March 30, 2013
Michael Bradley: From 'runt of the litter' to U.S. star

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who on Tuesday lines up against Mexico in his 22nd World Cup qualifier and 75th game for the USA, is the subject of the Youth Soccer Insider's latest edition of "When They Were Children."

At age 13, Michael Bradley watched the USA on a bitter cold night in Columbus, Ohio, that ended with sweet a 2-0 win over Mexico in World Cup qualifying.

“And I remember waking up really early in the morning in 2002 to watch the U.S. beat Mexico at the World Cup in Korea,” Bradley said on the eve of Tuesday's Azteca World Cup qualifier. “Soccer in this country has gotten to the point that we remember these games, we were grew up with these games, so now when it's your chance to step on the field and represent the United States in a game like this, you don’t take it lightly.”

The second time Bradley played against Mexico, in 2009, he scored both goals in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win.

Bradley signed a professional contract with MLS at age 16 and played for his father, Bob Bradley, with the MetroStars. Bob, now Egypt's national team coach, was also his coach with the USA until Jurgen Klinsmann took over in 2011.

Bob Bradley sometimes helped out with Michael's youth teams but never coached one. In a 2007, I asked him whether it was it important to him that his son would become an exceptional player.

"No," he said. "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."

David Richardson was Michael Bradley’s coach with the Sockers FC Chicago youth club when Bob was head coach of MLS's Chicago Fire.

"How he is now compared to how he was as a youth player, it's a neat story," said Richardson. "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."

Michael’s favorite hangout was the Sockers' headquarters -- the Soccer City indoor facility in Palatine, where his mother, Lindsay, would drop him off almost daily after school.

"Some young players shy away from the things they're not good at," said 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 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. "It didn't matter with whom or when."

He entered U.S. Soccer's U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. when John Hackworth, now head coach of the Philadelphia Union, was the U.S. U-17 assistant coach.

"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."

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."