A sign of things to come? Michael Bradley turns back the clock with vintage performance in win over Charlotte
On a night when all eyes were on the highly-anticipated debuts of Toronto FC’s new Italian superstars – Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi – it was the 34-year-old veteran Michael Bradley who would steal the show.
Michael Bradley had a night to remember. He turned back the clock and put in a Man of the Match performance to propel Toronto to a 4-0 victory over Charlotte FC Saturday night at BMO Field.
“Michael’s been really good this year,” said head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley, the father of the Toronto FC captain. “Put Michael in the middle of more good players – he’s not a player who does things on his own. He’s a player who knows how to play with people. He’s a player who knows how to bring good players into the game in the right way.”
Not renowned for his goal-scoring ability, Michael Bradley matched his goal total over the last three seasons by netting a pair of first-half markers, including one that will surely go down as one of his best ever in a TFC shirt. It was Michael Bradley’s first brace in over three years (March 3, 2019 vs. Philadelphia Union).
But more than that, Michael Bradley elevated his game and dominated the middle of the park alongside Canadian internationals Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye. It was just the second time all season that all three had been in the XI together, and, of course, the first time with Insigne and Bernardeschi on the pitch as well.
“Michael was very excited about tonight and was excited about the football and training when all of a sudden you get a few more of these guys on the field,” Bob Bradley said when asked how the veteran midfielder elevated his game.
“He was excited the first day when Mark-Anthony [arrived] … Michael loves playing with Oso. So now there's a few more of those kinds of special guys. I think he knows that that's the role that he has. He's not the one who is going to make the kind of plays that Lorenzo would make but he's the one who knows how in the right moments to find Lorenzo, find Federico, find Mark, find Oso, keep the game moving.”
The defensive midfielder finished the match with a game-high 84 touches and 66 total passes, winning five duels while losing possession just nine times. The play, as it often does, flowed through the TFC skipper.
Through the first 24 matches this season, Bradley leads the team in minutes played, despite being the oldest outfield player on the TFC roster for the majority of the year (he’s now the second oldest after the arrival of Domenico Criscito). He’s been on the pitch for all but 10 minutes this season, which speaks volumes to just how important he is to the team and how well he has been able to take care of his body and maintain his fitness.
Michael Bradley has been the subject of largely unjustified criticism over the years, with fans often calling for the aging midfielder to be taken out of the starting XI. But he’s underappreciated.
The former U.S. international isn’t the type of player that typically makes glamorous plays that end up on the highlight reel. He’s the straw that stirs the drink and oftentimes, especially during the first stretch of this season, Michael Bradley has been asked to create and do more within a game than you’d ideally like to see out of a player with his arsenal.
But now that he’s surrounded with star talent in Osorio, Kaye, Insigne, Bernardeschi, and Jesús Jiménez, pressure for Michael Bradley to be ‘the guy’ will be lessened. There’s not as much demand for him to step up and make game-changing plays; he can go back to focusing on doing what he does best.
“I remember in 2017 after the season, some of the quotes by Victor Vázquez [on] what it was like to play with Michael,” Bob Bradley said. “Good players know when you play with a guy who is smart and easy to play with and gives you the ball in the right times.”
What were the quotes that Bob Bradley was referring to? Likely when Vázquez, a product of the famed Barcelona youth system who played for TFC in 2017 and 2018, likened Michael Bradley to Spanish international and Barcelona defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets.
“He allows me to do everything because he’s always controlling the game,” Vazquez said at the time. “For me, I say to him many times, for me he’s like Busquets. He’s doing this kind of dirty job, he’s trying to recover the balls to play fast to you, and then you can move forward to play fast to Seba (Giovinco) and Jozy (Altidore) and the guys from the wings.”
Like in 2017, when guys like Giovinco, Altidore and Vázquez earned much of the fanfare, down the stretch, all eyes will still be on the club’s new Italian superstars. But if Saturday night was any indication of what’s to come, there’s a good chance that Toronto FC are going to get the best out of Michael Bradley – once again.
“On behalf of the team, we appreciate every part of the way fans have stuck by us this year, and again, their support is the difference for us,” Michael Bradley said. “So, on a night like tonight, to be able to make it a special night for them, for everybody, that part’s great. Now we’ve got to keep going, keep working.
“We’re building something big and real again.”