As late as the early 1990s, if you were an American and wanted to play soccer professionally, your only real option (leaving to one side minor leagues and indoor) was to head to Europe. The generation of players who put US Soccer back on the map largely played overseas. Paul Caligiuri, who hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" that sent the US to the 1990 World Cup played for SV Meppen in Germany. When the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, major starers played in Germany (Thomas Dooley at Leverkusen and Eric Wynalda at Saabrucken), England (John Harkes at Derby County and Cobi Jones at Coventry City), and even Italy (Alexi Lalas at Padova).
That changed in 1996 when Major League Soccer kicked off. Nobody then (particularly) or now would argue with a straight face that MLS is one of the world's best leagues, but it was something to build on and provided a place for new American talent to grow. Not for nothing, but a lot of those Yanks Abroad - including Harkes, Lalas, and Wynalda (who scored the league's first goal) - came home to help the league get going.
Regardless, since then there's been a perception among lots of American soccer fans that for American players to really maximize their potential, and push the US Men's National Team to higher things, the best of them needed to play in Europe. MLS was fine for starting out, but testing yourself against the best players in the world by playing in the English Premier League or Serie A should be the ultimate target.
For the longest time the whipping boy for American fans on this score has been Landon Donovan who, for all his success in MLS and with the USMNT, never really found a spot at a top European club. When he returned from Leverkusen in 2005, critics called him soft and questioned his commitment to being the best player he can be. In spite of that criticism (or maybe because of it), Donovan kept his top form, for the most part, and will step away from the USMNT sometime soon as one of its all time greats.
As it happens, as MLS nears its 20th anniversary, there appears to be a wave of American stars coming back home. It started with Clint Dempsey, moving from Tottenham in England to the Seattle Sounders last year (though he's back in England on load during the MLS off season), but appears be be gaining steam. Most notably, midfielder Michael Bradley has decided to trade in the Serie A club Roma for the altogether more frigid environs of Toronto.
Bradley, after a stint in MLS with New York, moved to Europe in 2006. In fairly quick succession he moved successfully from club to club, from Holland to Germany and finally to Italy. All the while he became one of the USMNT's best players, finally emerging from the shadow of nepotism when his father, Bob, moved on to coach the Egyptian national team in 2011. As a result, there's been some backlash about Bradley's return to MLS.
Unlike Dempsey, who's arguably reached the peak of his career and will only trend downward (slowly, we hope!) from here, Bradley is only 26 years old. He should have another three of four years of development. And, unlike another returning player, defender Michael Parkhurst (from Germany to the Columbus Crew), Bradley was not simply riding the pine at Roma. He had played less than he would like, obviously, and perhaps the situation was going to get worse. But that is precisely the kind of cutthroat competition that most American soccer fans think will make players better in the long run.
In other words, there are some fans who are peeved because, regardless of how beneficial the move will be for Bradley financially or MLS in terms of stature, it could hurt the USMNT. It's particularly bad timing, given the World Cup coming up this summer in Brazil, where Bradley figures to be a key figure. The fear, then, is that Bradley will backslide during his time in the Great White North. And, besides, what will the rest of the soccering world think if our best player runs back home at a time like this?
I admit, I'm conflicted. As an MLS watcher I think that if this is part of a plan by the league to build the level of play and do so with recognizable American players, that's a good thing. I'd rather Bradley come to DC United, but what can you do? On the other hand, there is something disappointing about leaving Roma so early. Will it impact the World Cup? Hard to say - is it better to play regularly at Toronto in the run up or sporadically at Roma? I don't think anybody really knows the answer to this question.
Here's the thing, though, when it comes down to it. Neither Bradley nor any other player owes me anything, really. He's got to make decisions based on what he thinks is best for him as a player and his family. If he'd rather come back to MLS and play, who am I to tell him he's wrong? Same for the inevitable discussions on dual-nationality players who decide to play for another country - there's no point getting pissed about it, right?
As for the national team - it is what it is. The United State will likely never be the kind of consistent world power that Spain, Brazil, or Germany is. We're much better than we once were and, when the circumstances are right, can beat anybody. A good, deep run in a World Cup isn't beyond us, but it isn't likely, either. As fans, Americans need to accept that. Hope for the best, root hard, and scream loud for the team to win it all, but know, at the end of days, it's not likely to happen. Regardless of where Michael Bradley or anybody else decides to make his living.