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EXCLUSIVE: Michael Bradley on Toronto FC’s long-awaited renaissance

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Times have changed in Toronto for the local football club. The Reds are no longer, to put it bluntly, the bad club that failed to deliver results to a passionate fan base expecting so much more.

A club that missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons has clinched a postseason berth for a second-straight season. And this year, for the first time ever, TFC will finish this season with more wins than losses.

You read that right. For the first time ever. Yes, it was that bad.

[ MORE: JPW talks with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

It would overstate things to say Bradley showed up and fixed things for the Reds, turning them from a bad big club to a big, bad one overnight; For one thing, TFC missed the playoffs during his first season and Bradley only netted twice in a return to MLS which was expected to be dominant (though he was, per 90, one of the best possession players in the league that season).

Yet as time as gone on, in an organization that frankly had not seen much winning at all, Bradley has not just led the way as a battler emerged from BMO Field; The 29-year-old TFC and USMNT captain now leads a winner, one he’s quick to point out comes from an organization, not any single personality.

“I’ve tried every day since I got here to spill my heart and soul into it and to try to help in every way that I can,” Bradley told ProSoccerTalk.

“For a lot of people who have been here for the last years to see the way that things have continued to move forward and progress, there’s a big sense of pride. We’re by no means where we want to be. There are big goals around here in terms of continuing to turn this into a team and a club that can compete and win on a regular basis.”

Yep, times have changed for the better. And at the center of it all, whether he admits it or not, is the steely reserve of an American in Canada.


[ MORE: Wisconsin sophomore set to face Mexico, USMNT ]


Michael Bradley is deliberate in his choice of words, and pauses several times to make sure his point is clearly made.

The train powers along once he finds the right track, however.

It’s fitting, because Greg Vanney’s defensive system with Bradley works in a similar way. Patiently wait for the right time to take the ball, then surge forward and take no prisoners. Find Sebastian Giovinco. Find Jozy Altidore. Find Jonathan Osorio, or another attacker… or just fire away.

“On our best days, we have a team that plays in a real good way,” Bradley says. “When we have our best group on the field, our football is good, the ball moves quickly, we’re a team that is able to put the game on our terms with the ball but not do it in a way that’s not just needless possession.

“We circulate the ball, but also do it with an eye toward playing forward and make sure we get it to our dangerous attacking players quickly and in good moments. Defensively we’re able to tighten things up and found a way to make it very hard on other teams to play against us.”

Heading into Saturday night’s home match with DC United, TFC has won seven of its last 12 MLS matches. That stretch has seen Toronto lose just once, and the Reds have weathered an injury to reigning MLS MVP Giovinco with a win and three draws.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10: Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC during an MLS soccer game against the Houston Dynamo at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bradley’s deliberate expression of feeling comes into play again when he considers the challenges of TFC’s summer, injuries not withstanding. The captain is thrilled with how the Reds have found contributions from all over the field, but would love to see their best XI for a sustained stretch of action.

Finding chemistry with a team during the MLS season, where a club can lose its best players for weeks at a time thanks to the unorthodox calendar, is a massive challenge. Bradley knows it’s not just Toronto who’s troubled by it, but he also senses how good the team could be with a season’s worth of build-up.

The excitement ratchets higher and higher in his voice as he contemplates the complementary pieces in a healthy, non-international break hampered Greg Vanney lineup. TFC went 1-2 during the Copa America, losing to the Red Bulls and Orlando City. Those points loom with Toronto in a three-way battle for the top of the East.

“We feel like we’re on a very good team, and I mention the other stuff because it’s a shame that over the course of a 34-game season there are so many other things that go into it,” Bradley said. “Which means you are not able to play your best team on as consistent a basis as you’d like.”


[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]


The conversation turns, briefly, to the United States men’s national team.

The leader of the unit, Bradley has been through the highs and lows of wearing the stars and stripes since a very young age.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of an international friendly match between Bolivia and the United States on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

The captain has 121 caps and 15 goals, a journey that began when he was capped at age 18. He’s seen the improbable Confederations Cup comeback run, the thrills of the 2010 World Cup, and several Dos a Ceros. He’s also seen the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the disheartening loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and more positional banter than any player in U.S. history.

Given his lofty status within the federation, and his early start, he’s the right person to ask about the USMNT’s teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. And he’s happy to talk about the kid, though not about the big picture, and mentorship. Yeah, he talks to the kid about soccer. No, that’s not for media consumption. So stop asking.

“Christian is a really good kid,” Bradley said. “He’s smart, he’s into it, he’s talented, motivated.

“(But) Everybody needs to stop asking what kind of advice to give him. The most important thing for him is, and I said this to somebody last week, is to continue to find the most joy every day in playing, in training, in improving, in stepping on the field on Saturday and competing and trying to be as good as possible. As long as he never loses the joy of what it means to step on the field and play football, then he’s going to continue to improve and take himself to great places.”

You get the sense that, consciously or not, Michael Bradley has ushered these thoughts from personal experience.


The captain of America loves his adopted hometown north of the border.

And Bradley isn’t exactly measuring Toronto against a one-light city in the sticks. After leaving New Jersey as a teenager in 2005, Bradley has lived amongst the abbey and villages of Monchengladbach, the Dutch windmills of Friesland, and the many wonders of the Eternal City, Rome.

But there’s something in the fourth biggest North American city that works for Bradley.

“It’s a city that is so incredibly diverse,” Bradley begins. “When you get around different parts of the city, the types of people you meet and see who come from all over the world, that part is special. Since the first day that my family and I got here, this has felt like home.

“Our daughter was born here. Our son goes to kindergarten here now and comes home; He’s an American, he was born in Rome, but goes to kindergarten in Toronto and comes home every day singing, “O Canada”, because at the beginning the day that’s what they do. It’s an amazing city, and a place we’re proud to call home.”

Bradley is signed through the end of 2019, and Toronto has turned down several overseas pleas for the midfielder.

Orlando City's Kaka, center, battles with Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, right, as Amando Cooper looks on during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

And TFC should be good for a long time. Only two rostered players are over 30: outstanding back Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou. This on a team that has won the joint-most road games in MLS, allowed the second-fewest goals, and ranks third in goal differential (plus-12).

“We’ve in some ways have such a high standard for ourselves that when you get home and you have a few games at home and you’re not able to find the winner, you’re not able to make that final play to win the games and take all three points, when you’re only able to come away with a tie, that people — and we include ourselves in this — are disappointed,” Bradley said.

“The feeling inside our group on certain days, lately even when we’ve tied a few of these games at home has been disappointment and frustration, and feeling like there was more there for us. That’s a positive thing. We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we expect to step on the field every weekend and compete to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, and where we’re playing. That’s the mentality that we have.”


[ MORE: MLS Playoff picture — Who can clinch? ]


To sum it all up, a personal angle that might underscore the impressive turnaround in Canada’s largest city.

Living in Buffalo and loving the sport the way I do, my friends and I got in on TFC season tickets in 2008, Toronto’s second season. We’d make the 90-minute or 3-hour drive, depending on the city’s unholy, construction-driven traffic, and revel in the soccer paradise created by the Red Patch Boys.

Visits by River Plate, Pachuca, and Real Madrid sustained interest in the team, but in a way we became numb to names: Amado Guevera, Torsten Frings, and Danny Koevermans were trotted out and left without a playoff run. Taking a dozen or so day trips to watch losses that made the average at-best Maple Leafs look like 1980’s Oilers became too much to justify the cost.

Oddly enough, TFC went from hot new Toronto property to one that started to feel like just another entity. When Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar didn’t spur a playoff run, morale seemed at an all-time low. As a soccer writer now with no true allegiance, it was more with a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were good?” when Altidore, Vanney, and Giovinco joined Bradley. When Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor joined mainstays Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio, there was even more legitimate reason for hope.

But hope is different from getting the job done, and that’s something for which Bradley and Vanney deserve a ton of credit. There are more Toronto demons to overcome — there’s little doubt a sports teams’ playoff stench can linger over a town once the postseason hits (Again, I’m from Buffalo) — but for now it’s worth lauding a club which has found its forward-thinking despite the skeletons in their Ontarian closet.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bundesliga wrap: Adams, Leipzig star as Leipzig pads lead

Americans star in Bundesliga play
Photo by Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images
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The Bundesliga returned Saturday after its winter break, bringing a cavalcade of impactful American stories to the field.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule


RB Leipzig 3-1 Union Berlin

The table leaders got two goals from Timo Werner and a goal and an assist from Marcel Sabitzer to open the second phase of the season with a bang.

Leipzig has a five-point lead on second-place Gladbach, though Bayern Munich can pull within four points with a win at Jurgen Klinsmann’s Hertha Berlin on Sunday morning.

American midfielder Tyler Adams had another strong day in the win, going 86 minutes and gathering over 100 touches while completing 84 percent of his passes. He registered two key passes and a shot on target to go with a clearance, blocked shot, interception, and tackle. Adams was fouled four times.

Augsburg 3-5 Borussia Dortmund

Erling Braut Haaland became the first Borussia Dortmund player to score a hat trick on debut since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as BVB came back from 2-0 and 3-1 holes to move onto 33 points.

Watch Haaland’s incredible day here. Jadon Sancho had a goal and an assist, while Julian Brandt also scored for BVB. Florian Niederlechner scored twice for Augsburg, with Marco Richter also finding the back of the net.

American teenager Giovanni Reyna also made his debut in the win, earning praise from manager Lucien Favre.

Hoffenheim 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt

That’s right wing Timmy Chandler to you.

After missing all but one match last season due to injuries and fitness, the 29-year-old former USMNT mainstay has his first Bundesliga goal since Feb. 19, 2018.

Chandler rose above the fray to power home a match-winning header to move Eintracht four points clear of the relegation places, surprising a Hoffenheim side with designs on a return to Europe.

Bas Dost scored Eintracht’s other goal, with Konstantinos Stafylidis equalizing just after halftime.

Fortuna Dusseldorf 0-1 Werder Bremen

American forward Josh Sargent made his return from injury, playing 86 minutes in a huge win for Bremen. The visitors climbed over the now 17th place hosts via a Florian Kastenmeier goal.

USMNT midfielder Alfredo Morales played well over 71 minutes in the loss, while Zack Steffen missed out with a reported knee injury.

Elsewhere

Schalke 2-0 Borussia Monchengladbach — Friday| RECAP
Koln 3-1 Wolfsburg
Mainz 1-2 Freiburg
Hertha Berlin v. Bayern Munich — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Paderborn v. Bayer Leverkusen — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 RB Leipzig 18 12 4 2 51 21 30 6-2-1 6-2-1 40
 Mönchengladbach 18 11 2 5 33 20 13 7-1-1 4-1-4 35
 Bayern Munich 17 10 3 4 46 22 24 6-1-2 4-2-2 33
 Borussia Dortmund 18 9 6 3 46 27 19 5-3-0 4-3-3 33
 FC Schalke 04 18 9 6 3 31 21 10 5-4-1 4-2-2 33
 SC Freiburg 18 8 5 5 29 24 5 4-2-2 4-3-3 29
 Bayer Leverkusen 17 8 4 5 23 21 2 3-4-2 5-0-3 28
 1899 Hoffenheim 18 8 3 7 26 30 -4 4-1-5 4-2-2 27
 VfL Wolfsburg 18 6 6 6 19 21 -2 3-4-2 3-2-4 24
 FC Augsburg 18 6 5 7 31 36 -5 4-2-3 2-3-4 23
 Eintracht Frankfurt 18 6 3 9 29 30 -1 4-3-2 2-0-7 21
 1. FC Union Berlin 18 6 2 10 21 27 -6 5-0-4 1-2-6 20
 1. FC Köln 18 6 2 10 22 33 -11 4-1-4 2-1-6 20
 Hertha BSC Berlin 17 5 4 8 22 29 -7 3-1-4 2-3-4 19
 FSV Mainz 05 18 6 0 12 26 41 -15 3-0-6 3-0-6 18
 Werder Bremen 18 4 5 9 24 41 -17 1-2-5 3-3-4 17
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 18 4 3 11 18 37 -19 3-1-5 1-2-6 15
 SC Paderborn 17 3 3 11 20 36 -16 2-1-6 1-2-5 12

Newcastle not apologizing after smash-and-grab win

Isaac Hayden on Newcastle's late winner
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Just how fortunate was Newcastle to beat Chelsea on Saturday?

Their stoppage time match-winner thought he was being subbed off minutes earlier, and wasn’t even supposed to be forward for the decisive set piece.

Isaac Hayden opened the day at center midfield and prepared to sub out of the match when he learned he was moving to right wing back for an exhausted Emil Krafth.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“I thought I was coming off,” Hayden said, via the BBC. “I didn’t have a clue what was happening but he said just do a job for the team and I’m pleased to have done that.”

The former Arsenal and Hull City man, by the way, also hadn’t scored in about a year when he defied orders to join the fray for a stoppage-time corner kick.

That set piece was only partially cleared, but Hayden nodded in a wonderful Allan Saint-Maximin cross to win it for the Magpies.

“I wasn’t supposed to go up for the corner. I was supposed to stay back and be the last defender but I was on a yellow card so I couldn’t foul anyone so I thought I might as well go up.”

Newcastle was all grins after the match, with manager Steve Bruce having a dig at Matt Ritchie for doing a post-match television interview.

“It was a dreadful corner from Matt Ritchie and then he has the cheek to go on the telly,” Bruce said.

The manager said Newcastle is close to “one or two signings” and may have to add left back to its shopping list, saying Jetro Willems‘ in-game injury “looks serious.”

He also said their tough, packed-in approach on defense must now be joined by an uptick in quality.

Newcastle’s 29 points are seven clear of the Bottom Three and also four away from a Europa League spot. Bruce adds that the club is still in a race to avoid relegation rather than looking at higher goals.

“I’d love to give them a day off but we are in tomorrow. Always for a team in the bottom half, it’s always the accumulation of points over the year and let’s get to 40 points as soon as possible. I make no apology for that.”

Newcastle stuns misfiring Chelsea

Newcastle United stuns Chelsea
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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Chelsea couldn’t find a clinical edge and Isaac Hayden scored in stoppage time as Newcastle United beat Chelsea 1-0 at St. James’ Park on Saturday.

The visitors had 70 percent of the ball and a massive edge in shots, but couldn’t capitalize on the few chances they found behind the back line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Isaac Hayden powered a header home off a stoppage-time set piece to give the Magpies a shocking win and 29 points, seven clear of the Bottom Three.

Chelsea stays on 39 points, five ahead of fifth-place Manchester United. The Red Devils play Liverpool on Sunday.


Three things we learned

1. Fortunate Magpies get big payoff late: Hayden had not scored in a year and turned Saint-Maximin’s desperate cross of a poorly-cleared corner kick past Kepa Arrizabalaga. A solid if unspectacular midfielder, Hayden has dealt with a lot and might’ve left the Northeast due to family reasons. He’s stayed, Steve Bruce has him confident, and the Magpies have a win against all odds.

2. Newcastle’s low block heroics highlight Chelsea need: Frank Lampard‘s attackers were limited to shots from distance, as Steve Bruce’s men might be even better than they were under Rafa Benitez when asked to defend deep. A lot of this is due to spending on attackers who keep defenders honest, but that doesn’t excuse Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi‘s inability to produce much. The former had Dubravka beaten but failed to find finish on the day.

The defense-first style can be boring to, well, everyone including the home fans and managers loathe when it’s employed against them. But Newcastle has now beaten Chelsea, Spurs, and Manchester United this year, also drawing Man City. The expected goals table says Newcastle is having one of the luckiest seasons on record, but don’t bother the Geordies with that right now.

3. Lampard waits for Abraham: Related to point No. 1, Lampard showed faith that his struggling striker would show up late. After all, the 22-year-old has 13 goals and three assists this year. Abraham got behind the Magpies back line twice and also flicked a ball off the bar, but it was the right move to get Michy Batshuayi out there. Alas, it probably should’ve come before the 80th minute.

Man of the Match: Ciaran Clark and Federico Fernandez were the key parts of the aforementioned low block, and we’d give the honors to Clark. But Hayden, man.


Newcastle loan star Jetro Willems are stretchered off the pitch with his head in his hands are an innocent play out wide, a new worry for the injury-ravaged Magpies.

Then Isaac Hayden pulled up lame after being stretched in a 50-50 with Mason Mount.

The best scoring chance of the early stages came in the 22nd minute, as Kepa Arrizabalaga may have got a finger to Joelinton‘s header off the bar.

Chelsea took hold of the match at the half-hour mark, an offside Tammy Abraham flicking off the bar before Martin Dubravka saved N’Golo Kante’s effort in the 34th.

Newcastle held firm against the attack through five minutes of stoppage time.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

The Magpies opened up a little bit in the second half, and Willian missed a chance to open the scoring in the 53rd.

Cesar Azpilicueta was lively in both halves, and hammered a shot to Dubravka in the 55th.

Newcastle’s physical and aggressive back line held firm, big challenges and clearances from Ciaran Clark and Federico Fernandez on show.

Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin teamed up to tee up Joelinton, but the Brazilian drove his 88th minute shot wide of the goal.

Soon after, Saint-Maximin sent a half-desperation, half-pinpoint cross to the back post for Hayden to turn past Arrizabalaga. Insane.

Nuno proud of Wolves comeback; Hasenhuttl fumes at VAR

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It is safe to say that the managers of Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers had contrasting emotions after the dramatic 3-2 victory for the visitors at St Mary’s on Saturday.

Saints led 2-0 at half time but a stunning second half comeback, led by Mexico’s Raul Jimenez who scored twice, grabbed Wolves all three points.

With his squad banged up and missing Ruben Vinagre, Willy Boly and Diogo Jota among others, Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo was beaming at the final whistle after a lengthy celebration with the Wolves fans in the away end.

“It was amazing, the second half,” Santo smiled. “They [the players] realized the first half was not good. They reacted very well. I am very proud of the players and I was proud even in the first half because I am very aware of how we were doing things. Let’s keep on going.”

As for Southampton’s perspective, Ralph Hasenhuttl was not a happy man.

But not because of how his team played. He was fuming at the officials and VAR due to the decision to award a penalty kick to Wolves for their second goal. Referee Darren England didn’t award a penalty kick as Jonny went down in the box under contact from Cedric and then Jack Stephens but VAR intervened and awarded the spot kick.

“For me it is absolutely not a clear wrong decision. I think the referee was right in that moment,” Hasenhuttl fumed. “Cedric was in front of him and it wasn’t a clear wrong decision, in my opinion. The referee was right. I don’t know why they overruled in that moment. I cannot understand it. I really can’t. Cedric was in front of the ball so he [Jonny] had no chance to get to the ball. You can give it, yes, but it is not a clear wrong. I heard that VAR was overruling when it is clearly wrong. For me, it was not clearly wrong. This is what I cannot understand.”

Cedric’s nudge on Jonny probably wasn’t a foul and although Stephens didn’t make contact, his challenge was reckless. Hasenhuttl is perhaps looking to detract a little of the attention away from his players who crumbled after leading 2-0.

In truth, that lead was flattering in a pretty even game that Wolves had dominated early, and although Southampton’s incredible run of form (six wins in nine PL games before this) is over, they are still six points above the relegation zone.

This was a big moment in the season for both teams. Had Saints won they’d have been level with Wolves but a massive comeback victory now propels Nuno’s boys up to sixth and in with a chance of a top four finish.

That will surely persuade their owners to spend money in the final days of the January transfer window as their tired and stretched squad will also have to cope with the latter stages of the Europa League in the coming months.