KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Soccer is a complex game. There are rarely any simple explanations or magic formulas when it comes to winning matches, and yet this much is true when the topic is the U.S. national team: If Michael Bradley is on the field, the Americans have a much better chance of playing well.
It was true last week, when the U.S. -- without Bradley -- got pounded by Belgium 4-2 and then performed at a higher level with Bradley on the field in a 4-3 friendly win against Germany four days later. And the U.S. is hoping it will be true again when it meets Jamaica here in a big World Cup qualifier on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport).
Last September, Bradley was injured and watching in increasing agony on an Internet livestream from Rome as the U.S. fell to Jamaica 2-1 in a semifinal-round qualifier here, the first time the Yanks had ever lost to the Reggae Boyz. That night the U.S. struggled in the midfield as Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones were unable to control the game, and ultimately the U.S.' fouls near its own box were its undoing -- both Jamaica goals came on free kicks.
At this point, Bradley is the U.S.' indispensable player, a central midfielder who controls the team's rhythm, switches on a dime from defense to attack and (most impressive of all) possesses an acute awareness of nearly everything that is happening on the field with his teammates and opponents -- and adjusts himself accordingly.
"Little details," Bradley calls them, and in a 30-minute interview here it's perfectly clear that the AS Roma player speaks as he plays: With a high level of concentrated thought, an awareness of the big picture and the quiet confidence that he can influence things, change games.
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Take the way Bradley sees the U.S. midfield. "It's important now as we move into the home stretch of qualifying and toward the World Cup that the understanding is at a really, really high level," he says. "When you look at big games, they're won and lost in the midfield, by the ability of guys in the midfield to impose themselves on the other team, to close down, to make the game hard for them. And, in turn, to get the ball and start to help dictate the way we're going to play."
Bradley's partnership with Jones has never been better than it was on Sunday against Germany, but that performance didn't happen by accident. Jones has raised his game in a U.S. jersey to the standard he has shown more regularly at club level for Schalke. Bradley, meanwhile, says he has studied Jones ever since the moment Bradley joined Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany back in 2008. (He left Germany for Italy in 2011.)
That process continued when Bradley and Jones played next to each other for the first time in a U.S. uniform, in October 2010, and by now they have started in the U.S. midfield 19 times together, with the 20th expected on Friday.
What's clear is this: Bradley and Jones are not the same type of player, and their complementary skills are a good thing for the U.S. team. "Jermaine is a guy who plays on instinct, a guy who's competitive and emotional and aggressive," says Bradley, who has the rare combination of being cerebral and at times emotional. "He's able to use his athleticism and physicality to impose himself on the game. There's an understanding that the way to get the best out of Jermaine is by allowing him to use his range and mobility to go where his instincts take him."
"That requires me in a lot of situations to be the one who is reading things and giving the whole thing balance," Bradley continues. "If he's on the move and looking to close down or joining the attack, then it's my job to read it all and know how to understand where to position myself so I can get the first ball and help get things going. Or how to position myself so if the ball turns over, I'm in a good spot to cut things off or initiate the pressure from deeper. These are all the little details that the more you play together, the more they get taken care of."
This is the nitty-gritty of high-level soccer, the stuff that makes a team work. It is not always sexy, and it may or may not stand out to you very much when you watch the Jamaica-U.S. game live on Friday. But if you want to see what Bradley's talking about in action, consider recording the game and watching it again later, paying special attention to the interplay between Bradley and Jones in the U.S. midfield. We're not talking about the "soccer poetry" stuff that irks guys like Tony Kornheiser, but we are talking about the Xs and Os that are only recently starting to be analyzed more in the U.S. media.
Bradley spends a lot of time thinking about these things, about his own team as well as the U.S.'s opponents. He sees Jamaica as different from other CONCACAF foes.
"They're athletic and physical, and those two qualities cause huge problems," he says. "They're unpredictable, so a lot of times you get a game that's a little bit off the cuff. It doesn't always have a great rhythm or flow, but you have to concentrate for 90 minutes. If you look at the other teams in CONCACAF there are similarities: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador or Costa Rica. Mexico is always a little different, but in a lot of ways Jamaica is a totally different team. Coming off a loss on Tuesday [to Mexico], they're going to be scratching and clawing for anything they can get."
You get the sense talking to Bradley that he could discuss the little details of soccer for hours and hours. He loves this game, a sport that has meant so much to his family over the years. There's another storyline here, of course, the one that his father, Bob, the former U.S. coach, is creating as the coach of Egypt. On Sunday, Bob and the Pharaohs meet Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier. Given the right results, Egypt could clinch a spot in the final home-and-home African playoff, the winner of which would earn a berth in World Cup 2014.
If Bob leads Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990, he will be a national hero in a country that has gone through change and turmoil over the last two years. On Sunday in Seattle, Michael will find a livestream and watch that game. He has thought about what it would be like if both he and his father made it to Brazil next year. In fact, he has thought about what might happen if the U.S. and Egypt are drawn into the same World Cup group.
"On the one hand, it would be great, since it would mean we and they have gotten to the World Cup," Bradley says. "But if we had to play each other, I'd prefer it would be in the final instead of the group stage."
Bradley laughs. There's a lot more work to be done, but he's enjoying the stops on this journey.