Soccer’s stylistic highs wouldn’t exist if not for the work of an invisible class of string-pullers. Glitz and style matter more in soccer than any other sport -- think of the Brazilian national team’s paranoid ethos of joga bonito -- but can’t stand up on their own. Vivid, expressive attacking and telekinetic one-touch passing rely on a backbone of steely, stolid midfielders. Someone has to chase the ball around and start the creative engine before anything beautiful happens; the work leads to the art.
Positionality in soccer is notably less strict than in other sports. You have players who stop opponents from scoring and players who score. Every team iterates these functions with their own flair and that’s where style comes from. There are more than enough formations to pick from, but every team moors their strategy around scoring and not getting scored on. As style evolves new creases and wrinkles, little responsibilities and specialities worm their way into existence. Right now, the most skilled offensive teams can commit to throwing so many people forward because they can count on tireless work from a class of combative roaming midfielders. Success and style depend on these practical fulcrums. Every great team needs at least one.
These essential if essentially unstylish players don’t score a lot; they don’t have the wide receiver swagger of wing players. They are lumpen and subtle; they set the table for goals early on in the process, but are gone by the time service begins. No player inhabits this baroque, wildly un-dramatic efficiency as thoroughly as American Michael Bradley.
Soccer is full of pretty people doing pretty things, but Bradley turns this on its head. He is profoundly bald and as steely-eyed serious as his father, ex-USA coach Bob Bradley. In Luke O’Brien’s excellent profile of him at Deadspin, Bradley said “I smile when we win.” He gives off some heavy, severe Henry Rollins/Ian McKaye vibes; it is easy to imagine him pacing back and forth Rollins-style before a game. When he runs, his gait is upright and his back is rigid, and he looks more rigorously disciplined than fluidly athletic.
This extends to his style of play as well, as Bradley patrols the middle 75% of the pitch like a German Shepherd, constantly making forays and destabilizing his opponents’ attempts to advance. Bradley thrives on conflict, again not unlike Rollins or his righteously confrontational peers. In some hard to define way, Bradley seems prototypically American, full of bravery and energy, dutifully scouring the pitch as thoroughly as possible. This is maybe not American as the world experiences it, so much as it is America as it likes to conceive of itself. If there is indeed any actual manifestation of America’s global idea of itself as judicious, tough, dispassionately virtuous policeman, it is probably Michael Bradley, flat-eyed and managerial, on a soccer pitch.
Bradley’s job in the structure of his team is that of arch-setup man. He starts attacks with more options than anyone. There are a series of moves and countermoves between teams that make up the flow of a game. It’s a maze in which all the walls can and will move; Michael Bradley gets to decide which of the many potential alternate realities comes to life by choosing his entry point. Pass too high or too far and the ball rolls to the goalie. Press too much with a dribble-drive and you’ve left your spot exposed. He must constantly take the pulse of the game in real time, figure out where the ball should go, then put it there.
The last part of that trio of actions is the hardest, unsurprisingly. Bradley can squirm the ball through all manner of tight spaces and loft it from a variety of angles to find a cutting teammate. He makes deceptively simple passes to the right back out of double teams and also picks out running teammates in dangerous areas. This homing-device touch is also apparent in a few spectacular goals he’s scored in an American shirt. Bradley won’t astound immediately; his game is cooperative, and his charms are most apparent in retrospect or upon repeat viewing. But he blends stamina and physicality, nominally American traits, with deft passing ability and vision, characteristics branded as beyond Americans. He is that type of player all good teams build their castles of glamour upon.
Bradley’s comfort zone is as big as the field and his range has made him indispensable for the USMNT. He is not in the elite class of game-controlling central midfielders, but he is the best player America has. Few Americans have succeeded as well as he has in Europe, and nobody has done it so many times. Bradley has established himself as a vital part of a European team four times, including stops at Borussia Mönchengladbach and AS Roma. These are big, historically significant clubs with Champions League aspirations, and Bradley was an important cog at both. Many Americans sign with European squads and don’t ingratiate themselves into the fabric of the team. Landon Donovan famously couldn’t stick in Germany, Jozy Altidore has bounced around Europe, and Clint Dempsey only lasted a year at Tottenham before leaving.
But for all Bradley’s European successes, he left Roma and is headed back to MLS. He helped Roma to a 10-game win streak to start the Serie A season, and was receiving minutes despite a loaded midfield, which includes Kevin Strootman, who is himself a Dutch Michael Bradley with a few tweaks. Bradley’s stateside move was apparently motivated by a desire to stay sharp ahead of the approaching World Cup in Brazil, or by that and Toronto FC’s treasure chest full of money and the promise of unbounded playing time.
It is almost reflexive for American fans to be disappointed in this move. Bradley is good enough to keep earning his minutes at Roma, and has the pedigree to stay employed on a team in the big four European leagues. To give that up feels like settling at some level, as if Bradley thought he was playing above his head or, in the mode of the European stars who have elected to spend their twilight years in MLS, saw the writing on the wall and was cashing in one last payday. Neither is becoming for a player that represented the biggest success story for Americans in Europe; it could be interpreted as a step back for the whole program, and not just for Bradley. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann stresses the importance of playing at the highest level, and Bradley belongs there. He opted out of that.
But, as Connor Huchton noted in this space, MLS is growing up. The league gets more talented by the year -- England international Jermaine Defoe will be joining Bradley in Toronto -- and MLS players played a huge role in what has been the USMNT’s best year of all time. This is no longer a knockoff league full of castaways and underachievers. It is, instead, a legitimate place to develop talent, especially with USMNT legends Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey playing for MLS teams. The league isn’t as stylish as Serie A or the EPL, but that will follow as the talent level keeps rising. Michael Bradley’s return is certainly part of that. It is even, in some ways, the sort of selfless big-picture move we’ve come to expect from Bradley.
After all, a strong MLS is key to USMNT success, even if the presence of the nation’s best players in the league means that American players aren’t testing themselves against the highest level of competition possible. Regardless of how much of a spiritual victory Michael Bradley’s European success was, his return is for the good of everyone. FC Toronto’s attempts to challenge for trophies after trudging through the lower ranks of MLS smacks of the oil money renaissance at Manchester City, but starting the new era off with Michael Bradley rather than some over-aged European has-been is prescient. It’s as ground-up as it gets.
Toronto had dropped every one of their last 7 season-openers until they broke through and beat a perennially good Seattle team 2-1 on Saturday. Defoe scored both goals in a short time interval, both of them fairly simple finishes. Bradley wasn’t directly involved, but he was everywhere all the time, as is custom. MLS isn’t as quick as Serie A, but it’s arguably as physical, and Bradley thrives in those conditions. He would muscle Clint Dempsey off the ball, then make an elegant flick pass out to the wing. Bradley plays ugly enough to fit in MLS and pretty enough to thrive there.
There is a tendency to label a nation’s best young player their ‘Messi’, the same way any preternaturally talented shooting guard tends to be evaluated for his potential to be The Next Jordan. But, of course, the USMNT doesn’t have a Messi, and if such an athlete exists he is likely playing basketball or football somewhere. More to the point, a player like that wouldn’t make sense for an American squad anyway. Instead, the talisman for 2014 and the future is a number 8, not a 10. This sort of player plays like the past and the future of American soccer all at once. He is, as it turns out, already home.