Taking brave steps forward

Taking brave steps forward


Taking brave steps forward

Major League Soccer has made big strides recently, signing some big names from Europe

When Omar Gonzalez left the University of Maryland and was taken by the Los Angeles Galaxy as the third pick in the 2009 Major League Soccer draft, he had a plan: Learn the ropes of being a professional, develop his craft and, when his contract was up, head to Europe, where a bigger stage and payday awaited.

“But things change,” said Gonzalez, who in August signed a three-year extension with the Galaxy for a significant bump up from the $282,000 he earned last season. “The league’s getting to the point where guys are starting to get paid, and the football is starting to get a lot better. The league isn’t up to par with Europe, but it’s getting there. We’re making huge strides.”

Perhaps the biggest arrived Thursday when Roma midfielder Michael Bradley, 26, the linchpin of the U.S. national team, reached an agreement on a contract with Toronto FC. Roma announced it had agreed on a $10 million transfer fee with MLS, which owns all of the league’s contracts.

When a player like Bradley, or Clint Dempsey, who moved to Seattle last summer from Tottenham of the English Premier League, returns to MLS in his prime, it is clearly a promising sign for the league. Toronto is also expected to announce the signing of Jermain Defoe, a top English striker, from Tottenham.

“As a player, you want to challenge yourself and play at the highest level,” said Matt Besler, another young central defender who re-signed a year ago with Sporting KC rather than head to a smaller European league. “But that doesn’t always mean Europe anymore. I think you’re starting to see that might mean playing in Major League Soccer.”

Whether the returns by Americans are god for the U.S. this summer at the World Cup is an open question: If Dempsey and Bradley do not perform well in Brazil, their moves will make an inviting target for critics.

US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, like his predecessors, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley - Michael’s father - have always encouraged promising players to leave MLS to further their development. But they have had to do so subtly to avoid offending a league that also plays a role in the grooming of young players.

Klinsmann did not comment on the Bradley deal while the U.S. Soccer Federation president, Sunil Gulati, also declined to comment. But Klinsmann made his views clear with Dempsey.

“We all hope that, by going back to MLS, his own level is not dropping because he is going from the Premier League, one of the best in the world, into a league which is trying to improve every year,” Klinsmann told ESPN in August. “His job will be to keep his level the highest possible. My job is to help push him to that level and, when I am not happy, to tell him to his face.”

Bradley left home for a soccer academy in Florida at 15 and turned pro at 16. By the time his high school class had graduated, he was headed to the Netherlands. He then went on to play in Germany, England and Italy.

In some ways, Bradley is the antithesis of Landon Donovan, the best American player of his generation. No player has endured more criticism for staying in MLS than Donovan. When he twice returned home from unfulfilling stints in Germany, and twice more re-signed with the Galaxy rather than return to Europe to test himself in the world’s best leagues, the criticism was withering: He lacked motivation. He was afraid. His talent was being squandered.

But Donovan was not happy in Europe, on the field or off. He maintained that as long as Dempsey and Bradley were making decision they were happy with, it was good for them.

“They are chasing their dreams,” Donovan said. “They made decisions that are good for them, just like everybody should. Michael’s a smart guy; I’m sure he’s thought about this a lot. And it’s something he wanted to do, so it’s great.”

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