In the coming hexagonal qualifiers and potentially the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the USMNT will go as far as it is led by its roving center-midfielder Michael Bradley.
Bradley, though only 25 years old, has been a U.S. international mainstay since 2007. Much of this time, he played for his father, Bob Bradley, then coach of the USMNT.
His initial impact on the side was obvious. Bradley’s first touch and other technical skills immediately stood out as something special, and enabled him to find space and time to focus on creative playmaking. That’s an element the USMNT had mostly lacked since Claudio Reyna’s retirement from international play.
But the creativity was spotty, and Bradley suffered several rough patches, which some critics turned into charges of nepotism against Bob Bradley.
Five years later, those critics are silent. This is not only because of the turnover at the head coaching position. Bradley has continued to grow as a player, and now is recognized as one of the more important USMNT starters.
More frequently, we even hear him named as the most important player on the national team, over the likes of Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Fabian Johnson and Tim Howard. This article continues that sentiment.
The USMNT trailed Russia by a goal in last November’s friendly. A ball was played up top, where striker Juan Agudelo laid it back for Bradley.
Agudelo’s effort to win that ball over the Russian defense was good. Bradley’s strike was better.
After the goal, ESPN’s Ian Darke can be heard on the video saying: “And that really is technical perfection from Michael Bradley.”
Maybe not perfect, but Bradley has been technically sound for much of his senior career.
His first touch was superior from the start. One can just imagine the backyard repetitions the father kicked and tossed toward his young son. What is less clear is which of the two pushed harder for more kicks and tosses. Both seem driven, when it comes to soccer development.
An old adage holds that first touch is 90 percent of the game, and the other half is mental. Bradley rode that 90 percent from youth club Sockers FC in Chicago to U-17 training camp in Bradenton, Fla., to the New York MetroStars.
The strong finishing ability, with both feet and head, seemed to be a later addition to the skill set.
By the time he established himself as a starter with the USMNT, he already had the most consistent ball skills since Reyna.
When Bradley was younger, it was easier to avoid comparisons between the two. Bradley’s field vision and decision making were not initially on par with his skills. Now they are a better match, but it seems people remain reluctant to mention that comparison.
Bradley is still fairly young, and after all, the other point of that comparison is Reyna. It’s getting harder to avoid, though, and Bradley already may be the better player.
Remember the adage. The other half is mental. Bradley is well on his way to nailing that part of the game down, as he already is the tactical steering wheel that drives the USMNT.
In last summer’s qualifiers, Jurgen Klinsmann seemingly directed a 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 toggle. And Bradley, playing an all-encompassing box-to-box midfield role, from defensive midfielder to deep-lying playmaker to attack middie, appeared to be the field general directing the toggle.
When Bradley dropped deeper, the second striker typically also dropped into more of an attack center midfield role. We saw Bradley and Dempsey work this toggle fairly seamlessly.
A primary question when evaluating other USMNT midfielders is how they play with Bradley. Those who cannot find a way to coordinate their play with his will most likely find themselves behind others on the depth charts.
Fortunately for USMNT fans, Bradley came of age when Dempsey and Donovan were already established, and the three have developed that intuitive sense for what the others are trying to do. Though Bradley is the newcomer to the trio, he now directs the play.
That he has developed and maintains this kind of presence, for country and former club, is no secret. At Serie A club Chievo Verona, Bradley was nicknamed “the General.”
The kid who learned to play initially in his Princeton, N.J., backyard and presumably on nearby university fields (his father was coach of Princeton at the time) this year is among new teammates at Roma.
Bradley has not established the same position of on-field leadership as yet, but has done well to solidify himself as a regular on the new and highest-profile club team for which he has played.
Serie A holds a certain tactical mystique. Bradley is a good fit there, as he can selflessly pour himself into a team’s game plan as well as any Italian footballer.
Several journalists have tried to pry a few secrets of that mystique out of him, such as Jack Bell of the New York Times.
Anyone who ever saw Bob Bradley faced with a question he didn’t want to answer can guess what happens. Both father and son just answer the question they would have preferred.
Bradley tends to answer questions about tactics by saying tactics and technique should work together. That’s the “bigger picture.” And journalists like Bell presumably are left wondering if they have heard football wisdom or a politician-like sidestep.
(If it is a sidestep, at least Bradley now does the stepping with a smile. Even just a few years back, he often seemed annoyed by questions he didn't like.)
The Man Running the Midfield
If Bradley has interests beyond the soccer field, he has inherited his father’s trait of keeping his private life out of view.
He talks about singleness of purpose and constant improvement. Known for his serious approach to the game he loves, it seems soccer is his whole life.
Of course, this isn’t completely true. He married his wife Amanda in 2011, and in the video to the right he describes his soccer and family lives as the “best of both worlds.”
He has always worked hard. Earlier in his career, he was the U.S. international who involved himself with battles nearly everywhere on the field. Sometimes those battles ventured into taboo areas.
In the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals, he was sent off for what the official saw as a bad tackle. He made the extraordinary mistake of confronting the official after the game. There was nothing threatening reported about the incident, and seemingly Bradley just wanted to state his case.
But it's not within the realm of what officials consider acceptable, and FIFA suspended Bradley for an additional three games.
He clearly had special skills, from his first appearance with the USMNT. But their application and timing were hit and miss.
He could hit a perfect tackle, bounce up and immediately launch another intense defensive effort a half-step late. He had the touch that created space and time, but he frequently squandered those advantages with poorly chosen passes.
And because of his position and dizzying work rate, every game with the USMNT was a full demonstration of both the good and bad. Those who focused on the good saw incredible potential. Those who focused on the bad started wondering if he was only on the field because of his father.
Bradley’s intensity is still there, but now more maturely harnessed. Even before the 2012 qualifiers, we saw a player who has come into his own, and who consistently matches his techniques with solid tactical application.
When this occurred is hard to pinpoint, as the improvement has been steady. By the time of the 2011 Gold Cup, his importance to the team was apparent, though far fewer fans than today would have pegged him as the most important player.
Teams have different kinds of leaders. Some bring composure. Some, like Bradley, bring a fiery competitiveness.
The latter type might not be who you would want wearing a captain’s armband and talking to referees. This may be especially true in Bradley’s case. If soccer officials had their own post office, Bradley wouldn’t be on the wall as one of the 10 most wanted, but his picture would be on the wall.
Confronting an official in the tunnel is that big a faux pas.
His intensity, now matured, contained and combined with constantly improving abilities, makes him that other kind of leader. This USMNT will follow Bradley, and go as far as he leads it.