Michael Bradley shows he is still the U.S.'s most important player in 2017
Ricardo Clark still remembers the first time he saw Michael Bradley play. It was 2003, during Clark's rookie campaign with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Bradley wasn't anything close to the star he has become. He wasn't even a professional -- just a 17-year-old kid trying to show he could hang with some of Major League Soccer's finest. Bradley didn't blink.
"He jumped into one of our training sessions," said Clark during a recent phone conversation. "He was very young at the time, but you could tell he had potential, that's for sure."
Over the next 14 years, Bradley reached that potential and then some. He played in the Bundesliga, the English Premier League and Serie A, while earning 136 caps (and counting) for the United States men's team he currently captains. Recently, he's been dominating at Toronto FC -- his stat line in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire: 78 touches, 65-for-68 passing (95.6 percent), 16 recoveries, three tackles and two interceptions -- while anchoring a resurgent U.S. side under coach Bruce Arena.
In 2017, Bradley has appeared in 10 games (nine starts) for the Americans. They've conceded just four goals, only one during the run of play, while going undefeated. The midfielder picked up the Golden Boot at this summer's Gold Cup despite not joining the team until the knockout round. Once again, while Bradley might not be the U.S.'s best or most skilled player, he's making a case that he's the squad's most important one.
"He's the anchor. He has that experience, that veteran leadership to hold down the midfield," said Clark, who overlapped with Bradley on the American team from 2006 to 2012. "He's able to read the game really well. Some of the work he does in some games goes unnoticed, but he's helping the team, and the team is doing well. He makes everyone around him better."
Since Arena took over, the manager has deployed Bradley as a No. 6. That position allows the TFC star to use his vision and understanding to protect the back line, break up opponents' forays forward and facilitate the attack with long diagonal passes while hiding his lack of foot speed and occasional overpursuit.
There's also no better player in the U.S. pool at filling gaps and picking spots. In Jurgen Klinsmann's constantly shifting formations and roles, Bradley never quite knew where his teammates were going to be, which made covering for them difficult. Arena has installed a more structured approach to tactics while moving Bradley back to a spot where he has most of the field in front of him.
The results are obvious. Look no further than the two heat maps below. The first shows Bradley's aggregate positioning during the last two years of Klinsmann's reign: the 2015 and 2016 friendlies, the 2015 Gold Cup, the 2015 CONCACAF Cup and the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
The second map is the midfielder during friendlies in 2017, as well as the Gold Cup.
The biggest change is the addition of the large, red blot about 10 yards behind the center circle. That's Bradley's best spot, a position from which he can quickly and easily cover most of the middle third of the field while simultaneously providing defensive cover. It's also a prime location from which to launch attacks by delivering the type of pinpoint ball over the top that Bradley can hit.
The statistics also demonstrate how Bradley, and the U.S., have benefited from Arena's renewed focus on positioning and unity. When the midfielder plays, the U.S. has given up just 0.4 goals per game under Arena compared to 1.3 during 2015 and 2016 under Klinsmann. His passing percentage has jumped from 80.3 percent to 84.9 percent while the success of the next play after the pass is up to 70.6 percent from 63.5 percent. Although the number of chances Bradley is creating decreased from 1.6 per game to 1.1, that can be explained due to playing further back (and also the emergence of Christian Pulisic's attacking brilliance). Also, Bradley's goal-scoring rate has more than doubled this year under Arena.
If there's a single moment that epitomizes Bradley's new comfort over the past nine months, it's the goal he scored against Mexico at Azteca Stadium in June. In the sixth minute, the midfielder intercepted a back-pass from Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and launched a 40-yard effort that cleared El Tri goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
While the shot itself was a bit of sublime skill, it wasn't the most impressive part of the sequence. Instead, the real key was that Bradley knew the pass was coming. After the match, he said the team had studied film of the Mexican squad, saw their patterns of play and developed tactics to combat specific moments. If you watch the goal again, you can see Bradley leaving his mark and sprinting to the spot where he thinks Chicharito's pass will go. If he guessed wrong, he knew that Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez would pick up the attacker he abandoned. If he guessed right, he'd have a shot at making some magic. He did, and voila ... 1-0.
Of course, Bradley hasn't been perfect. His performance in a 1-1 draw with Panama, especially, was lacking in sharpness and impact. But the 30-year-old stalwart is back playing his best ball for club and country. He's come a long way over the past decade and a half from that skinny teenager Clark first saw.
"He's definitely grown as a player," the Houston Dynamo midfielder said. "He's always had that drive and that hunger. He's always been very professional about his craft. A person like that will always step forward and grow. That's what he's done. He's gotten better in all facets. You can see the leadership qualities. It's just his presence, the respect from other players and his teammates. You can tell that he's leading by example. That's one of the most important things. He does that in training and he definitely does it in games."
"But it's pretty incredible to think that he was a teenager and that he's grown into arguably one of the best U.S. players."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.