On a perfect spring afternoon at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium, the U.S. national team is running through drills before a friendly match against Mexico. The Americans are split in two, offense versus defense, playing half-field eight-on-eight with all the energy you'd expect from a late-afternoon practice two days before a meaningless tune-up – which is to say, just enough. But, racing around the field in his sweat-stained practice jersey and traffic cone–colored cleats, one player seems to idle in a higher gear than the rest. With his straight-backed running style and cue-ball shaved head, he looks like a foosball player come to life, the bandage on one side of his skull a result of a bloody head-to-head midair collision a week earlier, which led to 13 staples for him and an early exit for the other guy. He cuts hard upfield and catches his defender flat-footed, then laces a swerving shot into the side net. Meet Michael Bradley: the best U.S. soccer player of 2014.
Bradley isn't the captain of the American team, but he probably could be. A gutty, tireless central midfielder, he conducts the U.S. offense like a point guard or a quarterback. One of just five Yanks to play every minute at the 2010 World Cup, the 26-year-old is not just America's present, but also its future. "To have that much experience, confidence, and leadership at such a young age," says captain Clint Dempsey. "He's wise beyond his years, I would say."
In retrospect, Bradley was practically born to lead the U.S. team. When he was three, his father, Bob, was the soccer coach at Princeton, and Michael was a constant presence on the sidelines and in locker rooms, soaking up the game like a sponge. Athletic success also runs in the family: His uncle Scott was a major-league catcher for 11 years, and his mom, Lindsay, was a lacrosse All-American at the University of Virginia.
The passion for competitiveness was set early: "As a kid, I always loved keeping score," he says. "To me, part of the fun is having a winner at the end." Bradley's wife, Amanda, played tennis for the University of Rhode Island – they met when Bradley was 17, just before he left to play in Europe – and they have an 18-month-old son, Luca, who's already running around with a ball at his feet. "He's pretty good," Bradley says with evident pride. "As good as an 18-month-old can be."
As a player, Bradley excels at two things. One is his soccer IQ; he studies the game religiously and hopes to coach someday. The second is what he calls "dirty work": winning tackles, intercepting passes, and chasing down loose balls, the kind of unglamorous contributions that gain the respect of teammates and drive opponents crazy. "It's his engine, his work rate, his fight," Dempsey says. "When you're going into battle, he's the guy you want next to you – because you know he'll run through a brick wall for the team."
Yet for much of his career, critics have claimed Bradley was the recipient of special treatment. When he first turned pro, at the tender age of 16, he was drafted by the New York–New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), who at the time happened to be coached by his father. This whiff of nepotism was compounded a few years later when Bob became coach of the U.S. team, and Michael became a regular starter. Bob Bradley was relieved of his job with three years left on his contract after a disappointing loss to Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup – a change about which his son still seems (naturally) somewhat defensive. That said, since his father's departure, Bradley has played as though a weight has been lifted, becoming both a more vocal teammate and a more inventive player.
"When my dad was the coach, I had to be perceptive about reading situations," Bradley says. "There were certain guys you couldn't say things to, guys who would get frustrated – and I had to be careful about that. But since [Klinsmann took over], it's allowed me to take a bigger role on the team. It's allowed me to be more of a leader."
Before joining MLS this past January, Bradley spent eight years playing professionally in Europe. So he's in an especially good position to assess the U.S.'s chances this summer. "The perception is that we're a decent team, physically strong, but that our players aren't as good as those in Europe or South America," he says. "But the reality is that if we play well – if we step up on the field and fight for each other – I think we can beat any other team."
At least he doesn't need to prove his worth to the U.S. anymore. He did that a long time ago.