Michael Bradley’s place at the top of the U.S. Men’s National Team pecking order is becoming undeniable, with Wednesday’s performance in Russia serving as the latest plank in his platform. A 76th minute volley that careened in off Vladimir Gabulov’s right post would have been enough to take Man of the Match honors on a normal night, but on a day when Tim Howard’s seven saves were kept the U.S. afloat, it was Bradley’s command of midfield that allowed the U.S. to transcend being a Russian annoyance to taking a point from a team that’s still perfect in UEFA World Cup qualifying.
So while it was Howard that administered life support, it was Bradley that picked the team up and pushed them to another memorable road result. This wasn’t be as memorable as beating Mexico at Azteca or defeating Italy in Genoa, but scoring twice on the road against a Russian side that has yet to concede in World Cup qualifying should open eyes. Not only was it a great way to end a successful 2012 (the U.S. posting a 9-2-3 record this year), it was a surprising output for a team that’s struggled to convert possession into goals.
Not that the possession led to goals on Wednesday. Instead, it was some retro-long ball that got the U.S. on the board, with Bradley involved in each goal. In the 76th minute, Bradley’s stab at a ball knocked down by Juan Agudelo nailed Gabulov’s post, giving the Anzhi Makhachkala keeper no chance to prevent the equalizer. In stoppage time, a Bradley ball lofted toward Terrence Boyd ended with Mix Diskerud’s more stoppable but equally well-placed goal.
But particularly with Bradley, the scoresheet can only tell so much. He was the best of a U.S. midfield which, thanks to Danny Williams’ worst showing in the national team shirt, struggled for most of the day. Bradley was the only midfielder that got forward, and while that may have been a product of Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan, Bradley’s ability to cover ground sideline-to-sideline in the left-center role further distinguished his performance. His 47 completed passes were far better than Jones (27) and Williams (25).
Perhaps the most notable thing about Bradley’s say wasn’t something he did individually; rather, it was the team’s performance in the absence of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. When Michael Bradley was missing from the men’s national team, the dip in quality was clear despite the U.S.’s depth in central midfield. When Bradley was out of the national team, the States offered nothing going forward from midfield.
Against Russia, with the U.S.’s two most recognizable players not called in, there was no discernable drop off. Tthe U.S. looked their normal selves, and while taht still leaves a lot of room for improvement, it implies that Bradley may be even more important to the team than we’d previously thought.