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When he emerges out of the tunnel from the belly of Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday evening, Michael Bradley will once again be warmed over by that familiar feeling, the one that brought him back from some of the foremost leagues in Europe to Major League Soccer. The highly-anticipated and also sole matchup of 2014 between Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC provides an early-season barometer for each side.
Real Salt Lake, the perennial title contender forged from shrewd and important signings throughout the years vs. Toronto FC, the club that dished out a reported $100 million this offseason to formulate a winning culture and some pizzazz.
"It's why I'm here, for the challenge of it all," said Bradley, the Toronto FC and U.S. men's national team midfielder, "and for the opportunity to be at a club where I'm at every day [and] to put a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders and help things move along."
Having started out as a 16-year-old midfielder with what used to be the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Bradley's circular journey whisked him away to professional stops in the Netherlands, Germany, England and Italy. Within that time frame, he played for his father Bob on the national team and has morphed into arguably one of the most important players for current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of this summer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
But the path, however enjoyable or adventurous, led back to MLS. In early January, Bradley, now 26, left Italian Serie A giant AS Roma to sign a monumental contract with Toronto FC, changing the landscape of professional soccer in the U.S. His transfer fee was reported to be in excess of $10 million and his multi-year deal pays the American around $6 million per season.
Along with Clint Dempsey, whose high-priced move to Seattle Sounders last summer upped the ante for professional soccer in America, Bradley's move flipped the often preconceived notion that top players must play in top leagues overseas.
"I'm here to play," Bradley said. "I'm here to compete, I'm here to enjoy every second of this and I'm here to win. Those are things that are easier said than done, but that's why I am here. And in the meantime, if it sets an example for others or if they want to interpret it that way, they certainly have that right."
RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy said Bradley's return to MLS and addition to TFC is a move predicated on implementing a winning culture, and that starts with acquiring the right players.
"You can say all the right things, but until you do them and the other guys see it, it's hard for those players to buy into it," Grabavoy said. "You can see the dynamic and the chemistry of their team has certainly changed."
With the addition of Bradley, English forward Jermain Defoe and Brazilians Gilberto, Jackson and Julio Cesar, TFC is off to a 2-0-0 start, having toppled Seattle and D.C. United in the first two weeks of the season. While Defoe and Gilberto may pester MLS back lines, Bradley is the engine to the evolution in Toronto, much like the U.S. national team.
"Just a centerpiece right down the middle of the field," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. "What can't he do? I think it's that. He is everywhere for them."
And for the last few years, he's been everywhere for the U.S. as it continues to strive for further finishes at the World Cup every four years. A two-way midfielder, whose positioning, tactical awareness and all-around abilities have cemented a spot in Klinsmann's starting lineup, Bradley has been a regular fixture in leading the national team in the World Cup, in World Cup qualifiers and high-profile international friendlies with 82 national-team appearances and 11 goals since 2006.
"An all-around good soccer player who puts it all out there," said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
After RSL and Toronto FC tangle at Rio Tinto Stadium at Saturday night, Bradley will join three of his adversaries from the previous 90-plus minutes and immediately become teammates with Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Luis Gil as the U.S. takes on rival Mexico in a friendly on April 2 in Glendale, Ariz. It marks the final tune-up before Klinsmann and his staff call in its World Cup roster in Brazil sometime in May.
"When you talk about the national team, you try to continue to build on everything that we're doing," Bradley said. "We feel we can get to the point where now, we're getting into the World Cup to play right until the very end."
Twitter: @chriskamrani Michael Bradley file
Age • 26
Position • Central midfielder
Hometown • Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Pro career • NY/NJ MetroStars (2004-2005), SC Heerenveen (2006-2008), Borussia Monchengladbach (2008-2011), Aston Villa (2011), Chievo (2011-2012), AS Roma (2012-2014), Toronto FC (2014-present)
International career • U.S. senior men's national team since 2006, played every minute of every match at 2010 FIFA World Cup. Tied for 22nd all-time with 82 national-team appearances; has 11 international goals since 2006.
Acquired by Toronto FC • On Jan. 8, Toronto FC completes transfer with AS Roma
RSL vs. Toronto FC
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4
Michael Bradley Q&A
See The Salt Lake Tribune's interview with Michael Bradley at sltrib.com/blogs