Entering the 2014 World Cup, American soccer fans had many things to worry about. Would Jozy Altidore look like the player who scored 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar in 2013, or the player who struck just once for Sunderland in 2014? Would Jermaine Jones continue to pick up yellow cards like they were candy? Would Jurgen Klinsmann’s Machiavellian decision to drop Landon Donovan inspire the team to achieve or tear them asunder?
One position no one fretted over belonged to midfielder Michael Bradley. His reliably excellent play over the past few years had earned him the oft-repeated moniker “The Most Important American Player” from pundits unwilling to call the no-nonsense Bradley what he actually was: the best American outfield player on the pitch. The coach’s son, once accused of being a beneficiary of nepotism, had overcome even the most skeptical American fans with his simple, effective play. He might not score wonder goals, but Bradley could defend, maintain possession, and spark counterattacks better than any other American.
Given his sterling reputation, his struggles in Brazil have confounded everyone. Bradley has done the things that Bradley is not supposed to do. He’s missed simple passes, conceded possession, failed to score easy looks on goal, and taken heavy first touches. In a particularly dire sequence against Portugal, Bradley lost possession of the ball at midfield, which soon found its way to Cristiano Ronaldo’s foot, Silvestre Varela's head, and the back of the Tim Howard’s net, gifting Portugal a stoppage-time equalizer.
As the U.S. approaches a Round of 16 match-up against Belgium, some are calling for Michael Bradley to do more. In this view, Bradley, being the Most Important American Player, must lift the U.S. on his broad shoulders and carry them past Belgium. In truth, Bradley needs to do much less.
In the United States’s three group games, Michael Bradley covered approximately 23.6 miles, more than any other player in the tournament. He did this while playing, ostensibly, a #10 attacking midfield position. Can you imagine Zinedine Zidane logging over 20 miles on his legs in three games? No, you can’t, and with good reason.
In Klinsmann’s ideal world, Kyle Beckerman would sit deep in midfield, allowing Bradley to play a free role further up the pitch unhinged from defensive responsibilities: an American Andrea Pirlo (who, by the way, ran over one mile less per game than Bradley in the group stage). “We know that he can add something extra going forward,” Klinsmann said of Bradley recently. “If we can get Michael more into that role behind Clint, I think we are even more dangerous then.”
But this ideal never came to fruition in the Group of Death as the United States often struggled to maintain possession, especially against Ghana and Germany. Watch the Germany game again, with the U.S. entering bunker mode early, and you’ll see Bradley trying in vain to concurrently hold attacking and defensive roles. He’s the first player to press Germany’s centerbacks, sometimes even ahead of forward Clint Dempsey, before dropping back to mark an advancing central midfielder. In the language of American football, Bradley is playing both ways.
In the process, Bradley’s become overextended, a decaying empire trying to cover too much territory with too few troops. He’s expending valuable energy on unnecessary runs, as if his sacrifice will spark the rest of the team to work harder.
At this World Cup the United States doesn’t need a maestro #10. The team’s best attacking successes have come on the flanks, overlapping Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley to create 2v1s and 3v2s on opposing defenders. From Bradley’s best position in holding midfield, he can launch a counterattack with an inch-perfect pass, forcing opposing defenders to scramble facing their own goal.
With Altidore potentially returning from injury, Bradley could return to his best position in defensive midfield, alongside Beckerman. Dempsey could take over as withdrawn forward and general rabble-rouser, and Jermaine Jones would be free to continue his destroyer role on the left flank.
Bradley has quieted critics at multiple points during his career, every time showing that his class on the field is beyond reproach. I do not doubt that Bradley can silence them again, but it’d be much easier if he was in the right position to do it.