Michael Bradley

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Bradley: “Dream became obsession” in pursuit of MLS Cup

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2017 was, to put it lightly and intentionally avoid re-litigating the multitude of failures put forth by the U.S. national team, a turbulent year for Toronto FC and USMNT captain Michael Bradley.

[ RECAP: TFC finally beat Frei and get their hands on MLS Cup ]

The was, of course, the national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — we’re acknowledging it, but not delving any deeper right now — which has surely consumed his mind for the majority of the last two months, but before Oct. 10 came 10 full months of remembering and brooding over TFC’s 2016 MLS Cup defeat at the hands of the Seattle Sounders.

On Saturday, the Bradley-led Reds avenged last year’s heartbreak in storybook fashion — lifting MLS Cup after beating those same Sounders right back at the scene of last year’s torment, the friendly but raucous confines of BMO Field.

Not long after the final whistle, when approached for a television interview, Bradley was as thoughtful and introspective as ever. Never one to hide his emotions or conceal his true thoughts, the 30-year-old offered up the confession that what was once a dream — to lift MLS Cup in Toronto — had indeed become an obsession following last year’s loss.

“This has been the dream for four years, since the day I got here. For the last year, the dream has become an obsession. For this group of guys to work every single day, having to remember last year, to get back here and to play that game, in this atmosphere, with that on the line, it’s unbelievable.”

Long before Bradley began the move that would set up the eventual game-winning goal, scored by Jozy Altidore in the 67th minute (WATCH HERE), the groundwork was laid by TFC head coach Greg Vanney, who moved away from the tried and true three-man backline that had served the Reds so well all season — a regular-season points record — and opted for the 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. Deployed at the base of the diamond, with Jonathan Osorio and Marco Delgado as the shuttlers ahead of him, Bradley turned in a man-of-the-match performance that’ll go down as one of the all-time great showings in MLS history.

Nothing will ease the pain of missing out on the World Cup — especially not once next summer rolls around and 32 other nations converge on Russia — but the 2017 story of Bradley and TFC, one of redemption and steadfast persistence, is a clear indicator that in trying times, MB90 responds like few others and he remains a necessary figure to lead the USMNT revolution in the coming months and years, as it’s reconfigured from top to bottom with an eye toward 2022.

Champions! TFC crowned MLS Cup champs for first time

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less more): For the first time in franchise history, Toronto FC are champions of Major League Soccer. The best team in the regular season, the last team standing in the postseason. For more than an hour, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle, the side that broke TFC hearts a year ago, looked painfully familiar for Reds fans, as Stefan Frei, MVP of the 2016 final, turned in another man-of-the-match performance and appeared altogether unbeatable. The Swiss-turned-American goalkeeper made 10 saves before Altidore broke through for TFC, courtesy of some gorgeous build-up play flowing through fellow superstars Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco. TFC thoroughly dominated from start to finish — again, just like last year’s final — to the tune of 22 shots to 7 (11-2 on target). If not for Frei’s early-game heroics, the score would have been 3-0 by halftime. The postseason title puts a tidy bow on top of an already historic season for TFC, who set a new regular-season points record — in a much tougher Eastern Conference, to boot — and leaves little to no doubt over which team was truly the best of 2017.

[ BRADLEY: “Dream became obsession” in pursuit of MLS Cup ]

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

11′ — Frei rushes out to deny Giovinco — Frei and Sebastian Giovinco will get the majority of the attention here (for the save and blown chance, respectively), but the 50-yard through ball from Victor Vazquez is the real story here. It almost doesn’t look real.

41′ — Frei denies Vazquez at full-stretch — Frei’s made six saves in the first half — none of which were individually spectacular in difficulty,

60′ — Bradley fires from distance, Frei saves again — Michael Bradley, who was neck-and-neck with Frei for best player on the field, made solid contact on a volley from 25 yards out, but Frei was able to get his body behind the bouncing ball and record save no. 8.

64′ — Frei gets to Giovinco’s shot through traffic — Frei couldn’t have seen this ball through a sea of bodies more than a quarter-second before reacting and diving to his left-hand post.

67′ – Finally, at long last, Frei is beaten — For the first time in 714 minutes of playoff soccer, Seattle are beaten. From back to front in five passes and 11 seconds, finished by Altidore, lifted over Frei and into the back of the net.

90+4′ — Vazquez slams home a rebound for 2-0 — Armando Cooper slammed the initial shot off the post, but Vazquez cleaned up the mess to send BMO Field into bedlam.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Michael Bradley

Goalscorers: Altidore (67′), Vazquez (90+4′)

Michael Bradley has strong views on Crew’s relocation

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Michael Bradley didn’t hold back when asked about the Columbus Crew potentially being relocated to Austin, Texas, by their owner Anthony Precourt.

[ MORE: TFC, Crew draw ]

The captain of Toronto FC and the U.S. men’s national team had his every touch booed during TFC’s 0-0 Conference Final first leg draw at Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium on Tuesday and was asked afterwards about the uproar regarding the Crew’s possible relocation to a city over 1,200 miles away.

Bradley, 30, did not sit on the fence.

“Look, on one hand you feel for the small group of loyal supporters that they have who have been here since the beginning, who continue to support the team and come out week after week. On the other hand, you can’t deny the fact that things here have really fallen behind in terms of the atmosphere in the stadium, the quality of the stadium, what it’s like to play here,” Bradley said.

“I don’t know who’s at fault for that… there’s a lot going on, and I get that – and like I said, as an outsider I don’t know what that falls on. But again, the reality is just that as the league has continued to grow and grow – and this is not the only one, but this is one of a few markets that has not kept pace.”

Does Bradley have a point?

Looking at MLS in terms of average attendance over the past seven years since MLS expansion became rampant, Columbus’ highest average attendance was 17,125 in 2016. That was still over 4,000 below the league average, even if you believe attendance stats in MLS are vastly miscalculated in many markets with “tickets sold” included in many attendance figures.

For the 2017 regular season only Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas are drawing smaller crowds, on average, than Columbus’ average of 15,439, and there’s only a few hundred difference between those three clubs.

When you look at the somewhat recent arrivals of Seattle, Portland, Montreal, Vancouver, New York City FC, Orlando City and now Atlanta and Minnesota United into the league, you just can’t compare their strong attendance numbers with Columbus and other MLS ever-present franchises such as Colorado and Dallas.

Bradley, on one level, is spot on. There is a distinct, and obvious, difference from the clubs set up in MLS in 1996 who are still in MLS today and the stadium deals those who entered in MLS 2.0 and 3.0.

Of course, his comments will not sit well with Columbus’ fans who are fighting desperately with the #SaveTheCrew movement to keep their club in Ohio with Precourt, MLS and the City of Columbus no closer to an agreement about plans for a new stadium for the Crew in downtown Columbus.

Above all, this is about more than attendances. Plenty of MLS markets have struggled in the past, or are struggling right now, to attract new fans and many Columbus supporters believe having a new owner who has their heart set on keeping the team in the city and improving the team and situation is the key. It’s hard to blame them for wanting that and not rolling over just because their current owner wants to try something different.

This is a tricky situation to see a “winner” from, with Precourt the only one set to benefit if he successfully relocates the Crew to Austin and they become profitable and big crowds turn up.

The situation is an absolute mess and with reports suggesting only two gates were open for Columbus’ playoff game against Toronto on Tuesday to slow down fans entering the stadium, it is become an embarrassing situation for MLS, especially as it appears they had the agreement in place with Precourt for a potential relocation to Austin when he purchased the Crew in 2013.

Once again, what a mess.

Michael Bradley should concede USMNT captaincy after World Cup debacle

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After the United States missed qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there’s been plenty of talk regarding who to blame, who should resign, and who should take over at key areas in management of the organization.

What there hasn’t been as much of is responsibility given to – or taken by – players who were on the field at the time of the disaster. There has been little from players, aside from their postgame media responsibilities, which admittedly couldn’t have been easy.

And there’s been little in terms of deserved criticism for failing to deliver on so many occasions.

Jozy Altidore posted an apology on social media, saying “I’m so sorry we let you down.” Omar Gonzalez told media it was “one of the worst days of my life.” Tim Howard spoke about how teams sit back and defend against an ever-frustrated Stars & Stripes.

[ MORE: Who should you support at the 2018 World Cup? ]

One player who has received plenty of criticism in the years since the 2014 World Cup is Michael Bradley. The United States captain has persevered through it all, but has been since unable to recapture his form leading up to that tournament, instead becoming a polarizing figure in the USMNT midfield. Ever-present, fans have never been able to agree on his best position, his most useful skill, or the merits of his place in the team. Yet he has continued to wear the captain’s armband as one of the most experienced players in the squad.

The time has come for him to relinquish that duty.

Following the debacle in Trinidad & Tobago, Michael Bradley’s ability to perform the duties befitting of a captain have waned to the point of deprivation. The U.S. performance in Couva was so devoid of inspiration, so lacking in effort, so bankrupt of industry that it can no longer be assumed that anyone in a position of leadership in US Soccer has the ability to motivate in any sense of the concept.

The primary duties of a captain involve being a leader for the rest of the squad. Being a leader includes providing the team with the inspiration to succeed and having a mastery of soccer comprehension to marshall the troops on the field at times when the manager is either unable to or incapable of, such as when time is short and the players need to take it upon themselves to push forward and put the opponent under pressure.

While Bradley has a resume stuffed with successes as national team captain, judging by the performance not only across the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying landcsape, but even just focused solely on the game Tuesday night. The shocking, stunning, and infuriating lack of effort as the clock ticked towards impending doom was so unbelievable, so outrageously mind-boggling that it can only be concluded that Bradley is no longer capable of rallying the troops in times of need. Because if he can’t get himself and his team to play at 110% with the World Cup on the line, what other motivation could one possibly conjure up to provide a spark?

But don’t take my word for it…

Even Peter Vermes, new (slight) favorite to take over as USMNT manager, conceded starkly that the team “didn’t have the intensity, didn’t have the desire, the hunger, the fight” required to earn an admittedly straightforward result.

Sure, some of that – no, much of that – lies at the feet of the national team manager Bruce Arena, who failed to motivate his players enough to even earn a point against an inferior opponent. But Bruce has (rightfully) received plenty of criticism from the media and fans, to the point where it’s generally assumed his short second stint as USMNT boss is all but over.

No, the players are just as culpable for the debacle sustained over the last two years, and Michael Bradley, as the man charged as the clubhouse leader by way of the little velcro wrap over his arm, should take the most symbolic fall. It’s just part of the job.

This is not to say Bradley’s role on the team is over, not by a longshot. He is still an important player to this group, and has a few years more in the tank as an international-caliber player. But only one player showed the desire, the hunger, the fight befitting of a national team captain the other night. Shockingly, that player is just 19 years old.

Christian Pulisic, the boy wonder from Borussia Dortmund, left his heart on the Ato Boldon Stadium field Tuesday night. He tried time and time again to not just do the work himself, but to rally the troops to join him in his one-man charge to the World Cup. Nobody joined him in the cause, but that didn’t stop the attacker from giving the game his all. While Bradley was distributing square passes and barely jogging to retrieve the ball for a corner with seconds left, Pulisic ran circles around the Soca Warriors midfield and charged at the opposing back line, leaving his emotions on his sleeve.

I know it’s wild, I know it’s unprecedented, and I know it’s radical, but there’s only one man who walked the walk of a captain on Tuesday night, and that was Christian Pulisic. And that’s why the 19-year-old should be given the armband with immediate effect. The FIFA Golden Boy candidate isn’t just the best player on the team, he’s the biggest leader by example. It would probably cause a ripple or two in the locker room, at the least, but worldwide respect for his game has already been expressed, and with years until the next World Cup qualifying campaign, Pulisic would have time to not only grow into the role but earn the respect and understanding of his peers. Why not give it straight to him?

The aftermath of the 2018 World Cup failures in the United States will likely claim many scalps, and Michael Bradley should be one of them.

“That’s just reality. That’s on us.” Bradley’s own words from immediately after the United States missed its first World Cup since 1986.

Player ratings: Pulisic, Altidore star as USMNT routs Panama

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Almost as badly as they needed a result and the accompanying three points, the U.S. national team needed to put forth a performance that once again inspired confidence — not only for USMNT fans, but for themselves as well.

Simply put, Bruce Arena’s bunch responded in a manner that left absolutely nothing to chance. Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore will (rightly) garner all the headlines, but they were far from the only standouts on Friday night…

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

GK — Tim Howard: 6 — Asked to make only two saves on the night, but he did so with relative (to the 2014 game against Belgium, at least), and staked his claim to the no. 1 shirt after being selected ahead of Brad Guzan once again. It might just be a godsend the Colorado Rapids won’t sniff the MLS playoffs this year, as he’ll be 39 before next summer’s tournament kicks off.

RB — DeAndre Yedlin: 7 — So that’s what it’s like to have a right back who’s meant to be playing right back. I’ve defended Graham Zusi, Right Back, on a number of occasions (and I’ll continue to do so), but there’s no two ways about it: Yedlin, at age 24, is the right back of the present and the future. In a game that got a little too stretched for most Americans’ liking, his recovery speed snuffed out would-be chances before they could be taken on a number of occasions.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 5 — I think Gonzalez could be good — I really do — in the right system which features a midfield that sits deep and clogs the space in front of him and beside him. Unfortunately for Omar, a midfield diamond where only one of the four actually plays centrally isn’t that. As an opposing attacker, face him up one-on-one, and enjoy.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — Didn’t struggle as badly as Gonzalez, mostly because he’s more accustomed to playing in open space, but playing alongside Gonzalez really highlights his most problematic deficiency: a minor lack of pace and athleticism. A healthy Geoff Cameron should complement Besler very well, should the two partner one another between Tuesday and next summer.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5.5 — What’s to say about the left back position right now? Villafaña will continue to play there because no better option exists. If the midfield can remain solid in possession as they were in this one, limiting the direct counters thrown at him, he can pretty regularly avoid being a net-negative.

[ RECAP: USMNT routs Panama to boost World Cup dreams in a big way ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 6 — He was asked to do a lot in this one — run the entire middle third of the field as the only truly central midfielder — which he struggled to juggle at times in the first half, but that’s an impossible ask. He doesn’t need to be a 9/10 performer every night for the USMNT succeed. In fact, they need him to play a smaller part more frequently, and allow every one else to carry their own weight. He can still be Superman when it’s asked of him, but it’s not necessary all the time.

CM — Paul Arriola: 7 — Every team needs a Paul Arriola. The defensive cover he provided down the right side allowed Yedlin ample freedom to venture forward and stretch the field. His relentless pressing and winning of 50-50 balls makes for an uneasy evening for any opposition midfielder, and most importantly, takes that responsibility off Bradley’s plate, allowing him to sit deeper, read the game and dictate tempo.

CM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — *checks boxscore* *checks boxscore again* Yup, Nagbe did indeed play on Friday. Nominally deployed as a shuttler in a diamond(-ish) midfield, it’s not the worst thing in the world to go unnoticed. He remains tidy with his passing and forever an outlet when Bradley is harried. You can make the case he’s “too talented” for such a role, but at this point in time, this is his role and he’s done it masterfully.

CM — Christian Pulisic: 9 — 10/10 ratings are reserved for hat tricks (or three goals and assists combined, at the very least), so the wonderboy checks in with a 9/10 for the parts he played in the first (scoring) and second (assisting) goals, plus the attention (and fouls) he now commands are truly game-changing for everyone else in the attacking third.

[ VIDEOS: Pulisic makes it 1-0 after 8′Pulisic to Altidore for no. 2 ]

FW — Bobby Wood: 7 — Wood’s partnership with Altidore has required some kinks be worked out over the course of the last year, but Friday’s game showed what so many thought possible for the duo: Altidore drops into midfield to 1) pulling center backs out of shape; 2) be the playmaker that he is, and Wood capitalizes on that space by running the channels until his lungs explode. Every goal that Wood scores is oh so deserved.

FW — Jozy Altidore: 9 — Also, no 10/10 when one of the three is a penalty. So sorry, Sir Josmer. I’m not really sure what more needs to be said. When healthy, and in the form of his life as he is right now, Altidore is an impossible nightmare.

SUB — Dax McCarty: 6.5 — Arena brought him on just before the hour mark to 1) save Pulisic’s life; 2) plant someone alongside Bradley at the base of midfield. McCarty accomplished a ton in his 33 minutes on the field, winning the ball back eight times, connecting just about every one of his passes, and threading an inch-perfect through ball to Arriola late in the game.

SUB — Clint Dempsey: 5.5 — The thought of Dempsey as a late-game super-sub next summer should provide all USMNT fans with a wealth of hope and excitement. Provided he remains accepting of the role, he will change one or two games in unbelievably meaningful ways.

SUB — Alejandro Bedoya: 5.5 — Only got 10 minutes, but continues to make his case as a lock-down central midfielder who offers more than most think when he surges forward.