Bear with us now, we’re heading into the final stretch of TFC’s top 30 performers of 2014! Rounding out the top 5, we have one third of the bloody big deal. Of Toronto’s three designated players in 2014, he is likely the only one who will still be with the team come March- and also the only one from a city close enough to drive to!
At #5 in the countdown, TFC’s second ever DP to NOT take up an international slot, US international midfielder and New Jersey native Michael Bradley.
When Toronto signed Michael Bradley in January of 2014, TFC fans knew he was good. Most, however, were a little more awestruck by the tiny British man sitting beside him, and many doubted whether the American sidekick would live up to his similarly fat paycheque and actually prove to be ‘$6 million good’. Regardless, almost everyone recognized that this was an intelligent signing- a borderline coup by the Tims, bringing in a star player still young enough to not look entirely out of place at the Madison (alright- that might be a stretch).
Unlike the relentless and resource-depleting pursuit of Defoe, Michael Bradley seemed to willingly make himself available to Toronto FC- he "fell into management’s lap". And difficult as it may have been to part ways with El Toro- or El Bulldog… or whatever we never nicknamed Mattias Laba (but should have), most agreed that offloading the Argentine was a necessary evil to bring in a more proven talent, one that had played in an elite European league and was still generating some interest from top clubs overseas.
Bradley’s 2014 season went through phases that we could liken to movie genres. The initial signing was a bit of adventure- he was part of this bloody big possibility, and we, as spectators, were excited to go along for the ride. Bradley’s first handful of games, from the season opener in Seattle up until mid-April, was an action flick. In those first few games Bradley dominated the midfield, seemed to be everywhere at once, broke up plays and distributed the ball (arguably) better than any player we had seen at the club- he was in a whole other league. Michael Bradley was quickly proving to be worth every penny of his 2nd-in-MLS salary figure, and his on-field talent was matched equally by his grit (which I believe is what we saw pouring out of the gash in his head at Toronto’s home opener against DCU). The TFC star midfielder even managed to get on the scoresheet in an away game against Columbus, converting his first goal for Toronto (and the game-winner) just four matches into the season.
Then, unfortunately, came the mystery part of the 2014 Bradley flick. On April 12th, Michael Bradley sat out his first game, missing the Colorado encounter due to a reported quad strain. He returned against Dallas in a 2-1 loss, but didn’t seem to be the same player, underperforming throughout the match. In fact, Mitchell’s post-game recap included the following bit about Bradley’s performance: "as for the rest of the midfield, this is the first time Michael Bradley didn't look like a man among boys". Shortly after that match, on April 24th, it was reported that Bradley would undergo a scheduled procedure to deal with a ‘nerve issue’ in his foot that had been bothering him. Whether it was the quad injury, or more likely the mysterious nagging foot problem, Bradley seemed to confirm that he had lost a step when he returned for his final game before the World Cup (a 2-1 loss against New England). Toronto’s central midfielder was still good, but no longer truly impressive (or even great). And so while most TFC fans would grudgingly acknowledge that Bradley was still the best midfielder on the pitch for the Reds, we were left scratching our heads as to where the Bradley of those first few games had gone. Where was the man who had so often bossed the midfield for the USMNT, the player that had attracted the interest of Europe’s top clubs? Was something wrong with him- was his foot still hurting? Was he playing a little more hesitantly to avoid injury leading up to the world cup? Were those first few games a fluke- was this the real Michael Bradley, and we were finally seeing why he had been relegated to a depth role at Roma?
For the sake of continuing with the movie analogy, since it’s too late to turn back, let’s label the World Cup phase suspense. TFC fans were eager to see which Bradley would show up in Brazil- and how much he would contribute to the American team. Many were also concerned- would the recently recovered Red stay healthy down in the tropical Brazilian climate? How far would the US progress- when would we get our star midfielder back?
While American fans were quick to criticize Bradley’s performances at the World Cup (in particular his giveaway in a match against Portugal), he did show moments of brilliance and seemed to improve as the tournament went on. It should also be noted that he was playing in an unfamiliar position, as Jurgen Klinsmann opted to play Bradley as a #10 throughout the event. It was tough to truly gauge whether the midfielder had progressed or stagnated from his lacklustre club performances preceding Brazil, as the level of competition was significantly higher at the World Cup (as were the ability levels of those around him). One thing is for sure- Bradley was a key component of team USA in the tournament, and largely contributed to the team making it out of (one of) the group(s) of death. He also assisted on a dandy in the USMNT’s final match in Brazil (and how about this view of it)-
Now since I still can’t escape the movie analogy- is tragedy a genre (I believe it works for plays…)? Because Bradley’s return to TFC, particularly results-wise, marked the beginning of a tragic downturn for the club. In the next 5 games in which Bradley participated (and 3 were at home), the team went winless, losing three with a couple of draws. The team was losing ground in the playoff race, and Bradley was back to his mysteriously mediocre play- he still wasn’t showing the talent he displayed in those first few games. Bradley and the Reds did manage to follow up the 5 game slide with a couple of wins (against Montreal and Columbus- big whoop) which also happened to sandwich his quick vacation out to Portland to fulfill his courtesy all-star game nod. The brief TFC winning streak, however, was short-lived as it was succeeded by another 6 game winless slide- with coach Ryan Nelsen being handed the pink slip midway through the skid.
Despite missing the talent and dominance of his first four games, one thing that Bradley continued to show through all the tough times was fight. He stuck up for his team, gave it to the referees (intelligently or not), and even told off the reporters who questioned the work ethic of TFC players. This passion truly culminated in the Portland comeback, where his long free kick (another game-winner) sealed an emotional home victory for TFC.
His goal and assist in the Timbers match contributed to a small late season points outburst: a goal and 3 assists over the course of 5 games, in just under 3 weeks. Michael Bradley never gave up until Toronto were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and it’s curious to imagine what could have been if his "never say die" attitude extended to other member
s of the BBD.
Bradley played a significant role on the pitch throughout the season- and sometimes too much so. Whether by coach’s orders, or of his own accord, Bradley often dropped as far back as Toronto’s last defender (and then some) to gather the ball and start the play moving forward. He also seemed to roam everywhere on the pitch, sometimes taking on a #6, #8, and #10 role all in one match. Both Nelsen and Vanney seemed to debate whether to position him as a pure holding midfielder or more of a box-to-box player, with the role changing regularly depending on who he was positioned alongside. Many supporters seemed to appreciate the way Osorio and Bradley played off each other, and while Vanney hinted at using them as his preferred central pairing, his match-day squads read differently. Bradley never found an ideal partner in the middle of the park, a problem that can hopefully be remedied (or altogether avoided depending on formation) in 2015.
For better or worse, TFC’s management has established Bradley as the foundational stone upon which they will build and shape this squad. They have even gone so far as to now consult him on player moves, vying for his input and approval when pursuing transfer targets. Whether or not Caldwell will hand over (or be forced to hand over) the armband, Bradley is now a bona fide leader at TFC. After undergoing surgery this past offseason and enjoying an actual break in between seasons, fans will hope that the Toronto FC DP regains his 2014 early season form when he hits the pitch in March. If Bradley doesn’t regain that form, he’s still a very good, albeit somewhat overpaid, MLS midfielder (especially if he stops trying to do too much), and at the very least will be a strong contributor to TFC and committed to the team and results. If he does re-gain that form, and can link up well with Giovinco and MB's compatriot Altidore, the future can be very bright for this soccer club. Either way, let’s hope he doesn’t lose his fire and passion and can be instrumental in finally taking us to the playoffs, leading Toronto FC to some much-needed success.