When Michael Bradley of the U.S. World Cup soccer team was honing his game as a preteen at Sockers FC Chicago in his hometown of Palatine, he was inspired by the story of Michael Jordan.
Before his own growth into a star midfielder, Bradley was told of how Jordan didn't make his high school's varsity basketball team as a sophomore.
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Bradley was told the story as an example of how pure desire can overcome any shortcomings in natural ability.
Now Bradley has become a more relevant example of the same principle for the young hopefuls who've succeeded him at that Northwest suburban soccer school, his former coach says.
"That's the awesome thing now," said David Richardson, president of Sockers FC Chicago. "You don't have to use Michael Jordan as the example for a soccer player."
Bradley and the U.S. team play Portugal at 5 p.m. today. A win would allow the U.S. team to advance out of the "group of death" into the knockout round, an outcome few would have predicted.
Richardson said that from the time he first met Bradley at 10 years old, the boy was already a serious-minded soccer player who worked -- not dreamed -- to go pro.
"Did he have the talent at 12? No. But he had the desire," Richardson said. "Look, Michael is the best midfielder in U.S. soccer. That's clear. But at 14, he was not the best midfielder. He was smaller and not the most athletic. But Michael was always about silencing critics and enhancing his game."
Bradley's father, Bob Bradley, was coaching the Chicago Fire professional team during the years the family lived in Palatine and was often out of town traveling with the team. The younger Bradley would often come early and stay late for practices at Sockers FC Chicago, putting in time with younger teams and girls' teams, too, while waiting.
"He was here as much as our coaches were," Richardson said. "He was willing to accept the things he didn't do well and work on them."
Richardson said many people no longer remember that Bradley also played basketball -- a sport in which he was even more challenged, but which helped develop his work ethic.
Richardson marvels that talking with Bradley was always like talking to a much older person. And he retains that strong character today as a husband and father.
"His dad never put soccer ahead of his becoming a good man," Richardson said. "When you spend time with Michael, you think, 'This is a good man.'"
While Richardson believes Bradley found his own passion for soccer, the fact that his father's career must have been an influence seems obvious.
"The fact is, his dad was around soccer, and that was the way he could be around his dad," Richardson said.
Sockers FC Chicago has launched the careers of many successful soccer pros including Drew Jeskey, one of two Americans on a team in Finland, and Chicago Fire player Mike Magee -- the MVP of America's Major League Soccer.
Magee was 13 when he joined the club, commuting from Elmhurst. Right away, he could see the difference in philosophy from his former team, where scoring goals had been enough. Under Richardson's influence, he saw that personal integrity and hard work for one's team were the keys to success.
"It's hard to put into words what David has done for my career," he said.
Though two years older than Bradley, Magee came to know the future World Cup player very well, as Bradley's improving game placed him in an older age group.
"The main similarity between Michael and me is our competitiveness," Magee said.
Though the U.S. is a relative newcomer to international soccer, a lot rides on the success of the World Cup team, Magee said. Its performance raises not only the profile of the sport in the U.S., but the worldwide perception of American players' prowess and sophistication, he added.
The changes over the past dozen years are already obvious, Magee said,
"People don't laugh any more when you tell them you play soccer," Magee said.
Indeed, Sockers FC Chicago is already working with three times as many kids as it did when Bradley and Magee played there. And that's not only because of its own reputation, Richardson said.
"What we see is what everyone is seeing -- there are more kids playing soccer," he said.
A major reason for the growth is the prevalence of soccer teams from all around the world on television -- almost year-round, Richardson said.
And he sums up the general appeal of soccer as a game in which there's no waiting for the action to start.
"Players can be active as soon as they step out on the field," Richardson said. "They get enjoyment right away."
But the very technology that's making soccer easier to find in the U.S. is also the reason why young players even more naturally talented than Bradley may more challenged in developing their skills.
With the prevalence of social media, kids today have more ways to express themselves. The only way young Bradley could express himself was with a soccer ball, Richardson said.
Exactly when Bradley made the transition to the highly skilled player of today is difficult for Richardson to pinpoint. That's because when Bradley first told him he was going to play professionally, it was in a way that made him believe it. All the rest was just making it happen, he said.
"I always had the belief that he'd do it," Richardson said. "He was engaged in that conversation. You knew that wasn't going to disappear. There was no one who was going to hold this kid back."