It’s happening. There’s no point in denying it or trying to figure out if the morning rumors are true. At this point, Michael Bradley’s introduction at BMO Field is only a matter of time, a move that will leave MLS supporters applauding while Europe-centric fans scratch their heads. Even U.S. Men’s National Team diehards might wonder why one of their team’s best players is ovine from Serie A to MLS six months ahead of a World Cup.
For all of those fans, however, the questions should be the same, inquiries born from the unique nature of this move. Major League Soccer already has a few players of Bradley’s talents, but it’s rare to see a player in his prime (26 years old), playing for a huge club (Roma), in position to qualify for Champions League (second in Italy) forgo that opportunity to return to North America. MLS an option is something that will always be there, the thinking goes. There’s a smaller window where the Michael Bradleys of the world can compete for time in Europe.
[MORE: Report: Bradley to Toronto done, set to earn $6.5 million per season after $7-$10 million transfer fee]
To get our heads around why Bradley’s passing on Europe to return MLS, we have to start unraveling those “whys” we mentioned in our previous post.
Would Bradley leave Serie A to return to MLS? Why is he passing on Europe to move back to North America?
The answer to both these questions is the same. At least, it appears to the same. Bradley was making €800,000 with Roma – just over $1.1 million U.S. For Toronto, he’ll make around $6.5 million.
The Roma figure is post-tax. A big chunk of that Toronto money is going to go to the government(s). But even after you factor in the costs of living in Toronto and taxes to be paid, Michael Bradley will make a lot more money playing Major League Soccer than he would staying in the Serie A. That’s not to change any time soon.
So if not Roma, why not somewhere else in Europe?
True, Bradley probably could have arranged a move elsewhere in Europe, but he was unlikely to move anywhere that could match that salary. For a little money as Major League Soccer pays its players on the whole, the high-end earners make very good money, even by global standards. While you won’t see anybody in North America match the big earners at Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, or Real Madrid, a high-end Designated Player in MLS can justify turning has back on a salary at (for example) Tottenham to move to North America.
That’s the bigger issue here – the opportunity cost associated with Bradley’s age. He’s only 26 years old. As opposed to Clint Dempsey (who moved back at 30). Bradley had a whole World Cup cycle’s worth of time left to spend in Europe, and which he could still plan on a reasonably long spell in MLS. While he was missing out on significant time at Roma, there are other clubs that could use his talents. Depending on the league he targeted, some of those clubs could be competing for spots in Champions League.
Bradley, however, isn’t your normal 26-year-old. He moved from Illinois to the Bradenton academy as a 15-year-old and turned professional at 16. For large portion of his life, Bradley’s been jumping around, from Florida to New York, to Holland and Germany, to England and Italy. He and his wife had their first child in Sept. 2012, and the opportunity for stability and financial security may have been too much to pass up.
[MORE: Michael Bradley-to-Toronto: Take a moment to suspend your whys, consider how far MLS has come]
Why move this close to the World Cup, though?
The one wrinkle to that logic is this Brazil 2014. Players are usually loathe to move ahead of the tournament, but Bradley was in the opposite situation. He could use a move that would increase playing time ahead of the World Cup. While U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants players both competing at the highest level and playing through MLS’s break, this could be seen as a net positive for Bradley. Two-plus months of MLS’s regular season may give him more playing time than four-plus months at Roma.
For some players, MLS is always there, but five- or six-year contracts worth $6.5 million per season aren’t. The player’s percentage of a $7-$10 million transfer fee is something most professionals never have a chance to turn down.
Bradley didn’t turn it down. Instead, he used it as a chance to move closer to home.
Why Toronto? Why is Toronto making such a huge commitment to him?
Toronto has 17 wins over the last three years. Over 102 games, that’s one victory every six times the team takes the field. In the league’s busy season, that means TFC’s winning once a month, a track record of recent success that has seen attendances drop at BMO Field. Having never made the playoffs, Toronto’s on the verge of approaching a point of no return, with one of the league’s most promising markets seeing attendance fall by 10 percent over the last two years.
Where some see that as a poor fit for Bradley, a person like Tim Leiweke might see it as a match made in heaven. The former Anschutz Entertainment Group executive (and LA Galaxy architect) is now running the show at Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, meaning the revitalization of the Reds’ brand falls on his shoulders. The same man who authorized big money to David Beckham and Robbie Keane is splashing the cash to bring Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley to Toronto.
[MORE: Defoe to Toronto FC official… and maybe Michael Bradley, too? (or “How Taylor Twellman broke Twitter”)]
That is the main difference between LA Leiweke and Toronto Tim – that star power. In Los Angeles, Beckham’s acquisition was motivated more by marketing than competitive reasons. In Toronto, Bradley doesn’t carry that star power. What he does have, though, is a skill set that will immediately make him one of the best players in Major League Soccer, and while that alone might not be able to draw Canadians to see the U.S. international, the prospect of wins will.
Toronto fans are smart. They know their soccer, and they know their team – exactly why they’re starting to stay away from BMO Field. In a market that’s longed for a winner ever since Cito Gaston was guiding the Blue Jays to World Series titles, the prospect of an honest-to-goodness competitive team could cut through an active entertainment landscape, galvanizing support in what could again be one of North America’s top sports markets. If Leiweke can build a winner before the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, or Raptors break through, he’ll have justified every dollar spent bringing in his headlining duo.
But for Bradley, why Toronto? Why not some other landing spot in MLS?
As for why Bradley would want to go there, well, there probably wasn’t a line of teams waiting to commit potentially $39 million over the next six years (the high-end of ESPN’s reports on his possible compensation). Given the opportunity to move to one of the best cities in North America, Bradley may have overlooked TFC’s historic struggles, especially given one of the architects of the Galaxy’s success is now on board. And as the son of a coach who has seen success at Chivas USA, Bradley may have a unique view on the nature of success in North America’s parity-obsessed leagues.