Elementary Education Sends Bradley on His Way
Thursday, October 9, 2008
The drive took five minutes, maybe 10 if they didn't hit the stoplights just right, through the new housing developments and past the shopping centers. While his classmates at Herndon's Oak Hill Elementary were biking around cul-de-sacs in the comfortable Chantilly Highlands neighborhood, raiding the playground or staring at Cartoon Network, 9-year-old Michael Bradley was in the back seat of his mother's car headed to his father's workplace.
Bob Bradley was not a government worker or high-tech engineer, like many of the other dads. He was D.C. United's assistant coach, a position that afforded Michael entry into a world that began to consume his life.
His mother, Lindsay, would drop him off at United Park near Dulles International Airport. He would knock around the ball with John Harkes and Marco Etcheverry, shag stray shots and compete in mini-games after the official training ended. In the tradition of aspiring players hanging around European clubhouses, he also would make a few bucks cleaning muddy cleats.
"He could probably tell you which guys still owe him money," Bob Bradley said recently.
A dozen years later, father and son are back in the Washington area for the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifier against Cuba on Saturday night at RFK Stadium. After four head coaching gigs in MLS, Bob is the U.S. coach. Michael, 21, is one of his starters, a sturdy, 6-foot-2 central midfielder whose soccer journey essentially began in Northern Virginia, carried him to MLS as a teenager, made an extended stop in the Netherlands, visited China for the Olympics and has brought him to Borussia Moenchengladbach, a tongue-twisting club in the fabled German Bundesliga.
The family's stay here lasted only two years -- Bob was hired to coach the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998 -- but the experience shaped Michael's future and fueled his passion for the game.
"Seeing how guys did things, how they acted and how they trained, being in that environment, you pick up things without even realizing it," he said this week. "It becomes the only way that you know how to do everything. A lot of other kids in America, maybe the first time they are exposed to that environment is as a professional. I was lucky. I was 9 years old and already getting a feel for it."
The summers were his favorite times. School was out, so he would wake up early and accompany his father to the training grounds and spend the day with United. The only interruptions were his own games and United's matches at RFK Stadium.
"It was the only thing I knew," he said. "Aside from having to go to school, soccer was all I did. I was always around it. The weekend would come and I'd watch games on TV from Europe. I don't think there was one day where I suddenly decided to pursue it as a career. It was always what I wanted to do."
Bradley's formal training took place in the McLean youth league. He played on an age-appropriate team his first year, then moved up and, at age 10, was with an under-13 squad coached by Michael Brady, a former American University star now an assistant at Duke.
"There was a massive physical and athleticism gap, but he made up for it with his soccer intellect, which was beyond his years and stature," Brady said.
For the twice-a-week practices, Brady said he would arrive at Spring Hill Recreation Center and find Michael and Bob training together. "It wasn't overbearing on Bob's part," he said. "They were just enjoying it."