It’s been a pretty solid summer for the USMNT. An offensive onslaught from what is basically the reserve team (with a few stars), a great win against Germany (anyone who says that German “B” team isn’t excellent doesn’t know football) and a stroll through World Cup qualifying have given fans faith in Jurgen Klinsmann and the team as a whole leading into the the final stretch before Brazil.
Much has been made of Dempsey, Donovan, and Altidore during this record-breaking stretch. And rightfully so; Altidore is back with a bang, as is Donovan. Dempsey scored a pair of beauties against the Germans and the game winner against Italy last spring. But since the World Cup, none of these players have been consistently excellent. The team isn’t completely changed when one of these players step onto the field. Dempsey often gets frustrated and can drift out of games. Altidore had been missing the mark (literally) for two years. Donovan has had a few marquee performances (excluding the Gold Cup), notably against Scotland, but his play just before his sabbatical was average at best.
So who is the the most influential player for the USMNT? 25 year old Michael Bradley. The Roma star already has 79 caps for the Yanks, having regularly featured since he was 20. While he doesn’t score consistently (more than forgivable for a deep lying playmaker), he scores when the need is most dire. Two goals against Mexico in 2010 World Cup qualifying, the first goal against Egypt in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and the tying goal against Slovenia in South Africa, to name a few.
Bradley is our Sergio Busquets, with an offensive tinge. Dubbed the General by Chievo and Roma fans, Bradley is as intelligent a player as the US has at its disposal. His passing range is superb, spraying pinpoint passes from and to any point on the pitch. He can stretch sides vertically and horizontally, a critical asset with wingers like Brek Shea and a striker like Hercules Gomez. A scoring threat from anywhere within 25 yards, Bradley has the ability to bomb forward and unlock defenses with his silky passing and control.
On the other side of the ball, the USMNT mainstay clogs the midfield to break up opponent’s moves before they can happen. He acts as a release valve, collecting the ball and relieving pressure quickly. His ability to step into passing lanes often allows the US to spring counter attacks, a strategy most imperative under former coach (and Michael’s father) Bob Bradley.
But is he as important as Dempsey or Donovan or Tim Howard? Absolutely. With the improved play of Brad Guzan, Howard is no longer the the only reasonable choice between the pipes. He is still excellent, but goalkeepers aren’t the fulcrum of a side. Dempsey and Donovan can make the difference in a game, but their consistency has been suspect in the last 3 years, most notably failing to shine when the team lacks meaningful possession and strong service forward.
The fact is that the USMNT is a different side with Bradley sitting behind the midfield. He’s a calming presence, rarely overwhelmed and solid in possession. He wins the battle of the midfield more often than not, allowing the 4 players in front of him to do their job and score goals. Without him, the US is clumsier in position and uninspiring with their passing when they do keep the ball.
In the 4-2-3-1 system Jurgen favors, a Bradley-esque player is critical. He’s the maestro, the engine and the heart (choose whichever cliche analogy you prefer). Jozy’s holdup play is important, as are Dempsey/Donovan’s positioning, creativity and finishing. But without service, none of those things matter. Without a solid midfield behind them, creative players can’t be creative and the free flowing movement necessary for this formation to work suffers.
True enough, the USMNT has been doing alright in the Gold Cup without Bradley. But the opposition has been poor and Donovan superb. It won’t be this easy for long. Brazil looms on the horizon, and the often under appreciated Bradley will prove decisive if the US are to make a run against the best in the business.