As a country where the world class soccer talent falls at more of a drip than a steady pour, it was usually cinchy to identify the most important figure in a U.S. shirt.
It was surely Claudio Reyna for much of the last decade (even if some supporters were stubbornly and inexplicably resistant to that notion).
It was Landon Donovan for some time after that, on through the last World Cup qualifying cycle. The Donovan detractors somehow ignored the fact that he produced game-changing moments; take those away and the United States may well have hit a wall en route to South Africa 2010.
There could have been some sentiment along the way that Tim Howard was the most indispensable figure. He was certainly a critical figure since World Cup 2006, even if there has been some talented cover behind him.
About a year ago, Clint Dempsey seemed ready to stand up as “The One,” to find that proverbial place where the coach says, “We don’t pull out until Clint Dempsey gets on the bus.” Dempsey remains a central figure, obviously.
But I’m ready to say it: The most essential man, the one key figure we should identify as one who simply must be on the field for the best chance of U.S. prosperity … is Michael Bradley.
The U.S. midfield is just different without him – and not different in a good way.
No one else comes close to linking the defense and with the attack with as much enterprise as Bradley does. Even on a tiny, choppy and slow field, the 25-year-old was able to move the ball forward in a way other U.S. midfielders could not.
Without Bradley, the United States midfield becomes a redundant exercise in holding specialists, whose fortes are tackling and simple distribution from there. Count on Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu and even Jermaine Jones, to varying degrees of success, to win the ball and then move it laterally or conservatively up the field.
Danny Williams may have more in his game, but he’s still young and it’s too early to tell where his game might go.
But none of them see the passes the way Bradley does, nor can they move the ball vertically as Bradley does. The Roma man isn’t a creative midfielder in the conventional sense, but as the top two-way man Bradley is the closest Jurgen Klinsmann has to one.
Obviously, the United States needs Dempsey, Howard and Donovan playing at top level for the best chances of safely navigating the final round qualifying. But if you have to pick one man that absolutely cannot be left behind, that’s Bradley.