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Michael Bradley returns as U.S. begins process of mixing old guard with young core

Michael Bradley, 31, is back with the USMNT for the first time since the defeat to Trinidad and Tobago.
Michael Bradley, 31, is back with the USMNT for the first time since the defeat to Trinidad and Tobago.

There was only one way Christian Pulisic's return to the U.S. men's national team could be overshadowed, yet caretaker manager Dave Sarachan obliged. Michael Bradley is back in the U.S. fold.

For years now, Bradley, 31, has divided opinion like no other U.S. player. When the U.S. faces Colombia in a friendly on Oct. 11, it will be just over a year since the Americans suffered their greatest humiliation, that of losing to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1, a defeat that eliminated them from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. As captain, Bradley took the brunt of the criticism. Other players were equally culpable, but blame comes with being one of the faces of the team. The amount of invective was intense, and the hope in some quarters was that Bradley's international career was over.

But Sarachan has done the right thing by bringing Bradley back. No doubt, the presence of the Toronto FC midfielder will remind fans of that horrible night in Couva, Trinidad. But that can't factor into Sarachan's calculations. What should is whether Bradley can still add value to the team. Sarachan said Bradley -- as well as Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan -- can.

"When you are building a team, at some point there has to be the proper blend of youth and experience," Sarachan said. "As we head into these last four friendlies of the year, I felt the timing was right to begin that transition. I think it's important to do it earlier than a week before the Gold Cup or a World Cup qualifier. Bringing in players like Michael and Brad, who have a vast amount of experience and can be a great resource for our younger players -- both on and off the field -- is an important step for us at this point in time.

"We've begun to develop a deeper pool across the board. As we continue to offer opportunities, it will strengthen us even more. At the same time, players need to understand that there is going to be competition for spots and for playing time, and that is part of the next stage of development for many of these young guys. I think we're going to see that competition more and more as we move forward."

This is not to say Bradley should be starting for the U.S. at the 2022 World Cup, assuming the U.S. qualifies. At that time, he will be 34, and if the U.S. hasn't found a replacement by then, something is seriously wrong.

Yet for all of the progress made by the likes of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, they remain works in progress. That was borne out by games last month against Brazil and Mexico when the U.S. struggled to keep the ball for long stretches. A player with the r&eaucte;sumé of Bradley can share his experiences and set the kind of example that never hurts when around young players.

Sure, Bradley's performances were uneven down the stretch of World Cup qualifying, and after leading TFC to a historic treble last year, he has suffered along with the rest of his club teammates in the current campaign. But playing for the national team has always meant a ton to him. And it might be that he can help the U.S. on the field as well.

The onus is also on the likes of Adams and McKennie. For Bradley's time with the national team to be over, it will be up to that duo -- and others -- to push him out and show Sarachan -- and whoever succeeds him -- that they would be foolish to play Bradley ahead of them.

Pulisic certainly won't mind sharing the spotlight with someone else, especially given that there have been whispers calling his commitment to the national team into question. The reality, however, is that the injury he sustained with Borussia Dortmund was legitimate. And yes, he looked tired in the run-up to a friendly against Bolivia last May, but that doesn't seem that unusual, given the difficulties he went through last season for both club and country.

Christian Pulisic has made just one appearance in a U.S. jersey since the team's elimination from World Cup qualifying last year.
Christian Pulisic's only appearance for the U.S. this year was in a May friendly with Bolivia.

Will Pulisic's performances for the U.S. be scrutinized? Of course, as they should be. He's hands-down the best American player, after all. But it also seems premature to think he'll become a U.S. version of Ryan Giggs, who at times during his illustrious career seemed to have difficulty summoning the requisite enthusiasm to play for Wales.

As for the rest of the roster, there was some surprise at the call-ups for FC Dallas' Reggie Cannon and New York City FC's Ben Sweat, though it makes sense for Sarachan to take a look at his options for a left-back position that has proven difficult to fill over the years.

However, given the attacking struggles last month, the microscope will focus more on the offensive side of the ball, and in particular on three players. Jonathan Amon has shown some impressive moments for Danish side Nordsjaelland, yet what makes him so intriguing is a skill set that is in short supply with the U.S. -- namely an ability to beat opponents off the dribble. Kenny Saief is a craftier type of player who could also prove valuable to the U.S. cause, though he'll need to show that he can avoid injury long enough to make some progress at club level.

"[Saief has] shown me enough when we've had him that he has a unique ability on the left side of our attacking midfield to be a guy who can make plays in the final third," Sarachan said.

The play of 18-year-old forward Josh Sargent will also bear watching. Sarachan opted to leave him home last month as Sargent continues to settle in at Werder Bremen. He has yet to make a first-team appearance there, but he has scored six goals in 10 appearances with the reserve team and seems to be passing each test the German club presents. It will be interesting to see how his play compares to that of Hannover forward Bobby Wood, whose play has suffered over the past year, though he did notch an assist last weekend.

The core of players such as Adams, McKennie, Matt Miazga and John Brooks remains in place, and more than anything, the hope is that some improvement will be visible from the games played a month ago.

"Brazil, having brought a seasoned roster of players that function as a well-oiled machine, showed our group what another level looks like in terms of movement, technical skill and speed," Sarachan said. "Obviously, that challenged us in all aspects. Mexico showed us a lot in terms of what it takes to win a game against a rival, where you need to roll up your sleeves and grind through a match. I think we saw that some players who may have struggled in Game 1 applied those experiences to their performance against Mexico in a positive way. Defensively, I think for the most part we have established during the last year a team that's been hard to break down. Clearly, the areas of improvement and where we can move ourselves along are in the attacking third of the field."

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