Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore pairing blossoming with Toronto FC, U.S. team
Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore first crossed paths more than a decade ago at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, home of the United States Under-17 team. Since then, the duo have figured in dozens of matches for the red, white, and blue, developing into two key cogs of Bob Bradley's and now Jurgen Klinsmann's American sides. When healthy, Bradley and Altidore are two first-choice starters, and at just 28 and 26, respectively, could be so for at least another half-decade.
The pair has a chemistry and understanding on the field honed over years of playing together. During one stretch in 2014 and 2015, Bradley earned the primary or secondary assist on nearly half of Altidore's 12 non-penalty goals. Watch the U.S. play, and you see that connection, like on this Eddie Johnson tally against Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2013, where Bradley lofts a ball to a streaking Altidore, or Altidore's goal against Nigeria.
That type of understanding comes with experience, but the reality of the national team structure is that players don't get much time together. They fly in, have a training session or two to get reacquainted, play a game or two, and then fly out. Which is why the fact that Bradley and Altidore have spent the last year and a half together at Toronto FC could be so valuable for their development. Rather than playing together once a month, they work day-in, day-out on movement, connecting passes and building a relationship.
A recent hamstring injury to Altidore that will keep him out for up to two months means that the two won't be playing together at this summer's Copa America and for a large chunk of the MLS season. But injury aside, the pairing still represents an ideal situation for two of America's best.
"If you put it on paper five years ago, if there were two players to put on the same team in the prime of their career, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find people who wouldn't have said Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said over the phone.
Bradley agrees. "I can't tell you how valuable that is," the midfielder said after a recent training session. "There's a stronger relationship, period. That means our relationship as friends and as teammates has grown in a big way. Being able to understand each other, to push each other, to challenge each other, to say things to each other that quite honestly nobody else would."
The last part of this quote is the most interesting. Being teammates on a club inevitably tightens the bond between players since they spend so much time together. In the high-pressure world of international soccer, the ability to be open and honest in tough times is essential. A strong relationship, one forged during MLS games, during hours upon hours of training, and during flights between matches, makes telling the truth easier.
The development of the on-field understanding, however, is just as important. The truth is that players don't get a lot of opportunities in the international game. For example, Bradley and Altidore completed a total of less than 100 passes to each other during the matches they played for the U.S. in 2015 and 2016 (about 11 games worth of minutes). That's not many reps.
With TFC, the two benefit from drills and scrimmages designed to improve team chemistry. When you see a player every day, you learn his tendencies in a way that you don't when you come together once a month. "There are little things that you see within training, that you see day-in and day-out: communication, body language," Twellman says. The former national team forward had his best runs with the U.S. when his New England Revolution teammates Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan were also in camp: "I don't think it was a coincidence that in those games I scored consistently and had real success for the first time."
It's impossible to argue that Bradley and Altidore won't benefit from spending more time together on the field, but there's a question about how much they gain and whether the different set ups of the two teams will have an impact. Specifically, there's the issue of Sebastian Giovinco, the reigning MVP in MLS and, arguably, the single-best player in the league. "If you asked me to nitpick, ideally you'd have Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in Toronto without Giovinco," Twellman says. "You'd want the pressure on Jozy to be the 20 goalscorer of that team."
Instead, Giovinco shoulders much of the pressure to score with Altidore as the secondary option, although the American forward is frequently charged with holding the ball up to relieve pressure, distributing, and helping chase on defense. Bradley, for one, was quick to note how valuable Altidore is to the TFC attack, even if he's not scoring: "His ability to be a forward who you can play with and play off of, a forward who has good feet and good vision, a forward who has a real eye for the game and a real football brain. These things are so underrated."
Another issue is that Bradley's positioning has, at least recently, been different for TFC and the U.S. Greg Vanney deploys his midfielder further back, sitting closer to a traditional No. 6 role. Klinsmann, however, prefers Bradley pushed up into the attack. The difference between the Bradley-Altidore relationship shows in the number of passes between them. The pair have averaged about 5.7 passes per 90 minutes between one another during the 2016 MLS season, with two-thirds of those going from Bradley to Altidore. For the U.S., they average almost 9 per 90 minutes, with almost 60 percent going from Altidore to Bradley. That they complete fewer passes to each other as their starting positions drift further apart isn't a revelation, but it's interesting to see the numbers suggest what someone watching the game would think.
The best national teams in the world have a core group that plays for one team. Think Barcelona and Spain's Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Victor Valdes, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro in 2010 or Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze, and Jerome Boateng for Bayern Munich and Germany in 2014. That won't happen in MLS anytime soon, but the Bradley-Altidore duo is a start with great potential going forward. "Our relationship on the field, off the field, I think is a very positive one for TFC and the national team," the midfielder said.
That's a sentiment that's hard for anyone to argue.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.