Atlanta, July 2015. It’s a blazing hot summer day outside. Inside, on the day before the U.S.’s Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica, U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley sits with a bottle of water and takes in the question.
The topic isn’t rocket science: Does he feel more comfortable playing behind two U.S. forwards than he does behind one?
But you never know when the simplest of questions might trigger something meaningful. Bradley grew up in a family that doesn’t shy away from having what its members—including Bob, his father, the former U.S. coach—like to call “real conversations.” Conversations that are honest, conversations that move you forward, even if there might be some uncomfortable moments along the way.
We’re about to have a real conversation.
This one will reveal Bradley’s unvarnished opinion about his World Cup 2014 performance, his thoughts on the meaning of responsibility, his mission statement on why you need to have “the balls” in the biggest moments not to hide on the field.
“This eternal debate about my best position honestly drives me crazy,” Bradley says. “Because so many people in my opinion fail to understand what I’m all about.”
Michael Bradley doesn’t do sound bites. He’s going to talk—calmly, plainly and yet passionately, straight through—for the next nine minutes and 43 seconds.
But first, a brief word about trophies. On Saturday, when the U.S. meets Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup at a sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, there will be a trophy on the line, as well as a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
This is not a friendly. As trophies go, there are more important ones in the global game, but it’s still a trophy. And it’s still USA-Mexico. And while it may be hard to believe, considering his standout career, Bradley has never been on the field to raise a trophy for club or country in his 12 years as a pro.
In 2007, Bradley’s U.S. team won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago, beating Mexico in the final, but Bradley had to watch the game on television from a hotel in New Jersey. He had been suspended for the final after receiving a red card in the semifinal, and so he hustled to join the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team just before its tournament started in Canada.
Bradley missed the U.S.’s epic 2009 Confederations Cup final loss to Brazil after getting a late red card in the semis, and he was on the field for all of the U.S.’s 4-2 loss to Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final.
With another trophy on the line, he played all 90 minutes for Roma in the 2013 Coppa Italia final, a crushing 1-0 defeat. “Against Lazio,” he says, shaking his head. Roma’s intracity rival.
You don’t get a trophy for winning the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying hexagonal tournament, which Bradley has done twice.
And so on Saturday, Bradley, now 28, could finally be on the field to raise a trophy. If he’s the U.S. captain, as is expected, he would literally be the first player to hoist it, an image that would become part of U.S. soccer history.
“The chance to lift a trophy, that’s special,” he says. “There’s no two ways about it. That’s why you play. You realize that the chance to win trophies, it’s not something that comes around every day. You have to take every opportunity you have, and grab it with both hands and be ready to give everything you have and be so committed and so determined to not let anything else throw you off.”
He says this in Atlanta, at the Gold Cup. The next day, the U.S. loses, in an upset, to Jamaica. Another chance to raise a trophy melts away. The next one comes now.
What is Michael Bradley all about? Let him tell you.
“When I’m talking about who I am as a player, as a competitor, as a leader, as a teammate, I’m always about the team, always ready to do whatever is needed to help us try to win,” he says, starting a nine-minute-plus soliloquy. “And I’ve always been like that. Even as a young player in the national team, that was always me.
“And so I come into any team that I’m on—the national team, Toronto FC, it doesn’t matter—every single time ready to take responsibility, ready to try to put as much on my shoulders as possible in a positive way to help the team be successful and help the team try to win. And at the end of the day it’s up to the coach to decide how he wants to fit that in in a given moment or in a given team.
“I think I’m a complete midfielder. I can attack. I can defend. I can score goals. I can set up goals. I can tackle. I can intercept balls. I can play a more disciplined role a little deeper. I can be more mobile. I can cover ground. I think I’m somebody who in the midfield can do anything that’s asked. Depending on the team, depending on the game, depending on what’s needed, I’m ready to take whatever is asked of me and spill my heart and soul and blood and sweat and tears into that, trying to be the best and trying to help the team be successful."
The question did not mention World Cup 2014. But Bradley wants to go there, wants to have a real conversation. He knows that some view his performance in Brazil—after being moved by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the No. 10 role—in negative terms.
“After 20 minutes of the first game we lose Jozy [Altidore to a hamstring injury],” Bradley says.
“And at that point Clint [Dempsey] goes to play up front, and the onus is on me at that point to take more risks and to play more passes forward and to try to help us make chances and create things, yet also run and defend and come back and win tackles and help us try to be as hard to play against as possible.
“And so when people want to act like I was so bad at the World Cup, they can get lost. Because it’s easy to look and say, ‘Ah, what about this player? Ah, what about that player?’ But does anybody bother to watch all four games from start to finish and see everything that was put on my plate? Everything that was asked? And everything that I was able to do? No.
“Again, it doesn’t bother me, because you learn a lot about yourself in the hardest moments. And so when the weight of the world was ready to come down on my shoulders at the World Cup, it didn’t change me one bit. I was just as determined and just as committed and just as willing to keep going and keep going and keep going as I ever was. And so I look back on the World Cup in a very different way than a lot of people do.
“And like I said, the criticism doesn’t bother me one bit. What everybody doesn’t realize is I’m harder on myself than everyone. And I’m also not saying I was perfect. Absolutely not. I can and I have looked back at every minute of those games and gone through things I think could have been better or plays that could have been a little bit sharper or different. But for me the overall package and overall effort in terms of what went into that I look back on in a very proud and very positive way.
“I use that example just in a way to answer your question about this debate about my position. As you get older, as you improve, as you become a better player, as you become a bigger player, there’s more responsibility to make big plays and make plays that make a difference. And so could I play deep in the midfield and kind of just sit in there and get the ball 100 times a game and complete, depending on the game, 80 or 90 or 100 passes? Yeah, I could.
“But is that really going to help? Is that enough for us to win? At the end of 90 minutes, is that going to be enough for us to be successful? Maybe some days. But on other days maybe it’s not going to be. And I think that is where I’ve started to understand that the responsibility now is to make plays that make a difference, in attack and in defense.
“And maybe that means losing a few more balls. Maybe that means a few plays that don’t come off. Maybe that means a few passes where the timing is a little off, and they don’t work. But it also probably means a few more assists, a few more goals, a few more plays that make the difference and help us win. At the end of the day, it’s up to the coach to decide where and how that all fits in. I’m ready to do anything that Jurgen or Greg [Vanney, the Toronto coach] or whatever coach I’m playing for at the time asks of me.”
It’s brought up that Bradley covered more distance—23.8 miles—than any other player during the World Cup 2014 group stage. And then he’s asked if that’s a good thing. What does it say? Does it matter?
“Running isn’t about running,” Bradley says.
“It’s not just about saying I ran more than everybody. It’s about responsibility. It’s about the mentality and the balls to say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go for it. I’m gonna give everything I have to help us try to win.' It’s not about miles. It’s not about the number of sprints. People who look at that and think that are totally missing the point.”
On Saturday, Bradley will almost surely be playing behind two forwards, Dempsey and Altidore, instead of the one he played behind at the World Cup (Dempsey) and in last month’s friendlies (Altidore). Honestly, he doesn’t really care.
“To go back to your question, one forward, two forwards, it depends on the team,” he says. “It depends on the qualities and the mix of the players around you. In a perfect world, every team would have this balance of structure versus freedom, skill versus work and how this all comes together.”
He’s hoping that balance comes together against Mexico in the Rose Bowl. He’s hoping to finally raise a trophy. It’s why you play the game, after all.