SEATTLE — By full time, the Seattle crowd was the big story, but during most of the match, the man who has slowly gained consensus as the U.S.’s best player put on another show, on that he did without his usually partner in crime. Without Jermaine Jones beside him in midfield, Michael Bradley didn’t miss a beat. And arguably, he raised his game in the absence.
Jones was out of Tuesday’s match, recovering from a concussion. Geoff Cameron stepped in admirably, dominating the space in front of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, but with more limited responsibilities than Jones is asked to take on, Cameron was a distinctly different kind of partner.
“We asked him to win a lot of balls back, cover the two center backs, and have a strong presence in there,” was Jurgen Klinsmann’s description of Cameron’s destroyer role. “I said once you get that ball just keep it simple. Kind Michael Bradley. Find Clint (Dempsey). Find the players around him, and cover our two center backs.”
That meant the push would have to come from Bradley, something we saw on the U.S.’s first goal. Cameron’s win-and-give directive sprung Bradley in the 36th minute, the 25-year-old surging through the Panamanian midfield and collapsing the Canaleros defense before playing wide to Fabian Johnson, who had all the space and time he needed to hit a perfect cross to Jozy Altidore.
Even before the goal, Bradley’s impact was huge, dropping back into defense to pick up the ball and orchestrate the U.S.’s very deliberate plan. When Eddie Johnson starts in midfield, the U.S. is almost always going to have an advantage when the Sounder target man attacks the far post. With DaMarcus Beasley releasing early from his left back position, the U.S. wanted to build down the left before playing to Johnson and Jozy Altidore. It was Bradley’s job to orchestrate that.
Of the 46 passes Bradley attempted in the first half (pictured), only nine went from left-to-right in the right side of the field. The remaining 38 were either already on the left or moved the ball in that direction (or straight forward). Many went to Besler, as Bradley sought to steer play across the back. There were some long diagonals toward the byline for Beasley. A series of other balls were just the small plays you’d expect from a midfielder who was trying to build box-to-box.
For the day, Bradley completed 78 of the 87 passes he attempted. Cameron was 47 for 56, but with the disparity in attempts, you can see the command Bradley had of the U.S.’s passing game.
“As a midfielder, you’re constantly trying to read the game,” Bradley explained, asked about the adjustments he made in Jones’ absence. “You’re constantly trying to find space. You’re trying to find the spots on the field where you can make an impact. And at times that’s going to be defensively. At times it’s going to be attacking-wise.
“Sure, when you’re playing with Geoff, the situations that you find yourself in are going to be different. There’s going to be the opportunity to be a little bit more mobile at times, to be a little bit more two-way, to find the opportunities to move forward into the attack. I think that understanding was good tonight.”
Good might be an understatement. Cameron’s simplified role may the understanding easier, but Bradley still had to execute. Stepping up in Jones’s absence and triggering the U.S.’s opening goal, Bradley’s execution helped push his team to the top of CONCACAF qualifying.