When U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley made his first trip to watch English Premier League games, he felt an admiration bordering on reverence. Bradley was 16, and he recalls his fascination with the players' speed, power and commitment, to say nothing of the fans' unwavering support for those who gave the maximum effort for 90 minutes. "I think that's something special," says Bradley, who moved to the Premier League's Aston Villa on loan from Germany's Borussia M√∂nchengladbach at the end of January. "It was eye-opening for me. It's always been something I wanted, to come and play here."
Now, at 23, Bradley has his chance. Following a standout performance at last year's World Cup, the hard-driving midfield general has continued his steady pro climb from MLS at age 16 to the Dutch Eredivisie at 18 and the German Bundesliga at 21. After making his Villa debut as a substitute on Feb. 12, Bradley could move to the starting lineup as soon as this Saturday against Blackburn Rovers, owing to a red-card suspension for teammate Jean Makoun that may last until mid-March. "The main thing for me is to show I'm a guy who should be on the field every week," Bradley says. "That's the challenge, whether [Makoun] is suspended or not."
Aston Villa has the option to buy Bradley's contract at season's end, and Bradley doesn't hide his hopes of becoming the latest American to sign full time with the team. He says he has already received a warm welcome from Villa's U.S. goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, and recently he spoke with Randy Lerner, the American who owns Aston Villa (and the Cleveland Browns). "You sense right away the passion he has, not only for [soccer] but for Aston Villa," Bradley says of Lerner.
Bradley has three months to do what he has done with four other teams, including Team USA: earn a regular spot in the starting lineup. Although he was a relatively unheralded prospect in his mid-teens, Bradley has shown a singular focus on becoming a so-called modern central midfielder, who can close down on attackers while serving as an engine that pushes forward to score occasional goals. Like his father, U.S. coach Bob Bradley, Michael is famous for his intensity. "He has no use for anything that doesn't help him get to the highest level," says U.S. assistant coach Jesse Marsch. "You can see that in the way he eats, the way he rests, the way he's in the gym at the right times."
"I want to get to the end of my career and say I played in the biggest games for the biggest clubs," Bradley says. "Until now there aren't really any Americans who have played consistently at the top of leagues, fighting to win Europa Leagues or Champions Leagues. To play on a good team that is able to win something would be special."
For a U.S. soccer player in Europe, it would be historic.
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In less than one week two American players had a chance to be game-winning heroes against Premier League giant Chelsea. In league play on Feb. 14, Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey earned a last-minute penalty against the Blues, but his spot kick was saved by Petr Cech, resulting in a 0--0 tie that gave the fifth-place Blues a valuable point in their effort to move up to fourth and win a spot in the 2011--12 Champions League. Then, last Saturday, Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard had an opportunity to deny Chelsea in a penalty-kick shootout to decide the teams' fourth-round FA Cup game after a 1--1 deadlock. Howard's save of Nicolas Anelka's kick turned the tide, and Everton knocked off the two-time defending FA Cup holder at Stamford Bridge.
NEVILLE WILLIAMS/ASTON VILLA FC/GETTY IMAGES (BRADLEY)
PREMIER PREMIERE In his Villa debut Bradley entered as a sub and played 17 minutes of a 1--1 draw with Blackpool.
RICHARD HEATHCOTE/GETTY IMAGES (HOWARD)