The evolution of Michael Bradley’s soccer career is measured with each passage through RFK Stadium’s rusty gates.
Long before he joined Roma, an Italian Serie A club that will face English titan Chelsea in a heavyweight friendly Saturday night on East Capitol Street, Bradley would take a seat in the old den, turn to his mother and point out his dad on the sideline serving as D.C. United’s assistant coach. It was 1996. His younger sisters were by his side. Michael had yet to turn 9. MLS was a newborn.
“I can remember being here for the first United home games, for the first playoff games, for MLS Cup in ’97,” the 26-year-old midfielder said wistfully after Roma’s training session Friday.
When Bob Bradley was hired by the expansion Chicago Fire before the ’98 season, Michael transferred his soccer education to the Midwest.
Yet he still would find his way back to Washington to see his father coach against United and lead the Fire in the 2000 MLS Cup against Kansas City.
Through the years, RFK remained a regular destination — as a teenager playing for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the N.Y. Red Bulls) in 2004-05 and as a U.S. national team regular since 2007. The U.S. outings featured a goal-scoring effort against Costa Rica in the 2010 World Cup qualifying finale and an instrumental role in a friendly victory over Germany this summer.
With each visit since 2006, he has been aligned with a different European club: Heerenveen in the Netherlands, Moenchengladbach in Germany, Aston Villa in England, Chievo in Italy and, for the past 13 months, Roma, which last season finished a commendable sixth in the 20-team Serie A and lost in the Coppa Italia final to crosstown rival Lazio.
Bradley was fourth on the club in appearances in 2012-13, performing in 35 of 43 matches across all competitions. He is one of the few Americans to play for an Italian team, joining, among others, Alexi Lalas (1994-96) and Oguchi Onyewu (2009-11).
“Bradley is not only important as a player,” Italian legend Francesco Totti, a Roma attacker for more than 20 years, said through an interpreter, “he is important as a man.”
Bradley remains the main man in the U.S. national team’s midfield. Clint Dempsey may be Juergen Klinsmann’s captain, but Bradley is the leader — a trait inherited from his father, who guided the United States to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and now fuels Egypt’s dreams of advancing to Brazil next summer.
With Michael Bradley in a prime role, the Americans are nearing a World Cup berth as well.
Atop a six-team CONCACAF group that will receive three automatic berths, they could clinch next month when they visit Costa Rica and host Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. (The final two games are in October.)
For now, though, the focus is on Roma’s final major preseason test against star-splashed Chelsea, the 2012 UEFA Champions League winner. Roma, owned by four Boston-based businessmen, began the tour by defeating the MLS all-stars in Kansas City, Kan., and Toronto FC in Ontario.
For Bradley, returning to Washington has rekindled memories.
“I love the stadium. It’s an older stadium, but it has got character,” he said. “And this is a community that knows soccer and loves soccer.”
Beyond soccer, Washington carries other emotions.
“As you get older and come back with other teams, you see the city in a different way,” he said. “Every time I am here, I love it even more. It has a great feel to it — the history, the aura. You travel across the country with [Roma], and it’s funny to see what guys notice. They know the Capitol and White House, but their eyes light up.”
Visiting Washington also has prompted reflection of his boyhood days in Fairfax County.
“It’s always important to remember where you came from and enjoy each step along the way,” he said, remembering after-school and summer outings to United practices, where he banged the ball around with MLS stars Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes.
“Without dwelling on things, you take time to look back and appreciate and realize what you have done. At the same time, I am hungry for a lot more and determined to keep growing, determined to keep improving. I am not happy where I am now [in the sense] I want to continue to get better and to see where I can take it.”
Soccer notes: Chelsea, playing the fourth and final game on a U.S. tour, is prepping for the Premier League opener Aug. 18 against Hull City at Stamford Bridge. The Blues lost to Real Madrid, 3-1, on Wednesday in Miami. . . .
Chelsea continues to pursue Manchester United star Wayne Rooney. “Let’s see what happens,” Coach Jose Mourinho said. . . . Gervinho, an Ivory Coast World Cup forward acquired by Roma from Arsenal this week, was scheduled to arrive in time for the friendly. . . .
Ticket sales were around 21,000 on Friday afternoon, organizers said.