Despite his tender years, US defensive midfielder Michael Bradley already boasts more than his fair share of experience. Behind the cool, laid-back exterior, this is one 19 year old in a hurry to make his mark, and many would say he has done just that. Introduced to American top-flight football and MLS at 16, playing in Europe at 18 and promoted to the US senior side at the same age, he lives and breathes football. Fresh from emerging as the fulcrum of the senior team at the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup, the tall (1.85m) and sturdy ball-winner with the piercing blue eyes spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about the challenges ahead.
Less than a week ago, Bradley was celebrating victory in the Gold Cup, yet no sooner had the champagne been uncorked than he was making his way to the airport for another tournament. For some players, that would be a recipe for fatigue and perhaps even a touch of cynicism, but the USA's bright young midfield organiser is no ordinary player. "I'm very excited to be here," he explains with obvious enthusiasm. "It's a World Cup and the fact it comes at the end of a long season isn't important. You always feel ready to make an extra effort for competitions like this."
Supremely confident in his own ability, he knows all too well that his meteoric rise to prominence has raised expectations, and many will be looking to see him stamp his authority on the U-20s. "My experience with the senior side means I have added responsibility in this team," he says. "I owe it to myself to be a leader and give advice to the younger players. That said, I don't think of myself as a special case. It's important that I integrate with the rest of the squad and behave like a good team-mate."
That clarity of thought and humility can be added to the impressive list of abilities he displays on the pitch, and coach Thomas Rongen has nothing but praise for the 19-year-old: "He's become a star in the space of a few weeks. He's a player who understood all the tactical aspects of the game very quickly, but he's retained an exceptional capacity to sacrifice himself for the team. He's a player who's always been mature for his age."
A large dose of that maturity must surely spring from Bradley's experiences abroad, and it was after an excellent season with SC Herenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie that he found himself contesting five matches at the Gold Cup. Exiled to Europe at the tender age of 18, he would rather talk about how switching continents can aid his future development than any possible home-sickness. "I spent two years playing in the American league before leaving for Europe and I knew I had to go there to progress. I play a lot at Heerenveen and that's the best way for me to improve," he notes, before adding with the sincerest of smiles, "It's a small town but my social life is not that crucial to me."
"We're not favourites"
A huge fan of midfielders such as Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, men dedicated to fulfilling their tasks with a minimum of fuss, Bradley is unsurprisingly reluctant to sing his own praises. Instead, he is quick to stress the togetherness that reigns within the US squad, a quality that could well take them far. "We've all known each other for a long time," he says. "We're very close away from the pitch and that's important because it influences the spirit in the camp."
Given the blend of younger talents and more seasoned campaigners, the Americans look a good bet to have their say on Canadian soil, but - like an old pro - Bradley prefers to keep his feet on the ground: "The team is naturally confident in what it can do, and we know we can play and play well against anyone. We've got a good balance between experience and youth and a top-quality forward line. We're convinced we can go a long way but we're not one of the favourites. The favourites are Argentina, Brazil and Spain, and we still have some way to go to match them."
The Americans' first test comes in the form of Korea Republic, a side they are more than capable of bettering. However Bradley knows that no game is won in advance. "I said we had a great forward line, but it's up to us to get the ball to them!" he points out. "And we need to be very tight in defence."
Everything about Bradley smacks of maturity and, while his foreign adventure must account for a lot of that, the influence of his father surely looms large as well. After all, the man he calls 'Dad' is none other than US senior coach Bob Bradley - a situation one could imagine causing him a certain amount of embarrassment. As it is, Bradley junior seems slightly annoyed to be asked his thoughts on the subject. "I'm used to having my dad tell me what to do," he states. "There are good and bad sides to it, of course, but I can't say it troubles me unduly. When I'm with the national team, I work as hard as possible to win the respect of the other players and the coach."
That is as may be, but their relationship remains unique. Bradley senior had a few words of advice before his son left for Canada. "He told me to take on a leadership role in this team because I have added experience," he explains. "He also reminded me that taking part in a World Cup is a very special opportunity and that I should make the most of it while playing the way I want to play."
If it were not obvious by now, playing matters more than anything to Bradley - a fact he readily admits. "My life is football. I always have a ball nearby," he says. "When I'm not playing, I relax, watch television, surf the net and prepare for the next training session. And I love it, I love having football on the brain." With dedication like that, no one should be shocked if the youngster from Princeton ends up expressing his love for the game at the very highest level.