PORTLAND, Ore. - Years ago on some Illinois Olympic Development Program (ODP) tryout or possibly with youth club Sockers FC Chicago—time has faded the memories a bit—a young Will Johnson met a young Michael Bradley.
Bradley, the latest in a long line of athletes and son to then-Chicago Fire head coach Bob Bradley encountered a young Johnson who had triple citizenship (U.S., Canadian and British) with quantum mechanics professors as parents.
Despite the different backgrounds, the two became fast friends through the numerous youth soccer games and tournaments. Johnson remembers having modest dreams at the time.
“As kids, we used to talk about going to state championships and things like that. That’s what we were focused on,” said Johnson looking back. “No kid ever dreams about playing in an All-Star Game with their best friend.”
And yet, come Wednesday night when the 2014 AT&T MLS All-Stars host FC Bayern Munich at Providence Park (6:30pm PT, ESPN2), that’s exactly what will happen.
Johnson’s path to this point is worldly. Born in Canada, he spent time as a child in Liverpool, then moved to Chicago at 10 before moving back abroad to the Blackburn youth system in England. Professionally, he began with the then-Bob Bradley-less Chicago Fire before heading again overseas to the Dutch Eredivisie at Heerenveen. The gritty midfielder established himself in Major League Soccer with Real Salt Lake, winning an MLS Cup in 2009 and now finds himself as captain of the Portland Timbers.
Re-united on the training pitch Monday along with their All-Star teammates, Johnson and Bradley could be seen talking and joking, clearly enjoying the moment. It’s the kind of friendship that has lasted so long, the exact length is vanished to history.
“I’ve lost track of the number of years, to be honest with you,” said Johnson with a laugh. “I was in his wedding and things like that so when we get the opportunity to be on a team like this, it’s special.”
Not that the two friends’ paths haven’t intersected since their Chicago childhoods. Bradley started playing in MLS at the age of 16 for his father at New York/New Jersey MetroStars before heading to Europe to play in The Netherlands at Heerenveen with, coincidentally, Johnson. Bradley soon went on to play in the Bundesliga in Germany as well as with Serie A giants AS Roma before famously returning to MLS as a Designated Player with Toronto FC this past offseason.
Through all the miles, teams, and years, Bradley has maintained a close friendship with Johnson.
“He’s somebody, who even as our careers have taken us in different places, we’ve always stayed very close,” said Bradley. “Obviously, we had the chance to play together professionally in Holland, so he’s a guy that I consider one of my closest friends. To have the chance to spend a few days with him and be back on the same team is enjoyable for sure.”
Both share an intense drive for the game which manifests itself on the field with spirited play, hard tackles, as well as deft touch and intelligent decision-making. The two are very similar players and, not surprisingly, are quick to deflect praise to the other.
Said Bradley of his friend Johnson, “When you watch him play, you see right away how important he is to his team in the way that he’s able to be in the center of the field, take care of things, and be a guy who gets in on plays and then is able to get the ball and find the right guys. You watch for two minutes and you see how important he is.”
On the other side, Johnson quickly ticks off the elements of Bradley that he’s always admired both in his on-the-field play as well as off.
“Just class. All-around class. Humble. Hard-working. Technical. All those kinds of things, but Michael’s also just willing to help anybody who needs help.”
Now with a unique opportunity to re-connect, the two have been making the most of their MLS All-Star Week experience.
Thinking back on those tryouts and youth teams they played in together in Chicago long ago, Bradley didn’t necessarily believe the two of them didn’t one day envision a day like this. Dreams have a funny way of sometimes coming true.
“I’m not sure we had any reason to [dream this],” said Bradley with a typical wry smile. “But like all kids, we dreamt big that’s for sure.”