Michael Bradley, Forever Out Of Place
Michael Bradley is likely the best American soccer player of his generation. The reason he seldom looks like it has everything to do with what he's being asked to do.
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
For all the brash Here We Come, World bravado that follows them around, the US Men's National Team are more or less the same half-dopey, half-promising gaggle of underdogs they have been for two decades. Since Jurgen Klinsmann took control as coach of the senior team and a kind of chief executive for the country's entire soccer infrastructure in 2011, he has helped reform the way we coach up our nine-year-old prodigies and gifted teenagers, and pushed more American players than ever to see if they can hack it in Europe. These are positive developments, and might well prove beneficial over the next decade.
But the actual experience of watching a USMNT isn't radically different than it was five years ago. The style is slightly different—the runs are more adventurous, the ball moves faster—but the feeling that the team, while plucky and muscular, just isn't all that good remains prevalent. A recent 1-1 draw with Switzerland and a 2-3 loss to Denmark in a pair of exhibition matches haven't done much to change that.
Never is this feeling that American mediocrity might reign forever more acute than when Michael Bradley tries to play at a speed his mind or body won't quite brook, and winds up giving the ball away to an opponent or scuffing a simple scoring chance. He is learning, we hear constantly, and in this way, Bradley mirrors the USMNT's growth under Klinsmann: it might be happening, already, somewhere beneath the surface, but the outward impression is still that of familiar incompetence.
Bradley has been designated the best player of his generation, which is a notion that took a while to become accepted as truth, mostly because unlike Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard before him, Bradley has an unglamorous natural position. A forward or goalkeeper's talents are obvious and spectacular; they often determine the outcome of a game in an easy-to-comprehend way. Bradley is a holding midfielder, which requires a subtler set of skills. A commentator never breaks into a shrieking wail over nifty distribution and smart positioning. Both of these things are important, but they're not especially exciting.
Klinsmann has been adamant that he thinks Bradley can be not just quietly effective, but someone who stars in a match's most crucial moments. This has meant, over the past year-and-a-half, recasting the 27-year-old as an attacking midfielder, which has been a kind of trial by embarrassment. Peer into Bradley's eyes as he struggles to grasp his now-not-so-new responsibilities, and you can faintly make out the sound of David Byrne despair-yelping about large automobiles and oncoming tornadoes.
Bradley's primary issue is that he's occupying an unfamiliar space. All but the most versatile soccer players get used to having the ball in certain areas of the pitch. Dribbling down the sideline is different from knifing through the penalty area, which is different from dictating tempo from near the center circle. You not only have a unique view of the field from each of these spots, but you're dealing with various types of defenders coming at you with various levels of urgency.
Bradley is accustomed to having possession in the middle of the park, facing minimal to moderate pressure. As an attacking mid, he plays between the lines, which is to say he often has the opposition's midfielders behind him and the back line in front, with one or both of them converging on his position. In this role, he has to make decisions much more quickly than he used to. Even as a pass is coming toward him, he must have a clear idea of what he wants to do next. There is little to no time to take a touch, compose himself, and then spray the ball where it needs to go. Bradley spent years learning ballroom dance, and now he's being asked to salsa.
Whether Bradley can hasten his thinking and movements enough to feel at home in this new space remains to be seen, though the evidence is mounting that the spirit of Riquelme and Kaká just aren't in him. What's perhaps more troubling is the possibility that Bradley has been playing farther up the pitch because his coach doesn't trust anyone else to do so. World power-level national teams rarely move their players—let alone their very best—away from their natural positions, because they don't have to. Kun Agüero plays more like a pure striker for Argentina than he does for Manchester City, but La Albiceleste aren't throwing him out on the wing due to a dearth of capable wide midfielders. Agüero only ever inhabits areas of the pitch in which he is comfortable because it's never necessary for him to do otherwise.
Meanwhile, Bradley's stuck doing his bravest for the USMNT, even as he's demonstrably out of his element. It's a credit to his skill and effort that his tenure as an attacking midfielder hasn't been an utter disaster, but he disappears from matches in a way he didn't when he played deeper, and his mistakes are more frequent than ever before. His predicament has been created by what now seems like a classic bit of Klinsmannian imagineering. The idea of Michael Bradley as an offensive dynamo is interesting; in practice, it falls flat. Despite this reality, Klinsmann keeps trying the tactic out, either believing it will eventually succeed, or because he doesn't see any viable alternative. Bradley's a good player, but he's being pushed past the limits of his capabilities by a coach and a team that still need more than he can give.