ORLANDO — “This has the chance to be something totally different, totally unique, something special in MLS.”
That was Michael Bradley talking on Sunday night. The same Bradley who measures his words as carefully as any player in North American soccer. When Bradley speaks, you can imagine cartoon cogs turning and clanking in his head. He has a vision of what Toronto FC could become, and to achieve it he’s using the same force of will that has helped make him the best U.S. player of his generation.
It’s a work in progress, of course, and in the smaller context Toronto’s 2-0 win over Orlando City on Sunday night was just one game, albeit an important one.
After failing to make the MLS playoffs in the first eight years of its existence, Toronto retooled again in the offseason, unloading Jermain Defoe and Gilberto and signing Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. The team payroll, once again, is the highest in the league, in excess of $20 million this season.
And yet the Reds were 1-4 this season entering Sunday’s game, mired in a four-game losing streak. Granted, they’ve been saddled with a seven-game road trip to start the year due to stadium renovations at home, but there was real pressure to get some points in front of more than 30,000 rabid fans and a national TV audience at the Citrus Bowl on Sunday.
In the end, Toronto delivered. With a coaching staff of former MLS All-Star defenders—head man Greg Vanney and assistants Robin Fraser and Dan Calichman—Vanney admitted he had taken TFC’s defensive woes as a personal affront. That changed on Sunday as Toronto had its first clean sheet of the season.
Justin Morrow, who has now played every position on the back line this year, showed his versatility by performing well at right back. Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou were solid in the central midfield, and Altidore (two fine goals) and Giovinco were often one step ahead of Orlando—in thought and in action. As Giovinco continues to settle in and Altidore regains a regular club playing rhythm that he hasn’t had for two years, the possibilities for Toronto’s attack are scary.
And if the defense plays this well collectively, then you can start looking at the bigger context, at what Toronto could become, and that vision is one reason Bradley signed on for a six-year contract.
“In the bigger picture, nobody firmly believes more in this club and this city than I do,” Bradley said after the game. “It’s why I’m here, it’s why I’m still here, it’s why I’m gonna be here. I think that this has the chance to be something totally different, totally unique, something special in MLS. I think when you talk about the infrastructure, the training ground we have, the stadium that we have, the city, the support we have in terms of the fanbase, the people, the media following, we’re relevant in the city.”
“There’s only a handful of MLS teams that can honestly say that. And all of this without ever making the playoffs, all of this without ever really, if I’m being honest, doing things the right way. Now I think for all of us who are here and a part of this, we believe in it. We feel like with time, with work, with blood, with sweat, with tears, we can turn this into something.”
“You can talk about it all you want, but … this is now the process, this is the work, this is what it means to live it. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy, doesn’t mean every step along the way is going to be perfect, because it’s not going to be. But in the long run I believe that this team and this club and this city can be something different.”
Bradley made an intriguing argument this weekend. So many people assume he has less pressure in MLS than he had at AS Roma, where he was fighting every week just to get on the field in one of the world’s most competitive leagues. He will never worry about earning a starting spot for Toronto, after all.
But pressure comes in different forms, and Bradley believes he has been under the microscope more in Toronto over the past 15 months than at any time during his career in Europe. Part of that is due to Toronto’s sports and media culture, which pays attention to TFC, treats it as “major league” and holds the team accountable. And part of that is due to Bradley’s role on the team. At Roma, players like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi were the leaders who bore the burden of the highest expectations.
In Toronto, it’s Bradley who’s playing the Totti role. He craved that responsibility. and now he has it. Thanks to management’s willingness to spend, he may now have the cast around him to achieve something significant, to turn Toronto—North America’s fourth-biggest city—into something MLS has never seen before.
But nothing is guaranteed, and that’s precisely why Bradley’s long-term quest is so watchable.