Michael Bradley's Shock Transfer to Toronto FC is Another Bellwether Move for MLS

By Mike Cardillo

Late in 2013,  Alexi Lalas engaged a now memorable conversation with his wife Anne. She asked him a simple question. Who would you want to have back from the U.S. National Team to play in MLS?

“I said Michael Bradley, but I quickly said … that will never happen,” Lalas told The Big Lead late Wednesday by phone.

But in an all-time U.S. Soccer surprise — one with even more potential significance — Bradley is indeed moving back to MLS from his current club, Roma, in a fast-developing move that nobody saw coming. In hours, Bradley-to-Toronto FC went from another January Twitter rumor to signed, sealed, and delivered. Reports state Toronto will pay Roma upwards of $10 million in a transfer fee, then ink Bradley to a deal that pays over $6 million per season — quadrupling his current salary.

It’s makes Bradley the second prominent U.S. National player to move back to MLS on the eve of the 2014 World Cup, following in the footsteps of Clint Dempsey, who went from the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders last summer. If the reported salary figures are accurate, then Bradley, a 26-year-old midfielder in his prime and U.S. National Team captain-in-waiting, would make roughly the same, if not more, than Dempsey. Still, this comes as much more of a shock than even the Dempsey move.

“The chances when I woke up today? It’s not happening–period,” Lalas said.

Remarkably, the move is about to happen and it sets off the typical American soccer fan soul-searching and hand-wringing. Why would Bradley come back to MLS in his prime? Why would he do this ahead of the World Cup? Are American players simply not good enough to compete at the highest level? Why would he go, to of all places, Toronto which hasn’t even made the MLS playoffs when over half the teams qualify?

Maybe a better question to ask: is Bradley not as good, in reality, as the American soccer fan thinks? Despite rumored interest by clubs in the Premier League, only MLS — where American internationals are valued the most — was going to pay him this kind of salary. It’s hard to begrudge Bradley accepting a deal that pays him so handsomely and allows him to almost come home to his native land.

When something like this plays out it’s hard to look at it purely as a soccer move, rather than a referendum on the entire American soccer landscape. Although far more Americans are wrapped up in the exploits of the National Team than they are MLS, it’s a coup for TFC to sign a player of Bradley’s quality in the prime of his career.

“Michael Bradley is incredible. He’s evolved into a complete player. He can control the pace of the game. He’s very smart. It’s an incredible soccer signing,” Lalas said. “(Doubters) will look at it, in a certain way, that he sold out or betrayed his aspirations that — at least what they’ve perceived over the years for the level he wanted to attain. A lot will see it as a step backward. That’s MLS’s cross to bear for a while.”

[RELATED: Bound for Brazil: The State of the USMNT Squad on the Eve of 2014]

To Lalas, when you factor in the money along with the quality of life for Bradley to return to North America, it’s hard to pass up.

Big picture, as it pertains to Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann and the National Team? It’s almost impossible to project until Bradley actually kicks a ball wearing the red jersey of Toronto. Whatever your opinions are on the caliber of play in MLS, in the six months between today and June 16 when the U.S. kicks off against Ghana in Brazil, it’s not as if Bradley is going to turn into a player barely capable of completing a pass. Is it concerning a player like Bradley — considered the best all-around player on the U.S. roster — is trading Serie A for MLS? It’s hard to spin it otherwise.

“Some (fans) won’t be able to wrap their mind around from a competitive side,” Lalas said. “That’s based on the perception a player can’t evolve or improve in MLS.”

Realistically, we won’t know what affect a return to MLS has on Bradley until he plays. Anything else is wild speculation. The more interesting component of this move is what it means to MLS as a whole. Toronto, under the guidance of Tim Leiweke, is reportedly spending close to $100 million to acquire and sign Bradley along with Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe. These are bold moves for a club that was the envy of the league, briefly, when it entered in 2007 helping usher in the “MLS 2.0” experience.

TFC’s average attendance has dropped from near-sellout averages of over 20,000 its first five years, to a shade over 18,000 the last two. Fans might show up at BMO Field and make it a great atmosphere, but eventually they want a winner. As Americans we don’t think about it much, but Toronto is right up there with the “tortured” city fanbases, considering the Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since 1993, the Raptors remain underwhelming and the Maple Leafs’s Stanley Cup drought dates to 1967. Yes, it’s only soccer and only MLS, but the city is seemingly starved for a winner.

“We talked how great (TFC) could be, but they’ve shot themselves in the foot. To see how that city would respond to a successful team … that’s (Bradley’s) responsibility now,” Lalas said. “Tim Leiweke is a hell of a salesman. I know that firsthand. He can really sell you and I’m sure he did. What if Michael Bradley helps to resuscitate them on the field? They could be kings.”

[RELATED: Michael Bradley Scored Winning Goal for Roma, Italian Radio Announcer Screamed “Lex Luthor” Multiple Times]

To Lalas, the presence of Leiweke — the man who helped bring David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy — is another sign Toronto is trying to position itself as a “SuperClub.” Granted, with a complex and restrictive salary cap which allows for only three Designated Players who can earn outside the cap, there’s only so much that can happen. It does make you think what the future of MLS is if Seattle is willing to invest so much in a player like Dempsey, while the Manchester City/New York Yankees co-owned NYCFC expansion team will likely want to throw around its financial clout, too. MLS is reluctant to change it’s salary cap and single-entity structure, but if it wants to retain the best American players, eventually something has to happen. The elephant in the room for MLS, however, remains the league’s anemic television ratings and its seemingly impossible task of improving them.

“Money. It’s money. It’s really what it comes down to,” Lalas said. “We always talked about it. It’s the great equalizer and you couple with the quality of life over here. It’s incredibly enticing where you’re a North American or from anywhere. … More and more will come. Players will migrate where the money is. You’ve seen that with players going from Italy (in the 1990s) to England.”

Whatever your opinion on MLS and or it’s quality of play, the league is taking bold steps and Toronto’s shock acquisition of Bradley this week might be its boldest yet.