Midfield mates Bradley and Beckerman tune up with intriguing MLS battle

By Ridge Mahoney

Just a few days after facing each other in MLS competition, Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman are preparing to represent the USA against Mexico.

It’s possible they will start together in midfield, though the presence of Maurice Edu -- who like Bradley recently ended a stay in Europe to sign with MLS -- and the fact this is the last match scheduled before head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must name a preliminary squad of 30 for the World Cup could affect those decisions. Still, the propensity for Jermaine Jones to take cautions and sustain injuries translates into a distinct possibility that Beckerman -- or Edu, if he makes the squad -- could join Bradley on the field in Brazil, off the bench at the least.

Bradley and Beckerman last started together in 2011 against Slovenia yet have seen time together numerous times, including 2012 matches against Scotland and Brazil. They have common traits yet are significantly different, as are their backgrounds. Bradley played one season in MLS before playing for nine years in Europe; Beckerman started his pro career with defunct Miami in 2000 and has been in the league for his entire career.

Beckerman is the busier of the two, which suits his aggressive personality, yet is also a function of his tendency to overrun situations or react to them a second late. Playing at the base of RSL’s midfield diamond has imbued a sharp sense of passing, and through his workrate he covers more ground efficiently than most of his MLS counterparts. At RSL, the team maybe the star, but he's the captain.

Stints with clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, England and Italy have produced in Bradley a two-way player who is absolutely essential to success in the middle of the park for both TFC and the USA, though he’s the first to admit he’s still learning and anxious to improve. Though the cries of nepotism have faded somewhat, Bradley will always be hounded by fans bitter about perceived favored treatment from his father, former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, starting with his rookie season with the MetroStars in 2004. 

“He’s an astonishing guy,” says TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen, who ended his MLS playing career during that rookie season by helping D.C. United win its last league title. “If you would have said when he was drafted at that very young age [16] that 10 years later he’d have done the things and had the career that he’d had, you’d be a brave man to say that. And that is all down to him, to his attitude, his character, his relentless work ethic to be the best he can be. That is a huge, huge talent to have that kind of attitude. You don’t find it often.”

Yet TFC is still a work-in-progress, as was clearly evident Saturday night. Beckerman and Real Salt Lake clearly won the battle by imposing a 3-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium that handed TFC its first loss while preserving RSL’s unbeaten mark. For most of the 90 minutes, TFC’s midfield labored to match RSL’s quickness and cohesion, and once RSL had taken an early lead with an Alvaro Saborio penalty kick, TFC’s efforts to strike quickly through counterattacks and long balls were greatly impaired.

While beating Seattle and D.C. United in its first two games, TFC controlled the middle of the field by the crisp synchronization of Bradley and Jonathan Osorio, who lacks Bradley’s poise and experience yet is very good with the ball. A groin problem sidelined Osorio for the RSL game, and replacement Jeremy Hall -- though he won a few balls and passed adequately -- wasn’t able to cope as RSL throttled outside mids Alvaro Rey and Paul Bloom, a right back pushed upfield to negligible effect. The RSL triumvirate supported by Beckerman --- Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, and Luis Gil -- engineered a 60-40 percent edge in possession, and rarely were centerbacks Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler caught out by through balls aimed at Jermain Defoe, scorer of all three TFC goals in its first two games.

When Defoe briefly escaped his markers to chase a ball from Bradley in the first half, keeper Nick Rimando charged out of his penalty area to defuse the situation. Defoe and frontline partner Gilberto were not in sync and often were making similar runs in different parts of the field. Seldom did Defoe and Gilberto change the look up top, and the well-organized RSL back line contained them for most of the game. Defoe left with a suspected hamstring injury in the 61st minute, which further sapped the TFC attack.

TFC players didn’t react well to RSL pressure, often losing the ball because of a sloppy initial touch or taking a second touch just as a tackler arrived. Without impetus from the flanks, Hall and Bradley tried to penetrate through the middle without much success. And after Bradley did hit the post in the second half with a potshot from distance, RSL struck on a quick strike of its own. Morales clipped a ball forward that Saborio dispatched with a stinging low shot inside the far post for the third goal.

RSL nearly scored again in similar fashion midway through the second half. Beckerman played a ball forward that Olmes Garcia knocked back for Morales, who had slipped behind Bradley as he challenged for a ball in air (Hall was nowhere to be found) and delivered a lob over the back line. Garcia raced for it and collided with Julio Cesar as the TFC keeper swatted the ball away.

The second goal by Gil had resulted when Morales veered inside away from Bradley -- again, Hall wasn’t in the play -- and started a sequence by which a blocked shot ran for Gil to steer into the net off yet another deflection. RSL wasn’t lucky: quickness to second balls and weird bounces stemmed from focused yet organized intensity all over the field.

“The best overall performance I think we’ve had,” said RSL head coach Jeff Cassar afterwards. “Offensively, I thought we were great with the ball and had a lot of good ideas and I thought our defensive shape was fantastic. I thought Kyle was fantastic in really being disciplined and making sure we weren’t getting caught on the counterattacks. I thought our backline was in really good spots, so I thought it was just a really mature performance.”

Immaturity helped RSL take the lead. Centerback Doniel Henry, 20, made the mistake of locking arms Saborio in the penalty area. While shielding the ball, the Costa Rican international reached back to grab Henry and when he felt the young centerback return the favor, Saborio instigated a grappling match by which he wound up on the deck. Saborio put away the spot kick and TFC never recovered.

“We just have to be honest with ourselves to know there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Bradley. “We still feel good about the group that we have; we’re going to be a team that’s going to be there in the end.”

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