Before the United States headed to Brazil to kick off its World Cup campaign, the list of concerns for the Stars and Stripes was well-known.
First on the list? Perhaps the defensive inexperience. Or the lack of a true left back. The form of Jozy Altidore might have been there, with a move down the list after his two-goal output against Nigeria. The discipline of Jermaine Jones would likely have made an appearance. Even Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics were questioned before his decision to shift into a diamond midfield with Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley all in the starting lineup.
Nowhere on that list, at least not in relation to the quality of his contributions, would Bradley's name have appeared.
Prior to the start of the tournament, Bradley represented the most consistent part of the team, a true stalwart who could be counted upon to be very good to excellent each and every time he took the field for the U.S. Altidore may struggle to score, the back line might suffer from inexperience and the formation could fail on some basic tactical level, but at least Bradley's presence in the middle would make up for some of those doubts.
That was true even when Klinsmann put more responsibility on Bradley's shoulders by passing him the proverbial keys to the U.S. attack. Instead of lining up Bradley at defensive midfield, where his talents for reading the game and breaking up play are most effective, the midfielder was moved upfield in a playmaker role. For Klinsmann, Bradley's two-way abilities made him the better choice over other options who might be more creative, but less trustworthy defensively.
On Monday in Natal, the unthinkable happened. Bradley played poorly.
At the very least, he didn't play up to his usual standard. Though that might be harsh considering how the U.S. played as a whole, Bradley is rightly judged on a different scale. The Americans can strain to create chances, the defense can suffer from simple mistakes, the midfield corps can turn the ball over; yet even on the worst of days Bradley is a rock, but he was decidedly ineffective against Ghana.
Bradley moved the ball relatively well. He completed 80 percent of his passes on the night, a respectable return for any central midfielder. But it was the missed passes that stood out, the errant balls out to the flanks or off-the-mark 10-yard passes in congested areas.
Ghana pressed the ball quickly and in numbers, a tactic that seemed to force Bradley out of his comfort zone. After 80 minutes of being harried and harassed, the normally ultra-accurate central midfield maestro -- so key to the Americans' ability to simply possess the ball, much less create attacking danger -- sprayed stray passes without any Ghanaian player pressing him.
The stats say Bradley was steady, allowing for how little the U.S. had the ball against Ghana. The eyes say Bradley struggled, perhaps exactly because the U.S. had so little of the ball. Bradley was both the occasional cause, and the unfortunate victim, of the total team's problems. The loss of Altidore to injury 22 minutes into the match removed a release valve for Bradley, and with less direct options to play forward to and combine with, he couldn't find the game.
Still, the Yanks somehow won the game and collected a vital three points in Group G without Bradley at his best. While the postmortem of the group opener is generally focused on American deficiencies and the rash of injuries they suffered, there's a positive to be found: the U.S.'s most important player played well short of his usual standard and the Americans managed to win.
It's difficult to imagine that Bradley will follow up a poor game with another. More than any other player in the team, faith that Bradley will rebound with one of his trademark all-around performances against Portugal on Sunday is justified. That's significant solace for anyone worried about the prospects of the team moving forward into the deeper reaches of Group G; it will also breed confidence that the team can get the points they need out of their two remaining games to secure advancement into the knockout rounds.
Bradley's 90 minutes against Ghana surprised, but not for good reasons. The Americans have every reason to believe that his next 90, against Portugal in Manaus on Sunday, won't surprise at all exactly because they'll be what everyone has come to expect.