Sounders-Toronto match to pit US stars against each other

don.ruiz@thenewstribune.comMarch 15, 2014 

In the short term, Toronto FC’s visit to Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday projects as an interesting game.

In the long term, it could be remembered as a historic one.

The match pairs a couple of U.S. national team stars — Toronto’s Michael Bradley and Seattle’s Clint Dempsey — something Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said Major League Soccer hardly could have imagined even two seasons ago.

“The dynamics of the league have changed, and it speaks well of the league that we’re moving forward in that direction,” he said. “You see how this thing plays out, but years down the line, people are going to look back, I think, on 2013 and Clint’s return, and 2014 with Bradley coming back as maybe a time point when the league changed a little bit in their direction and in their competition pattern for American players.”

Neither player was in MLS at this time last season.

Then in August, the Sounders brought Dempsey over from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. This offseason, Toronto acquired Bradley from AS Roma of Italy’s Serie A.

“The better players in the league, the better league it is,” Dempsey said. “It’s always good to see American players getting good contracts, so I’m happy for (Bradley), I’m happy for the league.”

Despite ranking among the best players ever produced in the United States, Bradley saw spot

duty at Roma: five starts and six reserve appearances in 18 matches. When Toronto began reworking its roster with international star power, a move to MLS began making sense.

“I was at a point at Roma where I needed a new challenge and was ready for a change of scenery,” Bradley said. “Six months out from a World Cup, it was important for me to now get to a place where they really wanted me ... where I was going to play a really important role. So for me, the club that was ready to do anything and everything to make it happen was Toronto FC.”

Like Dempsey, Bradley began his professional career in MLS before taking on the greater risks and rewards of Europe. However, unlike other U.S. players who returned from Europe at the ends of their careers, Dempsey, 31, and Bradley, 26, project as being at or near their prime. Both also remain crucial parts of the United States’ hopes in the FIFA World Cup this summer in Brazil.

“We have a really good relationship on and off the field,” Bradley said. “I think everybody is able to see how important (Dempsey) is, not only for Seattle Sounders, but for the national team. I think whether he has been in Europe or back in MLS or with the national team, he has shown what kind of player he is.”

Dempsey said he does not see himself as a pioneer for MLS. Though Bradley admits he watched Dempsey’s return with interest, he made the move for his own reasons.

One of those is to try to improve the on-field fortunes of Toronto FC, which has some of the league’s most passionate fans but has sorely tested them by failing to make the playoffs in any of its seven MLS seasons.

Looking to change that, the Reds not only signed Bradley, but also brought in English striker Jermain Defoe, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and forward Gilberto, and Canadian national team career goals leader Dwayne De Rosario.

The reworked Reds had a bye last week, which increases the anticipation of their Saturday debut.

Like his coach, Sounders captain Brad Evans also framed the match in the bigger context of a league moving to a higher place on the world stage.

“It says a lot about the league; it says a lot about the growth,” said Evans, who also has increased his profile on the U.S. national team. “ ... After this World Cup, I think you’ll see even more top-quality players coming over. Every year, I think it will continue to do so. And we’re only going to grow — I don’t think we’re going to regress at any time — so it’s fun to be a part of it for sure.”

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 don.ruiz@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer @donruiztnt

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