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Bradley deal ratchets up scrutiny of MLS
by Ridge Mahoney, January 9th, 2014 4:09PM
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TAGS:  mls, toronto fc, world cup 2014

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By Ridge Mahoney

More and more, the 2014 World Cup is shaping up as a referendum on a vital aspect of Major League Soccer.

With the defection of midfielder Michael Bradley from Roma of Serie A to Toronto FC of MLS, nearly one-half of the U.S. national team’s pool of regulars is based domestically. The top three centerbacks (Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson), at least two essential midfielders (Bradley, Graham Zusi), and three of its primary attackers (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson) will, like all of their January camp mates except Norway-based Mix Diskerud, be housed at home this year. Throw in Brad Evans and Kyle Beckerman, who are not as assured of a spot on the World Cup roster yet likely to be included, and that's a hefty MLS contingent of players high on the depth chart.

Dempsey’s arrival last summer, along with that of Goodson, and the impending Bradley move have occurred critically close to the World Cup, and so their MLS form in the weeks leading up to their departure for World Cup training camp in early May will be closely scrutinized. Yet all of those players have spent years in European soccer as well as with the national team; they have enough experience to self-monitor their levels of fitness and form leading up to a World Cup.

They’ll have a keen sense, as will head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, of where they stand as March and April unfold. They’ve been through it before. They’ll know where they stand in relationship to what a World Cup requires. Barring injury, two months of MLS games won’t greatly affect their status.

But I would cite those players who have not played in a World Cup nor in Europe as more relevant to provide the clearest barometer by which to rate MLS. A possible central pairing of Besler and Gonzalez, along with the anticipated contributions of Zusi -- possibly off the bench, a role at which another transplant, Benny Feilhaber, excelled in 2010 -- is sure to be enlightening, since at this time last year all three were just getting established in the national team. Evans and Beckerman have been around longer but only under Klinsmann have their credentials been stamped. Aside from a few friendlies, Concacaf and MLS are all they know at the pro level.

Goodson’s European experience and solid showings in several games last year give him a shot at unseating one of the regular centerbacks, but it’s quite likely the MLS-developed duo of Besler and Gonzalez will get the nod. (For this discussions of centerbacks we exclude Geoff Cameron, since most of the time that’s what Klinsmann does when the subject comes up.)

One of Klinsmann’s most critical tasks leading up to the World Cup is sharpening and toughening that defensive core. Tenets of technical skill and possession play can’t be applied if the back line teeters, and while Besler and Gonzalez do fit the bill on the ball, stopping the opposition comes first. Relying on a pair of domestics seems risky, but both have excelled since coming to MLS out of college, and they will be in their sixth year of pro ball when they head to Brazil. They will be the acid test of what MLS and U.S. Soccer have developed within U.S. borders, and now their primary conduit through midfield, Bradley, is also based domestically.

And don’t downplay the importance of backups. Jimmy Conrad (2006) and Jonathan Bornstein (2010), both MLS lifers at the time, were critical factors when called into action. Since he took over the national team Klinsmann has stressed that every player named on a lineup sheet has to be fit enough and good enough to start or come off the bench. He’s also been clear that players should seek out tougher challenges, but the retro moves of Goodson, Dempsey, and Bradley run counter to that dictum.

In the steaming cauldron that is a World Cup game, selection mistakes are costly, as the Americans discovered four years ago in the round of 16 against Ghana. Next June, Zusi might be a second-half sub if the Americans need a goal, and Evans’ versatility could land him a spot. Feilhaber helped SKC win a league title a month ago and is in camp this week.

Bradley’s pending transfer occurs a week after Dempsey’s loan to Fulham took effect. That move was loudly applauded by the national team head coach, who reacted frostily last summer when Dempsey signed with Seattle. Now perhaps his most important player is based domestically. During the next five months dynamics within the national team will change dramatically and only in Brazil can certain crucial aspects of MLS be judged.


5 comments
  1. Kent James
    commented on: January 9, 2014 at 5:09 p.m.
    Excellent points, Ridge. Bu while the MLS is obviously not as competitive as Europe, the Bradley move may not be such a bad one for MB. One of the problems with the WC is that players complain that it comes at the end of a very long season, so their tired, injured, etc. For MB, he'll get a bit of break prior to the MLS season, so maybe physically he'll be more rested than had he remained in Europe. Additionally, since it seemed that playing time at Roma might become an issue, it's probably better to play in the MLS than be on the bench (or have limited playing time) in Europe. So I remain hopeful...
  1. Daniel Clifton
    commented on: January 10, 2014 at 10:09 a.m.
    This is a great move for MLS. Financially it is a great move for Michael Bradley, and I have to compliment Bradley for wanting to help grow the game in North America. After this World Cup I see potential problems developing between Jurgen Klinsmann and all these established players who want to play in MLS rather than in Europe. MLS is only going to get better with better competition, which guys like Bradley and Dempsey provide. I find it interesting that two of the most important players on the USMNT have chosen to return to MLS shortly before the World Cup, when their coach has made it clear he wants his players to be playing in Europe.
  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: January 10, 2014 at 11:30 a.m.
    MLS will only get better when the culture of training at different levels becomes quality oriented and on-point.
  1. Kevin Jones
    commented on: January 10, 2014 at 4:15 p.m.
    When is Bradley's last game for Roma?
  1. Peter sheehan
    commented on: January 11, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.
    MB's last game w/Roma was the one preceding Sampdoria. Michael brings a wealth of talent, enthusiasm, leadership and hard work ethic to Toronto FC! AND I believe the MLS will greatly benefit from players like him bolstering our leagues at home! May be just may be more young players will benefit from him and Dempsey and Donovan and a slew of others on the WC team that play in the US! The next step is to get the kind of European coaching they need to compete!

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