SAN JOSE, Calif. — U.S. men’s national team captain Michael Bradley has played in 32 World Cup qualifiers in his career, and his response is clear when asked where Friday’s Russia 2018 qualifier against Honduras ranks among those games in terms of the U.S.’s absolute need for three points.
“It would certainly be at or near the top, there’s no doubt about that,” says Bradley, who spoke to SI.com for half an hour in the lobby of the team hotel here on Wednesday.
The U.S. is one of only seven teams in the world that have played in every men’s World Cup going back to 1990. But that streak could be in jeopardy if the Americans don’t win on Friday (FS1; pregame 9:30 p.m. ET, kickoff 10:50 p.m.). The U.S. is in last place in the six-team, 10-game CONCACAF Hexagonal after opening the tournament with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November—defeats that led to Bruce Arena replacing Jurgen Klinsmann as the U.S. coach.
“Given the way the first two games went, you don’t need to be a mathematician to look at the table right now and realize that we’re behind the eight ball,” Bradley says. “We need points. We certainly feel that urgency. We have been looking forward to this game for a long time as a chance to start putting things right.”
But while the U.S. has never lost its first two games of the Hex before this one, Bradley pointed out that he and other U.S. veterans have been through plenty of difficult moments in previous World Cup qualifying campaigns. He noted a few examples: The qualifier in June 2009 when the U.S., coming off a loss at Costa Rica, fell behind a gritty Honduras in Chicago before coming back to win 2-1; the one later that year when the U.S. went down 1-0 to El Salvador in Sandy, Utah, and came back to win 2-1; and the ones in March 2013 when the U.S., coming off a Hex-opening loss at Honduras, beat Costa Rica in the SnowClásico and tied Mexico in the Azteca.
“Qualifying is never easy,” Bradley says. “There are some people who turn on their TV every four years for a World Cup and see us there and take it for granted and probably have no idea what goes into it in the years leading up to it. Our fans and people who follow us understand there’s a long and grueling qualifying schedule. But even for them there isn’t always the ability to remember that it’s never easy. Every qualifying campaign I’ve been a part of, there have been moments along the way when you step on the field that day knowing we’ve got to win. Friday is another big night.”
The U.S. men have had some good captains over the years, but not since John Harkes has there been one who fits the role better than Bradley. A lot of that comes from how he communicates about the soccer stuff, the sense that it is always about the team with him. Bradley refused to throw any teammates under the bus back in November after the 4-0 loss at Costa Rica, and the anguish that comes over his face when asked to describe what that night felt like is palpable.
“It was a night where things snowballed out of control,” Bradley says. “Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes that turned into even bigger mistakes. When it all comes together that way, it means you lose a game like that in an ugly way. For any of us, with the pride that we all have in terms of representing the national team, for all the special days that we’ve given our fans in terms of results and comebacks, the way we played that one is the complete opposite. And you feel like you’ve let people down in a big way.”
There are other dimensions to leadership, of course, dimensions that go beyond the playing field. And here, too, at age 29, married and the father of two, 14 years into his professional career, Bradley has a voice that has been clearer than ever in 2017.
Michael Bradley may not seem like a big social media guy at first. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Even though he is not on Twitter—at least in terms of posting anything—he is regularly on Twitter, using an account with his wife, Amanda, as a tool to find and read stories that interest them.
Lately, too, Bradley has been more active posting on Instagram (@michaelbr4dley), where he has made his views on President Trump and his administration clear. On January 28, Bradley posted this:
And on February 24, Bradley posted this from a famous letter by Teddy Roosevelt that was published in the Kansas City Star in 1918:
Bradley says he doesn’t have any special admiration for Roosevelt, but he also posted another famous quote by him last June 12:
As Bradley puts it, “'Man In The Arena' is a great quote in terms of what it’s like for people on the inside to spill everything they have into something and not worry about what anything looks like on the outside. It’s about in a fearless, selfless way pouring everything you have into something to try and make better, to try and achieve something, and ultimately when you do that there’s no guarantees that you get what you want. But the only chance you have is to do all of that.”
The Roosevelt passage that Bradley posted more recently came from an article that he saw on Twitter. He took a screenshot on his phone, and during Toronto’s preseason he decided to post it on the day the White House barred reporters from certain news organizations from attending a press briefing.
“I have a lot of respect for athletes, for coaches, for people in the public spotlight who aren’t afraid to give their opinion, and who do it in a measured, intelligent, educated way,” Bradley says. “In the world today, you get so many people who are so quick to give hot takes, and fair enough, that’s everyone’s right. But the people who I really enjoy watching or listening to or reading are the ones who you can tell have put a little more thought into it all, who’ve taken the time to educate themselves and then are ready to give real opinions.”
“You look at a guy like Gregg Popovich, and the way he has talked about certain things recently is incredible. Mohamed Aboutreika played for my dad in Egypt, and in a country where there was so much turmoil, so much conflict, he wasn’t ever afraid to be himself and to let everybody know exactly what he thought and believed in. There’s examples all over. I’m not trying to copy anybody, but in my own way I want to be an example of somebody who other people can look at and think the same thing.”
When asked what he likes reading these days, Bradley mentions TheNew York Times and Washington Post. He mentions The New Yorker’s David Remnick. “But at the same time, I also think it’s really important to broaden things and read things from the other side,” he adds. “So I go to Fox News. I go to Breitbart. I think you have to. It helps me in some cases understand the climate a little bit better. Look, I’m hardly this extreme liberal in any way. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t know exactly what I would call myself. Depending on certain things and certain issues, I can lean a little left, I can lean a little right.”
Bradley’s worldview is not surface. It is not “hot takes,” which he says with evident disdain. Ask him his opinion of U.S. Soccer’s new rule making it mandatory to stand for the national anthem, and Bradley’s response is detailed.
“I think you should stand,” he says. “If you’re choosing to represent the U.S. national team, you are also choosing to respect our country, to respect the flag, to respect the anthem and to represent it all in the best possible way. And so I feel strongly that everyone should stand. If you have that big of a problem with something that’s going on in our country or feel so strongly that you need to protest in that way, then I would say don’t come. Don’t play at all.”
“Having said all of that, I do not like the idea that it’s now mandatory to stand. People have the right to peacefully protest and express what they think. And in a very simple way, given everything that’s going on in our country, given everything that our president and this current administration has done, everybody has to be very careful about setting certain precedents that in any way start to cross that line.”
Bradley is finding his voice more and more these days, and whether you agree with him or not, it is one that has earned respect.
“From the time I was little, my parents taught me and my sisters to not be afraid to show people who we are, to be strong in who we are and strong in what we believe in,” Bradley says. “It doesn’t mean to say that everything I say or do is spot-on. But I’m not afraid one bit to be who I am.”