As the United States men's national soccer team approaches its round of 16 matchup against Belgium on Tuesday, one question many American fans have been asking is, "What's up with Michael Bradley?"
Throughout World Cup qualifying and the United States' many friendlies over the past several years, Bradley has been the engine of the team's midfield, displaying machine-like efficiency with his passing and putting forth an effort that was simply unmatched. Many even argued that Bradley, not Clint Dempsey, should be the team's captain.
Over that same time period, Jermaine Jones, one of the United States' other frequent starters in the central midfield, put forth wildly inconsistent displays. Although there were flashes of talent, more often than not, Jones' games were full of turnovers, petulant challenges and poor effort.
His performances were so frequently bad that many became convinced the only reason he played was because he was a favorite of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
However, in the 2014 World Cup, those roles seem to have been reversed. Reporter Ives Galarcep of Soccer By Ives has argued that Jones was the Man of the Match in all three U.S. group-stage games. Meanwhile, Bradley's performance has been considered to be so poor that the hashtag #BenchBradley has begun trending.
And how about Jermaine Jones? For my money, he was USMNT Man of the Match for a third straight game.— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) June 26, 2014
So, with the United States' critical knockout-round match against Belgium looming, how can Klinsmann get more out of Bradley?
The first issue is Bradley's positioning. In both the 4-1-2-1-2, which the U.S. used against Ghana, and the 4-2-3-1, which the U.S. used against Portugal and Germany, Bradley has played higher up the field than normal and has essentially been asked to assume the role of the No. 10.
While Bradley is capable of playing that position, it is not his forte. He has done well at the position in spurts, as evidenced by his performance against Mexico in April and his assists in send-off games against Turkey and Nigeria, but he has yet to make the position his own in the World Cup.
At the club level, Bradley has not regularly played as a pure attacking midfielder since his days at Heerenveen over six years ago.
The other issue has been perception. Because expectations for Bradley were sky high heading into the World Cup and expectations for Jones were so low, their performances have appeared to be radically different.
However, the numbers prove otherwise.
Despite being called lazy by some fans, Bradley has actually covered more ground than any other player in the tournament—for any team. And despite claims about his poor possession, Bradley has actually had a higher possession rate than Jones in all three of the United States' group-stage matches.
The final issue has been the relative importance of Bradley's mistakes—the one area he is open for justifiable criticism.
Against Ghana, he failed to take the ball to the corner in stoppage time, lost it and gave the Ghanaians one last attack; against Portugal, he took a bad touch and was dispossessed on the play that eventually led to the 95th-minute equalizer (albeit 65 yards from goal); and against Germany, he mishandled a pass at the top of the box on one of the United States' few productive forays into the attack.
Here's play where Michael Bradley lost ball to Eder. The turnover was worse than Cameron's D. Bradley has been bad. https://t.co/pG8PO0Euqj— Jeff D Lowe (@JeffDLowe) June 23, 2014
The U.S. will stand a much better chance of beating Belgium if Bradley plays well. His work rate and overall possession rate are already top-notch, so there is nothing to worry about there. And nothing can be done to change the expectations fans have placed upon Bradley.
He certainly can be bigger in the key moments of the match, meaning that if he gets a chance to contribute to the attack, he needs to take it and if he's in possession late in the match with the U.S. leading, he needs to be smart with the ball.
The final thing that can be done to help Bradley is to push him deeper into the midfield by using a true attacking midfielder in Mix Diskerud, or a withdrawn forward in Aron Johannsson.
Of course, if Jozy Altidore returns for the match, Dempsey can play the withdrawn forward role as well.
If Bradley can play deeper, almost alongside Beckerman, he will be in a more natural position—one that he has played in outstandingly for the U.S. for years. And if that happens, fans will see the "old" Bradley, the one they've grown to love.
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