they're not easy things."

Michael Bradley was drafted in the fourth round, the 36th overall pick, by his father, then entering his second year as MetroStars head coach. Bradley didn't see action in his first season because of a foot injury that may have been related to his growth spurt. In his second season, during which he turned 18, he started 30 regular-season and two playoff games. He scored once.

In January 2006, Michael Bradley became the youngest MLS player transferred to a foreign club when he joined Heerenveen, where in his first full season (2006-07), he made 21 appearances, mainly off the bench. Bradley nailed down a starting role this season and is the leading scorer on the Netherlands' highest scoring team, and helped it to second place. He also scored twice in the Dutch Cup and twice in the UEFA Cup.

"My wife is starting to get tired of me calling her over to watch his goals from every angle on YouTube highlights," joked Jeff Bradley. "But when we watched him give interviews in Dutch, we were both amazed."

Jeff Bradley isn't that surprised that Michael mastered a new language. He recalls Michael Bradley helping translate Bob Bradley's conversations in Spanish with players on the Chicago Fire.

"When it comes to being a pro, he gets it," says Ron Waxman, the player agent who represents Bob and Michael Bradley. "He's gone there, learned the language, is respected by his teammates and his coaches."

USA BREAKTHROUGH. Michael Bradley earned his first two U.S. caps under Coach Bruce Arena in friendly games before the 2006 World Cup. Bob Bradley became U.S. head coach in December 2006 and in 2007 Michael Bradley became a regular in the midfield, starting in 10 of 12 games while scoring his first U.S. goal in a friendly win at Switzerland. His performances laid to rest any questions of familial favoritism and for Michael having dad as coach is just a bonus.

"It's pretty special that I get to spend more time with my father," he says.

After he played in a 2-2 tie with Mexico in Houston, Bradley flew back to the Netherlands on a Thursday, arrived Friday morning in time for practice, and on Saturday scored in a 1-1 tie with league leader PSV Eindhoven.

The scoring run has come as a surprise for a player usually pegged as a defensive midfielder.

"I'm a midfielder," says Bradley. "When you look around the world, and you see midfielders who can attack and defend and chip in with their share of goals, that really helps their teams. That's what I'm trying to do."

Schellscheidt says he saw Bradley become a more attacking player while with the MetroStars.

"He's really come a long way from initially being this dedicated hard-working kid who had pretty good feet," says Schellscheidt. "The question was always, does he have the pace? Or could he deal with the tempo of the game, not from the mental standpoint - he was always pretty sharp - but the footraces. He's still not the fastest guy, but he's definitely found a way to compensate by being pretty fast upstairs."

"When he first got his chance at the MetroStars, it clearly fell on him to do most of the dirty work and chase, defensively do the best he could. But as the season went on, he started doing much better going forward and sliding balls in the holes and finding guys up front around the box. It was a pretty natural way of playing safe first and then doing more and more on the attacking end."

Michael Bradley's contract with Heerenveen runs through June 2009, which means that Heerenveen would have to sell him in the offseason to get a transfer fee. Bradley's age and scoring output make him a hot commodity.

"The thing about Mike is you don't worry what you're going to get from him," says U.S. teammate Landon Donovan. "A lot of times with younger players you see a lot of ups and downs. Not with him. And if someone tells him he's great, he won't believe it. He just keeps trying to improve."

(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

March 20, 2008
Club vs. High School

The Seattle Times reports on the controversy surrounding players who skip high school soccer in favor of club ball HERE.

March 19, 2008
Youth players vs. senior citizens

In North Carolina, youth soccer players clashed with senior citizens over the construction of a senior center that would take away three soccer fields: VIDEO ARTICLE

March 12, 2008
Tackling Pay-to-Play

Lifting the cost burden off players remains the big challenge for elite youth clubs.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer Magazine, February, 2008 issue).

A crowd of nearly 1,000, paying a small admission fee, watched Washington State club Crossfire Premier in its first home doubleheader of U.S. Soccer Development Academy play.

"We've never had a home crowd like that before," says Crossfire director of operations Curt Bateman. "Usually, our biggest games would be at a tournament somewhere else. Maybe when there's a state championship at stake, we'd get an extra 100 spectators, in addition to those not directly involved with the team.

"The chance to see us play against big clubs from around the nation makes it possible to turn these games into big events."

Crossfire Premier is one of the 64 clubs fielding U-16 and U-18 boys teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy that kicked off last September.

Charlie Slagle, the CEO of North Carolina club CASL, also likes hosting games against major clubs.

"In the past, you weren't playing major games at home," Slagle says. "The Academy gives us 15 homes games. We're not there yet, as far as advertising, 'Come on out and watch the Academy play the Crew.' But that's something for the future.

"Will it become paid-spectator events? Probably not. But will it be something where you get 500 to 800 people in the stands watching the Academy teams? Yeah, probably. And that's real nice for the club."

Gerry McKeown, Director of Coaching at New Jersey club PDA, hopes to host Academy games at night.

"We want it to be a showcase for the club, for the younger players to see what these good games look like," he says.

Coaches are also pleased with other aspects of the Academy. There's a set schedule instead of chasing the tournament circuit. More training time. Players don't leave the club for ODP trials and trips; national team scouts come to the clubs' games. The quality of play has also gotten good reviews.

"It seems that every team is making a forthright effort to try and play, compared to games when teams might be sitting back," says Bryan Thorp, Director of Coaching at North Carolina's North Meck SC. "I think every team is trying to play some brand of an attacking game. That's good for development overall. In the tournament format, you're sometimes going to see more of what people call negative soccer, playing not to lose."

Thorp believes that, in tournament play, the focus is more on the results over a weekend rather than the performance over a season.

Sockers FC Chicago coach David Richardson agrees: "We like having a regular schedule and getting away from these knockout games, state cup games - they're good games but as far as defining what you're trying to do as a group or how you're developing players, they're not the best thing. We can have trainings that can be consistent without having to hop into a regional league weekend here or a cup weekend there."

But one of the main issues in the youth game remains: the high cost. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati believes the clubs are moving toward a no-pay-to-play model.

"It's one of the biggest issues we have," Gulati said. "The kids at Man U's academy or Santos' academy don't pay, so you never worry about the obvious issue about someone who's not able to pay."

Leading the cost-free movement among Academy clubs are those fielded by MLS. It's a more difficult task for amateur youth clubs.

"Somebody has to pay," says Gulati. "I know what that means when it's D.C. United. Somebody's paying. It just happens to be [owners] Victor McFarlane and Will Chang. And when Chicago does it, it happens to be Andrew Hauptman.

"The question is, what do you do when it's not an MLS team. Where are they getting the money? If what they're doing is taxing entry-level players, at a younger age, much more heavily, then that's a concern."

Slightly raising fees on lower levels within a club may be considered acceptable when parents know their children have a chance to enter the cost-free Academy teams.

For his part, Slagle says raising fees on non-Academy players to fund the Academy teams is out of the question. One of the first issues he addressed when he arrived at CASL was about fee allocation.

"The Rec parents thought they were paying for the Classic, our top level," he says. "Our Classic thought they were paying for Rec. The middle level, Challenge, thought they were paying for both. I came up with a formula that ensured the parents that their fees were going to the level that their children were involved in."

Slagle does believe that playing in the Academy can help create greater opportunities for the sponsorship partnerships he's pursuing.

"We just played the Columbus Crew, we play D.C. United, we played Chelsea in the Disney tournament and won - it got us on the front page of the News & Observer - those kinds of things can resonate," Slagle says.

The ultimate aim is to make Academy play free-of-charge for players.

"We're trying," says Slagle. "That's our goal. You can get a better team that way. Your prongs can go out farther as far as who would be interested in coming to you. Secondly, you can sign kids to amateur contracts, which could eventually help defray the costs, it just doesn't do it up front.

"If you have someone on an amateur contract who is signed by MLS or a foreign club, the transfer fee [training compensation] goes back to the youth club. That can't happen if the kid is paying for his youth soccer."

Another way to defray costs for Academy players is using them to coach younger players in clinics and camps.

"You do a clinic for U-9s and U-10s, and staff the whole thing with your academy team," Slagle says. "All the revenues go straight to the Academy, so there are ways the team can help itself. And what you're going to end up with is 150 under-9s touched by these kids and they're going to want to come out and watch them play."

Thorp believes youth clubs face an uphill battle making their Academy teams cost-free. But in his club's case, players pay less for Academy teams than they did when the club's elite players participated in the usual circuit.

"If you look at our top team last season, a '91 boys team," Thorp says, "if they played in every league program as well as ODP, they'd be paying anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000. Our Academy program here, we've been able to keep it close to $3,000, so it's cheaper. The parents are happier that it's cheaper."

But for some Academy clubs in locations without many nearby competitors, such as Washington State's Crossfire Premier, travel costs are significant. Crossfire coaching director Bernie James says his club has kept fees low for players, but only thanks to aggressive fund-raising efforts. Like most clubs, Crossfire offers scholarships to low-income players. Gulati says that U.S. Soccer aims to provide funding as well.

"A big part of this, and the mechanics are still being worked out, is a scholarship program," he says. "I don't think it will take a lot of money to have a huge impact at these club levels. The only inhibitor right now is how best to implement it equitably."

New Jersey club PDA is charging a fee of only $500 for its Academy players. That doesn't include travel, but Academy league play in the densely populated Northeast means the team's longest trip is a four-hour drive.

McKeown says his coaches took a pay cut to keep player fees down and Nike provided uniforms.

"Our goal is to make it free," he says. "We're working toward it. We're trying to get it across the board at the club. We want to make it free to eliminate some of the things associated with cost-driven parents' involvement and everything else."

To that end, PDA is looking for corporate support. He believes playing in the Academy may make that quest easier.

"It helps when you present something that looks as professional as what the Academy is trying to do," he says. "When you look at the league, the makeup, and they see teams from Seattle and everything else, it looks a lot more valid."

(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

March 11, 2008
The Scholarship Reality

The New York Times has run a series of articles on the myths and realities of college athletic scholarships: Expectations Lose to Reality of Sports Scholarships, Recruits Clamor for More From Coaches With Less and New Rules Threaten Sport's Tryout Process.

For a breakdown of athletic scholarships by sport and gender, go HERE.

March 09, 2008
Brazilian Nickname Game

Check out what your name would be if you played for Brazil HERE.

March 05, 2008
Juggling fund-raiser

The Traverse City Wings, a Michigan U-11 boys team, have turned juggling into a fund-raiser for new indoor arena flooring. The goal is to hit 1 million juggles in 65 days. "Juggling gives us better touches so in game situations you can stop the ball instead of it going all over the place," said Cameron Sipple, 11. "It makes us want to work out more." Read the Grand Traverse Herald article HERE.

March 04, 2008
Coaching Your Own Children

Clearly, coaching your son or daughter isn't easy. If you are able to find an appropriate balance between encouragement and pressure, however, it can be a wonderfully rewarding experience.

Tony DiCicco, who coached the U.S. women to the 1999 Women's World Cup title, has also coached his own children at the youth level. He addressed the challenges and provided advice in Soccer America's Youth Insider.

By Tony DiCicco

Some of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had as a coach were with my own sons and seeing them emerge as competitors, teammates, athletes and fine young men. I know something about parents coaching their own children because I've done it and have made every possible mistake.

Clearly, coaching your son or daughter isn't easy. If you are able to find an appropriate balance between encouragement and pressure, however, it can be a wonderfully rewarding experience.

What you must understand is that no matter what you say and no matter how you say it, it often registers as a personal attack when it comes from dad or mom.

It's important to explain that to your child - that this is not coming from dad or mom; it's coming from the coach. You must also recognize that you're likely to be harder on your own child than you are on the other players and deal with it accordingly.

Don't be afraid to praise your child. If you let your daughter know when things aren't happening the way they should, then make sure you hit the high notes as well. Acknowledge her strengths and accomplishments at every opportunity.

Not long ago I ran the school practice for two of my sons, and I made sure both of them heard a lot of praise. I must have done all right because when I got home later that night my older son came up to me and gave me a pat on the back, which I think signified thanks for helping out.

Frankly, I don't think it's a great idea to discuss sensitive game situations with your child once you're off the field, but if you have a relationship where you can do that, just make sure you don't overdo it.

It's taken me a long time to be able to get to that point, but I've learned to be as nonjudgmental as possible. But no matter what, understand that there are going to be some difficult moments and that, in the end, it is often better to coach less than more.

When it comes to coaching a youngster, the bottom line should always be that the child have fun. If your daughter comes home, goes to the backyard and starts kicking the ball around, you know that the coach has done a great job.

On the other hand, if she comes home and throws the ball into the garage and doesn't take it out again until she goes to practice, then there's a good chance she's not benefiting from a motivational and rewarding coach.

(Excerpted from "Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls" by Tony DiCicco, Colleen Hacker & Charles Salzberg courtesy of Penguin Books.)

Tony DiCicco coached the U.S. women's national team to the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal and the 1999 Women's World Cup title. DiCicco, founder and director of SoccerPlus Camps , will be the Boston Breakers head coach when the club begins play in April of 2009 in the new women's professional soccer league.