Michael Bradley-Eric Wynalda exchange raises more questions

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It can't be easy for U.S. coach Bob Bradley or his son Michael to deal with the pressure of the U.S. team not performing well in the Gold Cup, and Michael's actions in an incident the day before the 4-2 loss to Mexico in the final on June 25 might indicate just how frayed his emotions were.

According to a witness who spoke on the record, but declined attribution, midfielder Michael Bradley was upset that Fox Soccer pundit and former U.S. national team player Eric Wynalda had suggested other players on the U.S. roster as more deserving of playing time -- especially given Bradley's lack of game time with Aston Villa. Specifically, it was Wynalda's quotes in an ESPN.com article about how midfielders Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones had "earned" consideration for the national team with their club play that bothered Michael Bradley.

While Wynalda was at the U.S. team's hotel to film player interviews before the Gold Cup final, Michael Bradley came at him angrily, poking a finger into his chest and yelling, while accusing Wynalda of saying he should not be on the national team.

Wynalda, according to the source, denied ever saying Michael Bradley didn't deserve to be on the national squad, but acknowledged he had said there were players who played Bradley's position who deserved more time on the field.

Bradley persisted in taking issue with the statements, accusing Wynalda and media in general of always stirring the pot with critical comments about the U.S. team. Wynalda, no shrinking violet himself, fired back at the player.

"Grow the [expletive] up," Wynalda reportedly said. "You have a problem with me complimenting players who play your position."

After the initial confrontation, the exchange took a less heated tone and eventually both proceeded with the originally scheduled interview.

Reached for verification of the incident by phone, Wynalda answered, "That's an accurate account of what was said."

Though Michael Bradley has a long history with Wynalda, going back to when his father coached the forward on the Chicago Fire back in 2001, it's still somewhat surprising that the discussion even took place. After all, news coverage of the U.S. team, even given their poor results of late, is hardly scathing. While players in other countries are celebrated, yet also hounded and critiqued daily by both fans and journalists alike, with every move analyzed and second-guessed, American players are still largely anonymous in their own country.

Attempts to contact Michael and Bob Bradley through U.S. soccer to comment were unsuccessful. When reached for an explanation, U.S. Soccer's press officer Michael Kammarman did not dispute the basic facts of what took place. Kammarman declined any official comment on behalf of the organization other than to confirm, "We did arrange to have interviews, and Michael was part of the interviews."

Though taking such umbrage at media opinion is a new low for Michael Bradley, there has been evidence of his hot temper in the past.

He appeared to lose control after a confrontation with Uruguay's Mathias Cardaccio at the end of an U-20 World Cup match in 2007 and his teammates struggled to restrain him. Bradley was also sent off in the 2-0 victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals.The midfielder then went after Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda in the tunnel after the game, drawing a multiple-game suspension by FIFA for "misconduct" against match officials.

Yet later in 2009, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder was benched by his then-coach, Michael Frontzek, who was apparently unhappy with his player's attitude.

"It's really less about the error, as the way how he handles it," said Frontzeck at the time. "As a young player, you have to realize mistakes."

The uncertainty about Michael Bradley's club future could have played a role in the incident. After failing to get much playing time with Aston Villa and with Villa declining to pick up its option to purchase him, Bradley remains likely to move to another club. Villa represents the first time he has been unable to establish himself as a regular starter.

However, the theory that other midfielders, including Edu and Jones, should see more playing time when Michael Bradley isn't featuring regularly for his club isn't one that's unique. Indeed it's a valid argument when taking into account Bob Bradley's own oft-repeated statements about the need for U.S. national team players to be participating in first-team action. Competition for midfield spots will only increase once Stuart Holden, a season-long starter at Bolton when fit, returns from injury.

Of course, players have taken exception to the work of journalists before. Algerian forward Rafik Saifi slapped a female reporter, Asma Halimi, in the postgame media zone after Algeria's loss to the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup. Halimi had apparently offended Saifi by translating an interview by another media source that included news of his engagement to a woman from France.

Having said that, other players on the U.S. roster have been criticized far more than Michael Bradley, yet remain civil and even friendly with journalists. Probably no particular player has been more maligned of late than Jonathan Bornstein, yet the defender is invariably a willing and cheerful interview.

However, having breached a taboo already by confronting a FIFA referee, and having escaped that incident with relatively minimal punishment, Michael Bradley might not have thought twice before airing his grievances against an unfavorable media report in such a confrontational manner. There was certainly no indication from U.S. Soccer's spokesman that his doing so was met with any kind of censure from the organization itself.

One could argue that as the coach's son, Bradley has taken liberties that other team members have the discipline to refrain from -- it doesn't speak well to the issue of equal treatment. It can't help team chemistry for U.S. players to have any doubt as to their coach's objectivity when deciding whether a player makes a starting lineup. Not that they'd feel comfortable voicing any such concern.

One universal aspect of all players, Wynalda observed, is their need to share frustrations, and at some point they often build camaraderie by complaining about their coach to each other. This can't really be done honestly and openly when the coach's son is on the team.

"That locker room will never be normal," Wynalda said.

Off-the-field time shared between teammates may seem incidental, but not to those on the inside. "It's big," said two-time World Cup veteran Gregg Berhalter, when asked about the connection between good locker room atmosphere and performances on the field.

Just by virtue of their unique situation, both Bradleys draw curiosity and examination. Only exemplary success can keep skeptics at bay, and that simply isn't happening right now. For the first time in its history, the U.S. team lost a Gold Cup group-stage match (to Panama) and squandered a two-goal lead to Mexico to finish with defeat.

While the American team struggles, the growing ranks of the soccer savvy public in this country look on askance, frustrated by the lack of progress. Whether critics want to blame the coaching, or the players, a Bradley falls into the line of fire. If Michael Bradley is to negotiate any further rocky waters ahead in his career, he'll need to rely on cooler professionalism, even under trying circumstances, than he's previously exhibited.

Andrea Canales is a soccer writer based in Los Angeles. She also writes a blog called Sideline Views.