When Michael Bradley made his international debut in 2006, four of his current teammates on the U.S. national team were just 7 years old. By the time he played in his first World Cup four years later, just a handful of those teammates had made it to college.
So when Gregg Berhalter called Bradley in to his first training camp as coach of the U.S. team this week, there were whispers it was more for what he could do as a mentor than as a midfielder.
Ask Bradley, however, and he’ll tell you he’s here because he wants to play in another World Cup in 2022 — a goal that, if reached, would make him, at 35, the oldest American outfield player on a World Cup roster this century.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to,” he said. “I love to play. I love to train. The way I carry myself, the way I live my life, my best years are still in front of me.
“Gregg and I have spoken a few times and one of our first conversations was just that. We’re not shutting any doors. You take it as far as it goes. I love that part.”
For Berhalter, who made his final World Cup appearance at 32, those were the exact words he wanted to hear from his captain.
“I love that mentality. That’s a really good mentality,” he said Tuesday after his second training session as national team coach. “The other thing about it is we don’t need to get ahead of ourselves.
“Our business is day to day. The most we can do is give our best effort every single day. And that’s all we’re asking of him.”
In the meantime Bradley, whose 142 international appearances are five more than the rest of the roster combined, will do what he can to teach his young training camp teammates what it means to play for the national team. Just as a veteran defender named Berhalter did when Bradley made his first camp roster.
“There’s different tiers, different brackets of guys,” Bradley said. “You have young players who naturally provide energy and enthusiasm. That part is so important.
“You have the next category of guys who now have been around a little while, have started to establish themselves and are hungry to take on bigger roles. And then you have the older guys who have experience whose job it is to play and to be good and to set the tone in those ways, but in other ways to make sure guys understand what it means to represent the national team. You can’t have a team without covering all different parts of that.”
At 31, Bradley has clearly lost a step but his experience has helped make up for that. And he remains exceptionally fit, logging a career-high 32 starts and 2,857 MLS minutes for Toronto last season while playing in a team-high 43 games in all competition.
That, too, mirrors Berhalter, who played 15 years in Europe before joining the Galaxy at 35. Yet, he started 26 games in his first MLS season and won an MLS Cup in his last.
So for the coach, Bradley’s production means much more to him than the number of birthdays the player has celebrated.
“The simplest reason why he’s here is he has quality,” Berhalter said of Bradley. “It’s clear even when you’re watching his training sessions: He’s a quality player.
“And just like you won’t hesitate to bring in someone young who’s good, we’re not going to hesitate to bring someone older who’s good.”
How long Bradley stays depends on how he performs. Berhalter’s pressing, attacking style of play relies heavily on active midfielders, which is why he called 11 of them in January’s all-MLS camp. So the challenge for the oldest player on the roster is to earn his keep by leading off the field while not getting left behind on it.
“That’s how football works,” he said. “Whenever a new coach comes in, that coach has a chance to work in whatever way he wants. To get the team to play however he wants. This initial part with Gregg is exciting for all of us.