[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] Midfielder Michael Bradley is generally regarded as a strictly defensive midfielder, but he's not one-dimensional. He will still hear snide comments about "Daddy’s Boy" at U.S. games whenever he pulls on the national team shirt, but the grousing about Michael Bradley always being picked by Bob Bradley isn't so strident as it used to be.
Along with Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard, Bradley is always in the lineup if available. That despite his youth (22) he’s the best two-way American midfielder doesn’t get a lot of mention, so enamored are many fans and journalists of Jose Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, et al, who are all good players in their own right but without Bradley’s range of abilities, and length of tenure (4 ½ years) in European club play for Heerenveen (Netherlands) and Borussia Moenchengladbach (Germany).
“It’s how you get hardened,” said Bob Bradley of the tougher challenges his son has faced since moving to Germany. “You see things that are good and you see things that aren’t so good. You see how well the people who run your club deal with a bad stretch. Do they stick with that they’re trying to do, or are they changing the lineup every week? There are all sorts of factors that are thrown into it. Those are the experiences of playing at a higher level.”
In Europe, Michael Bradley has played for several different coaches, each with a last name different from his, yet suspicions of paternalism persist. Recently, more invective has been directed at Ricardo Clark, who has been the preferred central partner much of the time, and lined up with Bradley last Saturday in the 1-1 tie with England.
That Clark may not start against Slovenia Friday is a topic much-discussed; Bradley’s spot is inviolate, supposedly because he clearly reflects his father’s cautious, obdurate approach. It’s a popular belief, but misconceived.
Examining Bradley’s involvement in U.S. goals during the past year and a half proves he’s not strictly a robotic destroyer. He may be prone to cautions, but such is not unusual for central midfielders – especially young ones -- tasked with stopping the other team as well as igniting his own.
Players who cover a lot of ground encounter the most confrontations, which usually is where fouls and cards occur. Yet in 29 games (28 starts) for Moenchengladbach last season, he scored two goals and picked up only five cautions.
He may get some grudging respect from fans and observers for his prowess at winning tackles and breaking up plays, but his reputation offensively is that of a garbage-goal collector. That he netted 21 goals in 2007-08 with Heerenveen suggests a lot of sanitation work paid off in Dutch league matches that season, but regardless of how many assists he rings up with the national team, he’s shown a knack for putting the ball in the right spots.
Two goals against Mexico in the Hexagonal opener (Feb. 11, 2009) and single tallies against Egypt and Costa Rica is a pretty good strike rate for a “holding mid.” He has scored seven times for the USA.
How did the U.S. break open a goalless game against Spain a year ago at the Confederations Cup? With a Jozy Altidore goal, after Charlie Davies and Carlos Bocanegra worked a one-two to get the ball up the left flank, following an outlet chip by Bradley that dropped right to Davies’ feet near the touchline.
The chip came from the edge of the U.S. defensive third, so there was no imminent threat. The hard yards were gained by Davies and Altidore; Bradley simply set the play in motion, which is can be just as effective as pushing the ball upfield himself.
He can do that, too, as shown when he and Donovan stormed through the center of the Egyptian team trading passes that produced a first-time Bradley shot, and the second goal of a 3-0 win that, improbably, earned a spot in the semi with Spain.
Bradley also played a role in the second goal against Spain, which was tucked away by Dempsey from a deflected square ball served by Donovan from the right flank. Feilhaber cleverly dribbled past several defenders before playing the ball to Donovan; the pass to Feilhaber came from Bradley, who had scraped it away from Xavi about 35 yards from the Spanish goal.
Feilhaber’s trickery set up the goal, yet without Bradley’s firm tackle and quick square pass to Feilhaber, none of it happens in the first place. Perhaps the sexiest U.S. central midfield pairing would be Feilhaber and Bradley, and that might be feasible if Bradley had Clark’s range. But he doesn’t. Torres will see time at this World Cup, yet it may not be as a starter against Slovenia.
Dempsey’s skittering strike that English keeper Robert Green ushered over the goal line last Saturday is forever frozen into the memories of millions, but precious few remember how the sequence began. That would be Bradley, who struck a Green goal kick first-time in the direction of Donovan, whose head nodded it to Dempsey, and you know the rest.
Blamed on bad luck, the goal was anything but: putting an opponent in a position to screw up is always a good idea, and players like Dempsey, Donovan – and Bradley – know how to do it.
The two goals scored by the U.S. against Brazil in the Confederations Cup were sparked by Clark, who took on a bit more of the attacking burden in the absence of suspended Bradley. A studs-up tackle in the 87th minute earned Bradley a red card from Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda, and a penchant for cautions both for his club and the national team is a justifiable cause for concern.
Yet he’ll earn his 45th cap if he plays against Slovenia, and that experience may prove invaluable in a game against a cagey opponent.