KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Michael Bradley got his start in professional soccer as an 18-year-old midfielder for what eventually would become the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer.
Now he gets a chance to see just how far the league has come.
Bradley will join Francesco Totti and the rest of Italian club AS Roma in taking on the best that MLS has to offer in the league’s annual All-Star game Wednesday night.
The son of former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, Michael Bradley joined the MLS team then known as the MetroStars in 2004. He played in 30 games more than two seasons before he left for Europe, where he bounced around a handful of clubs, recently landing with Roma.
“There’s no question that the league continues to grow,” Bradley said. “You look around the league, you see the stadiums that are being built, you see the teams that come into the league that have support and fans like they do in Seattle, Portland, and I think that’s great for the league and great for our country. I think the quality continues to get better and better.”
There may be no better example of all of those factors than Kansas City.
The club was known as the Wizards in its early years, but after it was sold to local owners in 2006, it underwent a dramatic rebranding that ultimately spawned Sporting KC.
Now, a franchise that hadn’t tasted much success in the better part of a decade – and that couldn’t draw fans to games at Arrowhead Stadium and a minor league ballpark – is selling out just about every game at Sporting Park, its soccer-specific, $200-million jewel in Kansas City, Kan.
The fact that this year’s All-Star game was awarded to the franchise is a testament to the success of those involved in the club, Commissioner Don Garber said.
“They had a plan from the beginning to connect in the community, to rebrand the club with an international feel that’s embedded in the community, and from the very beginning they wanted to build this state-of-the-art facility,” Garber said. “Sporting Park is just that.”
The stadium already has hosted a myriad of international competitions and will do so again in October when the U.S. national team will play Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier.
But on Wednesday night, it’s Roma that gets a chance to see what it’s all about.
One of the most prestigious clubs in Italian soccer, Roma has won three Serie A titles and features one of the greatest players ever in the 36-year-old Totti, who has hinted that he may retire next year with his contract set to expire.
“For me and my teammates, for Roma, it’s the first time we’ve played a match against a team like MLS,” Totti said through a translator. “We’re happy we’ve been invited for this match, and of course, very happy to see Michael play against some of his good friends.”
Totti will be facing some familiar faces, too.
One of the players on the MLS squad is Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry, the longtime Arsenal star helped lead France to the World Cup final in 2006. Henry’s team finally ran into the Azzurri of Totti and lost 5-3 in a dramatic penalty shootout.
“When you think about Roma, you think about Francesco Totti,” Henry said. “I have maximum respect for him to stay with the same team throughout his career, the team he supported as a boy. We could be here and talk about Francesco Totti all day.”
There are plenty of American stars who will be taking part, though, including a couple of players from the host club. Matt Besler, who helped the U.S. win the Gold Cup over the weekend, is scheduled to play along with Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi, who has become a staple of the national team.
They’ll be coached on the MLS side by Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes.
“The challenges are simple,” Vermes said. “We’re playing against Roma, and we have a very short period of time together to prepare for the game, but just knowing the players we have on this roster, I’m sure we’ll make it extremely exciting and give them a very, very good game.”
The MLS is 7-2-1 in All-Star games since the current format featuring an international opponent was adopted more than a decade ago. Both losses came to Manchester United of the English Premier League, though the MLS side beat Premier League club Chelsea last year.
“For me, I grew up with the MLS. I was 9 years old when the league began,” Bradley said this week. “So for me to have an opportunity to come back to my home country and play against the MLS All-Star team, it’s going to be a great night.”