COLUMBUS, OHIO -- As far as games in U.S. national team history go, few midfielders have played as complete a game as Michael Bradley played on Wednesday night against Mexico.
From the opening whistle, Bradley raced around breaking up Mexican attacks and setting up teammates with perfect passes, serving as the engine in an American midfield that thoroughly outplayed Mexico on its way to a 2-0 victory in their opening match of the Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying. Before he even scored his first goal in the 43rd minute, and well before he finished the game off with his second goal in second-half stoppage time, Bradley had already put his stamp on the game.
"I think everybody on the team was really excited to play today," Bradley said. "Any time you play against Mexico it's special, and on top of it, a really important World Cup qualifier, so to be a part of a team effort like that and come away with three points, it's a great feeling."
"I think he was fantastic, aside from the goals," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of Bradley. "He was up and down the field, side to side, steaming into tackles, winning balls, collecting second balls, winning balls without fouling, which is important.
"He did everything right, and then obviously the goals were fantastic."
Bradley's evolution as a player has continued since his move from the Dutch League to the German Bundesliga last summer. After some struggles to establish himself with Borussia Moenchengladbach early on -- struggles due in part to coaching changes and his late arrival to the club in the fall -- Bradley has persevered and re-established himself as a starter for the German club.
"Throughout all that, I just kept working hard and believing that I could play at that level, and now I'm playing and I feel like I'm improving and helping the team," Bradley said earlier in the week. "As a player, you always want to be playing and getting better, and I've never doubted that I would be able to prove myself and settle in with the club."
On Wednesday night, the 21-year-old Bradley played like a seasoned veteran rather than like the youngest player in the starting lineup for the U.S. national team, which he was by two years. He thoroughly outplayed Mexico veteran Pavel Pardo, who was rendered largely invisible. Bradley combined with Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and Sacha Kljestan to thoroughly control the midfield, to the extent that Mexico was forced into the unfamiliar tactic of bypassing its midfield and playing long balls.
"They always want to play, they try to play, but it wasn't going to happen today," Landon Donovan said of Mexico. "It was too hard. The few times they tried, it got picked off and they were in trouble, so they kind of had to resort to [playing long balls] but you could see that's not their strength."
A lot of the credit for that went to Bradley, who closed down Mexican players any time they had the ball in midfield and worked swiftly to move the ball into the attack.
"People forget he does a lot of hard work and gets in lanes and does that kind of stuff, but he can also score goals," Donovan said of Bradley. "He's a good, smart player."
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. El Salvador
San Salvador, El Salvador
Bradley also showed off the goal-scoring ability that helped him be one of the Dutch League's leading goal-scorers in the 2007-08 season with Heerenveen. His half-volley finish inside the 6-yard box on the first goal, and his 30-yard knuckling blast to finish the game off were the chances of a player who is confident he can put away chances when they come.
While Bradley's work in the last round of World Cup qualifying should have quelled any notions that Bradley started more often than he deserved to in 2008 (a common refrain among his critics), Bradley's masterful performance on Wednesday night should signal his arrival as one of the national team's most important players, a box-to-box midfielder who can score goals as well as neutralize an opposing attack.
The scary thing for Mexico, and all other U.S. opponents in World Cup qualifying, is that at 21, Bradley can only get better, which is something his teammates are confident will happen.
"Michael doesn't take any shorts," Howard said. "He's one of the hardest-working guys on the team. He demands a lot of himself, which is the epitome of a big-time player, which I think Michael will be."
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.
|U.S. vs. Mexico
|Last five home World Cup qualifiers
Feb. 11, 2009 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
Sept. 3, 2005 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
Feb. 28, 2001 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
April 20, 1997 -- T, 2-2, Foxborough, Mass.
Nov. 23, 1980 -- W, 2-1, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.