End to elusive major trophy quest within reach for Toronto FC's Michael Bradley

3:55 | Planet Futbol
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Thursday December 8th, 2016

Osvaldo Alonso had been there since the beginning, through seven years of regular season success and postseason failure. As he accepted the silver MLS Western Conference championship trophy and began happily hopping while holding it aloft on the makeshift stage, it wasn’t hard to sense a lot of pent-up playoff frustration dissipating into the thin Rocky Mountain air.

More than 2,500 miles away at his home in Toronto, Michael Bradley sensed it. He’d spent the evening watching the decider between the Seattle Sounders and the host Colorado Rapids. It should come as no surprise that the meticulous, detail-oriented veteran was paying close attention to Alonso—a fellow center midfielder, fellow captain and potential MLS Cup foe. Bradley saw Seattle win its first conference title on its third crack at the finals and remained tuned in as his joyous counterpart took hold of the hardware.

“I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I get that they’re excited, but ultimately, that’s not the big one. That’s not the real prize.’ In some ways, I’d never paid that close attention to what happens after a conference final, the way things go, the celebration,” Bradley told SI.com this week. “But this time, I was obviously watching a game with teams we could potentially play in the final and we were playing our own conference final a few days later. I watched the entire thing.”

Bradley said he raised the subject of conference title protocol with a few Toronto FC teammates the next day at training.

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“No disrespect of any sort. It was nice [Seattle] is going to the final,” he said. “But [MLS Cup] is the real trophy. That’s the one we’re really after, and I thought to myself at the time, ‘We’re going to win on Wednesday and when I get that trophy, I’ll raise it in a respectful way and that’ll be that.’”

Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth. Bradley had a plan until the second leg of the Eastern Conference final kicked off. What followed was an epic 120 minutes between Toronto and the rival Montreal Impact that will live forever in MLS lore. There was a boisterous crowd, pouring rain, smoke, controversy, lead changes and seven goals. And when it was over, Toronto remained standing, just as Bradley anticipated. But any chance of post-game restraint and been swept away.

He jumped higher than Alonso.

“How after that night we just had, after 120 minutes like the ones that had just been played, how in the world can you not raise this thing in a real way and be excited and proud and passionate about what’s gone into it?” he asked. “It was a big night for the team, for the club, for the city.”

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Toronto, the site of Saturday evening’s MLS Cup final, is starving for a winner. TFC had been starving for any MLS success at all. While the Sounders were tripping up in the playoffs, Toronto couldn’t even make them. It was not until this year, the club’s 10th, that the Reds won a postseason game. But just like it was easy to imagine Alonso’s joy representing a breakthrough the hard-luck Sounders had desired for so long, it was easy to believe that it was more than last Wednesday's drama that pushed that trophy over Bradley’s head. There was something personal there as well. After all, Bradley, now 29, had been a professional since 2004. He’d played for seven clubs in six countries and won a lot of games. He captained his national team, started in two World Cups and already was well on his way to one of the most noteworthy careers in U.S. soccer history. But he’d never lifted a trophy.

He's right, of course. An MLS conference title is a minor milestone. Among the 11 men with the most senior U.S. national team caps (Carlos Bocanegra and Paul Caligiuri are tied for 10th place), Bradley is the only one without a significant club title on his resume. He does have a CONCACAF Gold Cup title to his credit, but he wasn’t around to enjoy the celebration in Chicago. After earning a red card in the 2007 semifinal defeat of Canada, Bradley left the senior squad to join the U.S. U-20 team for the upcoming World Cup, where the Americans advanced to the quarterfinals.

He’s had several other close calls. There’s been silverware within reach, but Bradley hasn’t been able to leave his fingerprints on it. He was on the losing side in the 2009 Confederations Cup final and the 2011 Gold Cup final. Two years later he helped lead AS Roma to the Coppa Italia title game against arch-rival Lazio. Bradley nearly scored in the 10th minute at the Stadio Olimpico, but he chipped his shot just wide of the left post. Lazio’s Senad Lulic didn’t miss in the 71st. When Toronto won Canada’s domestic cup competition this summer, Bradley was on Copa América Centenario duty with the U.S. When TFC lost the final in ’14, he missed the decisive second leg for the start of World Cup camp. 

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His first three significant stops in Europe—Heerenveen, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Chievo Verona—were mid-table clubs at best. When the opportunity arose to take his career to a different level, he opted for Roma rather than a dominant team in a second-tier league. He aimed high instead of for the sure thing.

“At the beginning you can’t choose. You go where you’re wanted,” Bradley said. “After you establish yourself in Europe on different teams in different leagues, in my case I got to the point where I chose Roma. And obviously Roma’s history of winning championships isn’t Juve’s or Milan’s, but nonetheless they have a history of challenging for honors. And that was a big part of the reason I went there.”

Bradley had an excellent 2012-13 season, but the manager who took over at its conclusion, Rudi Garcia, starting phasing the midfielder out. It was time to move on.

Titles don’t necessarily reflect the athlete. Every championship team has benchwarmers and complementary players. They may contribute, but for the most part they’re along for the ride. And there are Hall of Famers with no medals or rings to speak of. But ask Bradley which athletes he grew up admiring and a pattern emerges. He was a fan of Mark Messier and Kobe Bryant—men of charisma and composure who lifted their teams at crunch time.

Bradley would attend MLS practices run by his father, Bob, and pay close attention to the likes of Marco Etcheverry, Peter Nowak and Chris Armas—players whose intangibles matched their skills. And his favorite footballer of all was midfielder Demetrio Albertini. The Italian scored all of 28 goals in more than 400 matches for AC Milan but anchored a Rossoneri squad that won the 1994 European Cup and five Scudettos.

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Bradley is a master of minutiae. He cares deeply about developing those intangibles. His commitment to team chemistry is the reason he captains both his club and his country. Stories of his voracious appetite for the game, whether it’s in training or on video, are well known, and his devotion hasn’t waned. He works hard, stays healthy and plays unselfishly. He’s the sort of athlete who wins championships. He just hasn’t. And despite the personal accolades, money and experiences he’s enjoyed, that failure hurts. There are more important metrics. There are more meaningful, transcendent ways to measure success.

“For me, it’s everything,” he said of his chase for a major title. “Especially for the position that I play and the spot on the field where I play, it takes somebody who understands the game and has a real eye for things to watch me and understand what I’m all about. If you’re just looking for guys who score the most goals or make the most assists, that’s never going to be me.

“In a lot of ways, this is pass or fail here [in Toronto]. If we can win a championship—if we can win trophies—then that will be all that I need to defend myself to anybody that thinks I shouldn’t have come or who thinks I haven’t been good enough. That’s what it’s all about for me. I feel good about the progress and improvement since I’ve been here, and ultimately it’s about winning. It’s about being the team at the end of the year standing on that podium getting to hold the Cup.”

Bradley has said he was attracted to Toronto because of the club’s potential and the heavy investment it was willing to make in him, the rest of the roster and its facilities. TFC hadn’t won, but it valued what Bradley could offer, and after feeling sidelined at Roma, he was looking for a place where the qualities he mentioned were prized. He was criticized. But in his view, it was an ideal match between an organization and player searching for the same thing.

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“When the opportunity came to come to Toronto, I remember thinking, ‘If I can’t go to Bayern Munich, then trying to help turn Toronto into the Bayern Munich of North America is a challenge that motivates me an unbelievable amount,’” he said. “The opportunity Toronto has given me, the responsibility that they’ve given me, the influence they’ve allowed me to have, I’m extremely grateful and I’ve spent every waking moment giving everything I have to try to repay that.”

Bradley’s 2016 began at the national team’s January camp and has included 17 U.S. games (a team high) and 29 matches with TFC. And he’s right—his stats aren’t much to look at. He’s got two goals and five assists. But it was Bradley’s shift deeper into midfield that helped Toronto coach Greg Vanney establish the tactical structure that’s carried the team to Saturday’s final. Bradley’s focus this season has been shape, connectivity and culture. Those things really can be measured only in the win-loss record.

“You can see it from day one in the blood, sweat and tears and everything in between, that he was passionate and dedicated to the team and the project and to get this thing in a position of where we are now trying to win a championship,” Vanney told reporters on Thursday. “Every ounce of energy that Michael has—sometimes maybe too much, because it’s his passion—goes into every thought. It’s the same way I am. Every thought goes into how do we win a championship at this club. It’s hard to switch off … It’s probably hard for him to switch off too sometimes when he goes home, because it’s everything you think about and everything you do, to try to help to get to lift a trophy.”

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If Bradley can do it, if he can help a club and city he's grown to love end a decade of agony and become champions, he’ll do more than fill that hole in his resume. He’ll justify the club’s commitment and validate his own. He hears the heat that’s been directed his way at various points in his career. But he hasn’t let that shake his confidence or prompt him to alter his ideals. He believes there’s a right way to his job and only one real way to confirm that it’s been accomplished.

“I think I am a winner,” he said. “I think I’m somebody who has qualities that can help any team be successful. But I also know that for every person who agrees with me, there’s also one who doesn’t think that. And that’s what I mean when I say that a trophy is the only thing that nobody can take away. The only thing that nobody can argue or dispute is holding a trophy—is winning. From the day that I got here, I’ve had big belief in my qualities as a player and as a leader. Big belief. And for all the ones who don’t, I want to be able to have the last word.”

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