On the surface, it would appear nepotism runs rampant within the U.S. national soccer team.
How else to explain the fact that Michael Bradley has been a regular for the American side since his father, Bob Bradley, took over the coaching reins in 2006?
But you need to dig a little deeper. Once you do, you'll discover that Michael, a standout midfielder with German club Borussia Monchengladbach, deserves his starring role for the Stars and Stripes after carving out a reputation as one of the best American players in the world today.
Nepotism? No way. If the young Bradley couldn't cut it, he wouldn't be going to South Africa for this month's World Cup — not that the elder Bradley hasn't had to justify his decision to have his son serve as the team's midfield anchor.
"As a national team coach you get second-guessed about everything. It's part of the job," Bob told CBCSports.ca. "The results always come first. We understand that and like any other player, Michael has had to earn his spot."
And make no mistake about it: Michael has earned his spot.
Michael, 22, was singled out as a talented midfielder when he began playing in Major League Soccer in 2004, at the age of 17. Two years later, he was transferred to Dutch side Heerenveen and became the team's midfield general. A string of outstanding international appearances for the U.S. earned him a lucrative move to the German Bundesliga, where he has become indispensable for Borussia Monchengladbach.
What's most impressive about the young Bradley is the determination and sheer will to win he has displayed for both club and country. Bradley, who made his senior team debut for the U.S. when he was 19, is a tenacious midfielder who never relents in pursuit of a victory. Capable of playing both an offensive and defensive role, Bradley is often praised for his incredible stamina — he runs himself ragged over 90 minutes.
Skepticism about son's inclusion
Still, Michael knows there will always be skepticism over his inclusion in the starting lineup as long as his dad is the coach.
"It is what it is; you know going in that people are going to try to make a big deal of it," Michael said. "But it's not something that either my dad or I can control. All that we try to do is give everything we have for the team. He does his best to make the team the best it can [be], and as a player I'm trying to do the same thing.
"I try to earn the respect of my teammates, the respect of the other coaches and prove that I'm a guy who should be on the field.… For me, there's not a whole lot more I can do."
Quelling the critics hasn't been easy, but Michael has earned the respect of his teammates.
"Michael deserves everything he's got," stated Benny Feilhaber, a U.S. national team midfielder. "He was a starter in Holland and now's he's doing well in Germany, starting in the Bundesliga, which isn't easy. So he's earned what his dad has given him."
Legendary AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini once admitted that playing for his father Cesare, who coached the Italian national team from 1996-98, was one of the most awkward and difficult experiences of his long and distinguished career.
Michael has no such hang-ups about playing for his dad.
'You can't control what people say'
"You can't control what people say, what people think, what people write," he said. "It's not something that I spend any time worrying about."
It's not your standard coach-and-player relationship, but Bob and Michael have worked hard to maintain a high level of professionalism when they are together within the framework of the national team.
"Michael has done a good job of understanding that whenever he plays, that first and foremost, you have to earn the respect of your teammates. If you have an honest mentality and you work hard, then you show people you belong. He's done that," stated Bob.
"We've always looked at [our relationship], very simply, that when we're involved in the national team, the team comes first."
Still, they are father and son, so it must be difficult for the two to put their relationship to the side?
"It's really not, quite honestly," the elder Bradley explained.
"When you've coached professional soccer, you have many situations over the years where you learn to recognize that the only thing that counts is the team and your ability to look at the group and figure out what makes sense. Michael has been around the game for such a long time [so] he also understands that side of things."
Cut his teeth in MLS
The fact that Michael is, in the estimation of many, the U.S.'s best player did not happen by accident. Fundamental to his soccer education was the time he spent cutting his teeth in MLS before going to the Netherlands.
"In Michael's case, he's had the best of all worlds," explained his father. "He gained experienced in MLS. As a 17-year-old, he played a full season with New York and then he had the opportunity to go to Europe. His first stop was in Holland with Heerenveen and Holland is a really great place for a young player in their first experience in Europe.
"They teach the fundamentals well, the league plays a good brand of soccer and teams are not afraid to play young players."
And while Bob may be his son's biggest supporter, he is also Michael's harshest critic.
"When you look at Michael's game, there are a lot of little things that he needs to continue to get better at," he admitted. "I sometimes talk about the 'package of everything,' so his starting points in terms of understanding the game and his mentality are good.
"But certainly across the board, Michael needs to sharpen up a bit technically; being able at times to go by a player. He has good size, and his heading is good, but can always be better."