The USMNT Needs The Real Michael Bradley To Step Up


I can't imagine what it must be like to be U.S. Men's National Team midfielder Michael Bradley right now.

The soccer star, who recently returned to the MLS following a wildly successful stint in Europe, was widely considered if not the most recognizable soccer player hailing from the United States, perhaps the best. Well, the best outside of goalkeeper Tim Howard anyway. Yet ever since the U.S. team's first game against Ghana in Brazil, Bradley has received a steady stream of criticism. That can't be easy for a player who has come so far to earn the label of being his country's best.

Bradley broke out on the world stage in 2010, going from one of the most underrated players for the USMNT at the World Cup to its most impressive, controlling the midfield in a way unaccustomed to the U.S. at the most heralded event for the world's biggest sport. Michael Bradley had officially arrived, and he's been the most consistent and most important U.S. midfielder, if not player, ever since.

Heading into this 2014 World Cup in Brazil, especially with Landon Donovan left off the U.S. side, USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann put a large burden on Bradley. As the team's best player and a veteran at just 26, the Princeton, N.J., native has had all eyes on him. And, well, this simply hasn't been the best World Cup for Bradley, and everyone has been letting him know about it.

I've fallen into the trap myself, lambasting Bradley for his sophomoric play with the ball at his feet. No matter how you slice it, he simply has not done a good job with his first touch or his passing. It's almost as if he's playing with a tennis ball, the sphere caroming off his foot uncontrollably. It's been frustrating to witness and has skewed everyone's perspective.

Yesterday, Ty Duffy at The Big Lead wrote an excellent piece on how vital Bradley has been despite appearances. As Duffy notes:

Bradley ran more than any player from any country in the 2014 World Group Stage. He averaged 7.86 miles per match. For some perspective about what that means physically, here are the NBA Playoffs distance covered stats. Jimmy Butler, playing 44 minutes per game, covered the most at 3.1 miles per game. Bradley did more than twice that, in extreme heat and humidity without a slew of TV timeouts and stoppages to rest and rehydrate.

His role has been vital. The U.S. has been better without the ball than skeptics anticipated. They have done an excellent job staying disciplined, organized and tough to break down. One Portugal goal came from a poor clearance. The other was a great play from perhaps the world’s best player. The one goal against Germany was a great finish from a rebound. They have not come through the U.S. getting shredded and giving up easy chances through the middle, which is keeping them in games (and in the tournament).

All of this is true, and they are all points well-taken. Bradley, while struggling with the ball, has been brilliant defensively, and his work tracking back has unquestionably allowed Jermaine Jones to flourish offensively, as Duffy notes. Without Bradley's unthinkable work, we very well may be discussing why the U.S. is sitting at home instead of playing a tough Belgium team in the round of 16.

However, that doesn't offset the clear fact that the USMNT needs the real Michael Bradley to step up, the one who dominates the midfield and sparks the U.S.'s counterattack with strong touches and beautiful passes. They need him to be the kick-start for a team that lacks depth at forward. He needs to resemble player who creates runs, delivers the right pass at the right time, and sets up or finishes off scoring chances. He needs to be the orchestrator of the U.S. attack.

That is asking a lot for a player who is covering more ground and pushing his body to its limits more than any other player thus far at The World Cup. But if the U.S. hopes to advance any further, they'll need him to do more. It may be unfair and may nearly be physically impossible, but no matter how ragged he runs himself, the U.S. cannot afford to have Bradley continue his poor first touches and off-mark passing. Those losses of possession are bad enough in the group stage — and they're flat-out lethal against the more talented teams in the knockout stage like the young, talented and confident Belgians.

Michael Bradley has most definitely been better than it seems. His defense has been superb and his leadership and organization vital. But if the U.S. hopes to beat Belgium later today and advance even deeper in this World Cup, he'll have to be even better — stronger on the ball, better with his first touch, more accurate with his passing and more aggressive on the counterattack.

It's asking a lot from a man doing so much already — but that's what you get when you're the best player on a team the entire world is keeping an eye on.


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