Being his own Bradley

WASHINGTON -- Michael Bradley steps out of the elevator. A shimmery hotel lobby crowded by ritzy designer couches is sprawled out in front of him. He walks past them all, choosing a simple stool next to an out-of-the-way, plastic table and sits down. The stool is uncomfortably low.

The 24-year-old U.S. and Chievo Verona midfielder is ready to talk about one of his least favorite subjects: Michael Bradley. "There's a certain part of what we do that unfortunately can't always be just held for yourself," he says, sitting hunched over. He talks slowly, considering every word, starting his sentences over, grimacing, staring off into the distance for a second or two and then staring over again. "So, there's the part of that … which … you know, which parts of that are you gonna … erm … are you gonna give people a look at … are you going to let them in on? For me, I don't feel the … I've never been somebody who's felt the need to … on the outside of the team … or publicly … be in the limelight or advertise myself."

"The most important stuff isn't the publicity and the Twitter," says Bradley. "That's not who I am. What I choose to focus my energy and concentration on is what am I all about as a player and as a person and what can I do to make myself the best possible player and what can I do to help whatever team I'm on win."

But there's the rub. Whereas for years the hyper-focused, no-frills Bradley quietly went about his work in the middle of the U.S. midfield -- closing gaps, backing up teammates, distributing, defending, tracking back, joining the attack -- he's gotten so good at his job lately that the limelight has come to him.

Since switching from the Bundesliga's Borussia Monchengladbach to Serie A's Chievo Verona last summer, Bradley's performances have improved steadfastly. He was simply masterful in an impressive 1-0 U.S. win over Italy on Feb. 29 and its 5-1 win over Scotland on May 26, racing about the field, anchoring the defense at one end and splitting open opponents with his passing at the other -- not to mention scoring one of the goals of the year. In a 4-1 loss to Brazil on Wednesday, he served up a delightful spread of long balls and chips into the paths of his teammates -- setting up the only American goal with a delicate through ball -- and was one of the few Americans who could hang with his opponents.

More and more, our talk is about him, but it takes three attempts to get him to evaluate his own performance, rather than that of his team. Bradley is uncomfortable, clearly. "I think it was two pretty solid games for me," he says at last. As always, he stares intensely below a heavy brow, his pale green eyes flanking a dead-straight nose, framed by blond stubble on his head and face. "So, on a personal level, I'm pleased with that."

Then he catches himself. Self-satisfaction isn't the Bradley way. "I always look at myself closely, and trust me, there's things in both games I feel can be even better," he says.

There are really only two things of consequence in Bradley's life: family and soccer. The family stuff is private and everything that isn't soccer is a distraction. When asked about the meaning of a tattoo on the inside of his right arm, he quickly tugs his sleeve down as far as it will go. "No, that's OK," he says, recoiling.

He'll talk all day about soccer -- intelligently, too -- but if the conversation veers away from tactics or recent and upcoming games, to teammates or coaches, say, he'll quickly bring the conversation back to team and process. He's a team guy. That's all he's been or wants to be. "I think from the first time I've ever come in with the national team all I've ever tried to do is give everything I have for the team and being the guy in the center of midfield who does all the things to help the team win," says Bradley. "More than anything for me -- goals, no goals, assists, no assists -- the most satisfying thing for me is to look back and see good performances from the team and wins. That for me is always what I look at first and what I pride myself on the most."

Specializing in midfield dirty work has come naturally to Bradley -- "I've not chosen anything, this is who I am," he says -- but it's made him prone to the criticism that has followed him much of his national team career. Those who don't perceive the immense value in what it is he does -- the unseen toil and the enabling of others' eye-catching moves -- have wondered aloud why he's there it all. Could it be because, from late 2006 through the summer of 2011, his father, Bob, was the coach?

Bradley has never stood out in any particular aspect of the game (other than sheer volume of labor) but has been solid and dependable all around: sturdy but never spectacular. This is by design. "I try to improve the whole package," says Bradley. "As a midfielder, how good can you be at everything you do? Everything is constantly tested at the highest level. You can concentrate on one thing, but it's not so easy. In the meantime there are 20 other guys in the team that are going to be training. The point is as a midfielder, how dominant can you be in every situation? A midfielder in football nowadays has to be able to do everything." But that, too, being a man without a recognizable trait, made him vulnerable to the charges of nepotism.

Bob Bradley's dismissal in July liberated Michael Bradley from that accusation. But although he was aware of the accusations, says Michael, "That stuff never weighed on me. It wasn't stuff that ever bothered me. When I say that I concentrate on the team and improving myself, part of that is having a mentality that says things that go on outside the team, off the field, you're not going to let bother you."

Yet his liberation, if it was one, has marched in lockstep with his maturation as a player and his growth from solid, reliable contributor to team leader and, increasingly, one of its star players.

"I think he took a big step over the last year," says U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "That move to Italy helped him tremendously. He learned a lot on the tactical side of the game, but he also, his personality, his maturing development made a big step. He's on his way to becoming one of the leaders in this group. He's on a very good path."

"Off the field he's been a bit more outspoken and a bit more vocal," says captain Carlos Bocanegra. "I think he's feeling more comfortable with himself and being a bigger part of the team."

There are differing explanations for his growing role. Now that he's no longer the coach's son, some argue, he's free to speak his mind and lead. Others say he's grown into the role naturally with age. "He's young and he had a lot thrown onto his plate at a young age and he's now maturing even more into that role," says goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Bradley himself, as often, steers around the subject somewhat. "Maybe you're able to look at things differently, there's a change of perception and there's almost the sense of now, I've been there, I've done that and I've seen what I can do and what I can be," he explains -- sort of.

Playing in Italy has done his game good; that much finds consensus among his U.S. teammates. "The speed of play, the speed of thought, the different decisions he makes off the ball, you can definitely see the maturation in his game play," says Oguchi Onyewu, who spent a season and a half with AC Milan.

"The experience of now having played a season in Serie A has been great for me," says Bradley. "The way the game is played there, the things and the types of players that are appreciated there in all ways is a great fit."

His breakout performance there with Chievo, which has drawn interest from bigger Italian clubs like Inter Milan, Napoli and AS Roma, came on the back of his being forced out of Gladbach. He'd subsequently failed, for the first time in his career, to will his way into a starting job during a half-season loan to the Premier League's Aston Villa. "All that did was reinforce [my hunger]," says Bradley. "All you can use that as is 'These guys didn't think I was good enough and these guys didn't want me and I'm going to give all I have to make sure that never happens again and show a few people along the way that they were wrong.'"

Bradley argues he never got the chance, making just four appearances until Villa declined to buy him outright over the summer. "I think I would have [won a starting job] if I'd stayed," says Bradley. "I showed up January 31 and the season ended at the beginning of May. I was there three months. In the grand scheme of things, that's not a real long time. I was committed to staying and I was ready to stay. If you ask me, eventually I would have."

Already famously intense, Bradley's first genuine failure as a professional made him hungrier still. "As a person I'm more committed than ever to doing whatever it takes to get to the highest level," he says. "I've always been somebody who has had big ambitions and has set high goals for myself. I've always given all of myself to try to reach those."

Bradley is convinced that giving less than all of himself will result in plateauing his development, inducing his peak and, inevitably, beginning his decline. He doesn't want that. He wants to do this forever. "If you don't have that drive to push yourself, then you've reached your prime," says Bradley. "You stop improving when you stop feeling like you can. It's so competitive and the margin between winning and losing is so fine that if there's no drive there will always be somebody else who has that."

Time's up. Bradley rises from his stool. Walking away, back to the elevator, he winces and holds his lower back. He'd sat in the same cramped, stooped-over position for 40 minutes, far too focused to notice.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a freelance soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.