U.S. captain Michael Bradley enjoying a resurgence under Bruce Arena
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Gold Cup hasn't necessarily been kind to Michael Bradley.
In 2007, he was sent off in the semifinal win over Canada, and thus wasn't on the field for the 2-1 victory over Mexico in the final. In the 2011 final, he was on the losing end of a bitter 4-2 defeat to Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
On Wednesday, Bradley will have a chance to put that right as he captains the U.S. against Jamaica in the 2017 Gold Cup final. But Bradley insists that he's not haunted by what happened in the past. There are no ghosts lingering in his psyche. The fact that this is a somewhat watered down version of the Gold Cup doesn't affect him either.
"I want to win because I want to win. I want to win because that's why you play," he said after the U.S. team completed its walk-through at Levi's Stadium. "To win medals, to win trophies, that's what it's all about. People say, 'It's the Gold Cup.' People say, 'You played Jamaica in the final.' None of it matters. At the end, they pass out medals, and they pass out a trophy. We want to be the team holding that trophy up."
The calendar year has witnessed something of a resurgence for Bradley. The end of 2016 saw a U.S. team that suffered through a collective meltdown, especially in the debacle that was the 4-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica, which led to the dismissal of manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
"We had let ourselves down at the end of last year," Bradley said. "There was no two ways about that. Obviously, Jurgen pays the price in terms of losing his job, but there was more to it than that, and we understood that. We knew that we had to look in the mirror and also know that we had let ourselves down on a few too many occasions."
In the aftermath, Bruce Arena was hired once again to manage the U.S. team, and the uptick in the mood of the group and Bradley's performances at international level have been evident. He called his time under Arena "very, very enjoyable. I think from the beginning there was a real sense within the group that this is what was supposed to feel like."
He added, "When Bruce and his staff came in in January, the tone they set from the beginning in terms of creating an environment where everybody feels a part of it, everybody is all in, creating an environment where the players are challenged and pushed to take big roles in terms of what goes on every day, the environment, this part has been great."
Arena's arrival has coincided with a more defined role for Bradley, that of a holding midfielder tasked mostly with sitting in front of the back line, and letting the likes of Kellyn Acosta or Darlington Nagbe venture further up field. That said, Bradley has picked his moments to get forward, as witnessed by the wonder goal he scored against Mexico during last month's World Cup qualifier at the Azteca. But there seems to be something deeper at work. At least outwardly it looks like coach and captain are completely in sync, something that Bradley attributes to Arena.
"For me, I've enjoyed the opportunity to play for Bruce again," Bradley said. "I certainly appreciate the trust and the confidence that he's shown in me in this stretch. And for any player when you have a coach who gives you that, you want nothing more than to repay that back every single day, and ultimately in the biggest moments."
For Arena the appreciation is mutual. Arena has historically relied on his leaders to take their pulse of the locker room, and handle any issues that arise. In this vein, he has relied on Bradley's play and leadership throughout the calendar year, and Bradley has responded.
"He makes my job easier because we have a really focused individual, a focused captain, and a person that wants to play in a World Cup in 2018," Arena said of Bradley. "From January on, he has been a great leader in the program, very focused and the players follow his lead. He's been fantastic to work with."
Of course, Arena has practically had a front-row seat to Bradley's entire life. The lives of Arena and Bradley's father, Bob, have crisscrossed each other over the years, with the elder Bradley serving as Arena's assistant more than once. And it was Arena who actually gave Bradley his first cap, a late cameo in a friendly against Venezuela just prior to the 2006 World Cup when Bradley wasn't even a member of the World Cup squad.
"I probably saw him the week he was born," Arena said of Michael Bradley at Tuesday's news conference. "I saw him around the game an awful lot as a young kid. First of all, I never thought he'd grow to where he's grown, physically. If you would've seen his family you never would have guessed that as well. But obviously there was a focus.
"He has a lot of his father's qualities. He's a very dedicated professional. He understands a lot of other things outside the lines, which has helped him as a player as well. He's been terrific in that sense. And it's interesting to me, he continues to grow every year as a player, and he's at an age where you wouldn't think that would happen as much, but he continues to grow and get better. I'm real pleased with Michael's progress."
For now the focus is on Wednesday's final. The U.S. will need to be patient with the ball, while also pressuring quickly, the better to negate the Reggae Boyz's ability to break quickly.
"You don't get a million of these opportunities in your career," Bradley said. "So we're very cognizant of that, and you don't let opportunities [pass] you by. So we have a group of guys that is excited and motivated by the chance of stepping on the field in a big final."
And this time, coming away with a victory.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.