Michael Bradley-to-Toronto: Take a moment to suspend your whys, consider how far MLS has come

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Michael Bradley may be coming back to Major League Soccer. Even if he doesn’t — if he has some kind of last minute change of course that undermines all the news we’ve heard on Wednesday — just take a moment to consider what’s going on. This is a U.S. international that’s in the undisputed prime of his career – one that has played at the top-level in England, Germany, and Italy. He is fighting for time right now, but he’s fighting for time for the second place team in the Italian Serie A. And despite all of this — despite his earning potential, his stature at a big Italian club, and a World Cup on the horizon — Michael Bradley might be coming back to Major League Soccer.

[UPDATE: Report: Bradley to Toronto done, set to earn $6.5 million per season after $7-$10 million transfer fee]

What is happening with this league? Just five years ago, this circuit was struggling for international relevance ahead of a World Cup that would see only six Major League Soccer players feature in South Africa. The four MLS players Bob Bradley picked for the U.S. squad represented the lowest total since MLS came into existence in 1996. The question of whether the U.S.’s top talent should be playing domestically or in Europe seemed to be resolved (in Europe’s favor), while the league was still struggling to come to grips with the need to fit in the Beckhams and Henrys of the world in financially constrained business model.

Fast forward to 2014, and we have a league willing to pay Tottenham Hotspur $9 million to get Clint Dempsey to Seattle. We see Seattle (and other sources) willing to guarantee the U.S. captain $8 million per year to play in Major League Soccer, with another, younger, even better American set to follow. Add in the commitments to players like Beckham, Henry, Robbie Keane, and Tim Cahill (and nearly every team using the Designated Player rule), and you have a league that looks nothing like it’s pre-South Africa self. Either MLS is spending itself into the ground (unlikely, given the still modest sums going to total payroll) or a new, more financially viable era of Major League Soccer has produced a makeover.

[MORE: Defoe to Toronto FC official… and maybe Michael Bradley, too? (or “How Taylor Twellman broke Twitter”)]

Five years ago, there were serious questions about MLS’s direction. The league had recovered from its post-Florida contraction doldrums, had expanded into places like Salt Lake, Toronto, and Los Angeles, yet before the Pacific Northwest expansion, there were still major questions as to whether the league was capturing hearts and minds. Why those questions still remain, they’ve taken a different form post-Beckham: where market’s like Seattle’s, Portland’s, and Kansas City’s (re-branded) are generating new excitement; where the league is pushing on to a 24-team format that would have sounded foolish a decade ago. Now the question isn’t whether the league is growing. It’s how the league can grow responsibly.

source: AP
Even more than Clint Dempsey’s acquisition by the Seattle Sounders, Michael bradley’s potential returns represents progress from Major League Soccer. (Photo: AP.)

Even more than Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle, Michael Bradley’s potential switch to Toronto give us reason to appreciate that progress. Bradley is four years younger than Dempsey and isn’t being lured by a situation like Seattle’s. He’s willing to forgo four, maybe six more years in Europe to come back to a relatively struggling team, and while he’ll certainly be handsomely compensated to do so, there are still a number of factors here that force us to reconsider MLS’s new drawing power. Like the Dempsey deal, there’s no way something like this happens four or five years ago.

So as all this Michael Bradley news unfolds (and at this point, it sounds like an inevitability) , it might be worth suspending disbelief and considering the progress. Why is a 26-year-old returning to MLS? Why is he passing on Europe to come back home? Why is he choosing Toronto, and (for that matter) why is Toronto making such a huge commitment to him?

There are good answers to all of these questions, answers that we’ll dive into as news of Bradley’s arrival starts to be confirmed. For now, however, it’s worth putting those curiosities aside for a moment of reelection. Whether the move gets finalized or not, Major League Soccer’s now in a place where a $10 million transfer and $8 million salary can happen under the right circumstances. That those circumstances are even possible is a huge testament to the league’s upward trajectory.

WATCH LIVE: Bournemouth vs. Liverpool

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Liverpool looks to pile misery on Bournemouth while increasing its Top Four stock with a visit to the Vitality Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Reds can climb back into the Top Four with a win, and will do so with Sadio Mane, Danny Ings, and Dominic Solanke amongst their bench players.

Bournemouth starts Jermain Defoe, Joshua King, and Jordon Ibe amongst its attackers.

LINEUPS

Bournemouth: Begovic; Daniels, Ake, Francis, Smith, Pugh, Surman, King, L. Cook, Ibe, Defoe. Subs: Boruc, S. Cook, Gosling, Arter, Fraser, Stanislas, Afobe.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Gomez, Lovren, Klavan, Robertson, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coutinho, Salah, Firmino. Subs: Karius, Milner, Mane, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

AT HALF: Lukaku, Lingard have Man Utd up at West Brom (video)

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Romelu Lukaku didn’t celebrate much more than a fist pump following his match-opening goal against former teammates West Bromwich Albion.

[ MORE: Watch via NBCSports.com).

No one said anything about celebrating teammates’ goals, though.

Lukaku scored to give the Red Devils a 1-0 lead, then watched as Jesse Lingard‘s deflected lash left Ben Foster high and dry as United cruised into the break up two goals.

It’s 10th PL goal of the season for Lukaku, who has 15 in all competitions. For Lingard, it’s four and seven.

Here’s Lingard’s marker:

Celtic’s record unbeaten run ends at 69 matches

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Celtic’s unbeaten domestic run has ended at 69 matches, and it ended with a thud.

Tynecastle Park was the scene for a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Hearts, a defeat started by a 16-year-old’s first Scottish Premiership goal.

[ REPORT: Luiz done at Chelsea? ]

Harry Cochrane’s his name, and his 26th minute goal gave Hearts the lead, and it was 2-0 by halftime through Kyle Lafferty, the ex-Burnley and Norwich player.

David Milinkovic scored three minutes after halftime, as the wake-up call didn’t arrive at the break, and added a penalty kick late in the match.

Celtic has a two-point lead on second-place Aberdeen with a match-in-hand. Rangers sit five-points back.

Sixty-nine games! Remarkable in any league. Here’s what Rodgers had to say:

“But I also want to congratulate my players. To have gone through 69 games and this to be their first defeat; of course it’s a sore one when you are beaten like that but they can hold their heads up. They have been absolutely amazing over those 18 months.”

WATCH LIVE: West Brom vs. Manchester United

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The Hawthorns is the scene as Manchester United attempts to pull back into sole possession of second place on the Premier League table with a visit to West Bromwich Albion (Watch live at 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Baggies have several regular starters on the bench, with Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, and Gareth McAuley (Allllll the Gareths!) getting a rest.

United will hand starts to Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, with Anthony Martial on the bench with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion: Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs, Krychowiak, Yacob, Livermore, Burke, McClean, Rondon. Subs: Myhill, Robson-Kanu, Brunt, Barry, Rodriguez, McAuley, Field.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Young, Herrera, Matic, Mata, Lingard, Rashford, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay, Ibrahimovic, Martial.