MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – 'Miracle' is word used all too often in sports reporting, its use having reached a saturation point that's diminished the word's meaning and impact. But, in the case of AC Chievo Verona , in their role as Calcio's perennial over-achievers, it is precisely the right term to describe them.
Chievo is a small suburb of Verona and is home to around just 4,500 people, yet its soccer club has been writing huge headlines since their first promotion to Serie A back in 2001. Their rise to the top of Italian football and into the wider public conscience has been every inch the stereotypically cliched fairytale. Fans of the city's bigger club Hellas Verona (1985 league champions) famously said "donkey's would fly before Chievo are in A" - hence their now inescapable 'Flying Donkeys' moniker. Not only did Chievo reach Serie A, the minnows have thrived, recording victories over each of the countries traditional powerhouse teams.
Despite being formed some 83 years ago, their story only truly began back in 1986 following their first promotion to what was then Serie C2 (Italy's fourth-tier) after years bouncing around the regional amateur leagues. In order to compete at such a level, they needed to move from their Carlantonio Bottagisio home - essentially, the local parish field - and petitioned the city council for permission to share the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi with their title-winning neighbors.
Moving was from the center of William Shakespeare's beloved northern town, the Bentegodi looms into view and is (from the outside, at least) imposing, impressive and exactly the kind of arena to which opposition teams dread visiting. It looks and feels like a throwback to that same period when Chievo asked to take residence - the late 1980's and early 90's heyday when the nation's top clubs dominated in Europe and Italian football was the undisputed king of the continent.
Less than a year after Chievo's move, some 4,000 miles away in Princeton, New Jersey, current US men's national team midfielder Michael Bradley was born. Much like the stadium he now calls home, Bradley radiates a retro air. He eschews the preening and posturing of many of his contemporaries, projecting as a traditional, almost old fashioned midfielder, a stark contradiction when remembering he is still just 24 years old.
The speed at which he has settled into Italian football has been almost as impressive as the performances he has put in wearing Chievo's bright yellow, a real boost to those who had come to doubt the midfielder. After a moderately successful experience in Germany, his time at Aston Villa could best be described as stuttering. Many wondered if he could only thrive when playing for his father.
Those fears can now be cast aside. Since his arrival in Verona, the shaven-headed Bradley has thrived, making some 23 starts and one appearance as a substitute, playing time better by only goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino and captain Sergio Pellissier.
Never were his qualities more evident than in his last two outings, playing a leading role in helping his US team to victory over Italy in last weeks friendly before being a key figure as Chievo went to the outstanding new Juventus Stadium and held the Turin giants to what was a hugely impressive 1-1 draw. His contribution to both results cannot be overstated. He was the perfect antidote to Andrea Pirlo's probing for both the Azzurri and Juve. His US coach Jurgen Klinsmann was delighted with his performance, telling reporters; "Michael had an outstanding game".
Bradley clearly feels comfortable in his new surroundings, calling his new club "incredibly welcoming" and working hard to learn the language. He leads his new team in passing, completing almost 200 more than any of his teammates at an impressive 80.2 percent clip. His application, work-rate and tactical intelligence have been similarly eye-catching, and he trails only fellow midfielder Perparim Hetemaj in terms of tackling, averaging 3.3 per game. Klinsmann - who himself spent time in Serie A with Inter and Sampdoria during his own stellar playing career - was happy to discuss the effect playing on the peninsula would have on Bradley when he said.
"Half a year ago, he had a difficult situation with his club. When he told me he was going to Italy and I said, 'Michael, this is exactly the step you need now, to go to Italy and learn the whole tactical side of the game, to really read the space and read the game in advance. You will learn a hell of a lot.' Today he wanted to show that and did. He made a huge step forward in his own career coming here."
Often placed on the left side of a three-man midfield in Chievo's 4-3-1-2 formation, Bradley is almost the embodiment of everything positive about the Flying Donkeys, exhibiting and energy and endeavour endemic to Coach Mimmo Di Carlo's hard-working side. Along with Luca Rigoni and the aforementioned Hetemaj, he forms a unit which does a superb job protecting the defense while providing a platform for their attacking play.
With Chievo currently sitting comfortably in 10th place, all connected with the club can consider this a successful season. For Bradley, his time in England seems like a distant memory, the American clearly far more suited to Italy and Italian football, despite being surprised by the intensity of media coverage.
As he told USSoccer.som recently, "This is by far the most soccer crazy country that I have been in. There are three papers every day that just cover soccer and it's all about the game, players, tactics, performances, even the referee assignments."
Bradley has also spoken of the way defensive midfielders like him are respected in Italy. The recognition of this contribution to a team's effectiveness was certainly a factor in his decision to test himself in Europe's most tactically astute league. That he has fit in so well speaks volumes for his abilities. That it's ability rather than bombast doing the talking only feeds into Bradley's retro charm.
Michael Bradley may be a throwback, but he is proving that there truly is no school like old school.