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MLS Playoffs Have Brought the Best Out of Michael Bradley

There has been no player who has stepped up his game quite like Bradley.

Photo Essay: Toronto FC's Historic First-Ever Playoff Victory Luke Galati

Ever since the calendar turned to October there has been a noticeable change in Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley. The normally stern midfielder has dropped his guard a little bit, allowing for the odd smile, even a couple of laughs, to get through.

It was first evident after Toronto FC’s last game of the regular season, a 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire. Bradley held court with reporters, but instead of his usually guarded interviews he had a little fun.

When asked how big of an advantage it would be that TFC played their knockout round game against the Philadelphia Union at home, he said that he would let the reporter know after the game was done. He then laughed and talked about how important the crowd had been to the team all season. The scrum continued in that manner.

On the field, Bradley has rarely allowed himself to show this much positive emotion. He has been celebrating goals with increased vigour. He has even helped bang the drum in the team’s postgame boom-boom-clap celebration with supporters.

But it hasn’t just been Bradley’s demeanour that has changed. No player on the Toronto roster has stepped up his play in the playoffs as much as the captain. That isn’t to say that he was playing poorly before, it’s to underline how exceptional he has been of late.

Bradley celebrates the winning goal in the second leg against Montreal with teammate Benoit Cheyrou. (Credit: Luke Galati)

There’s an argument to be made that without Bradley Toronto wouldn’t be mere days away from their first MLS Cup final. During the low-point of TFC’s playoffs, the first half of a 3-2 away loss to the Montreal Impact, he didn’t lose his cool. In fact, after Toronto allowed two early goals he could be seen calming down his teammates.

He didn’t have his best game by any stretch of the imagination, but he kept his head through what seemed like a disaster. His goal late in the match would be a series-altering second away tally for Toronto FC. If he didn’t score TFC would have been all but out.

After Toronto FC overcame adversity once again to beat the Impact in the second leg of the tie at BMO Field, Bradley took to the podium in the media room post and passionately expressed how much he loved this city and this team. He has always expressed this feeling, but now his words carry a lot more weight.

But don’t just believe observation, the numbers back up the case that Bradley has been the engine behind Toronto FC’s playoff success. The Toronto captain has been getting stuck in, so to speak.

His tackles per game in the playoffs have increased from just over three per game in the regular season to 4.6 in the postseason according to Who Scored. He has also maintained a solid 2.2 interceptions per game and 1.6 clearances per game in the playoffs.

Offensively, Bradley has almost 100 more touches and passes than any other TFC player in the playoffs showing how truly central he has been to the team’s playoff run. Last week’s game against the Montreal Impact was particularly impressive, with Bradley registering 102 touches, significantly more than any other player on the roster.

Bradley celebrates after winning the Eastern Conference Championship. (Credit: Luke Galati)

Add to that the big goal against the Montreal Impact, and four key passes made by Bradley, and he has certainly played a role in moving the ball forward as well. Although the main body of his work, as always, goes unnoticed on the regular box score.

Bradley has had his fair share of critics since joining Toronto FC. Those who look at Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore’s stats alone and can’t comprehend the salary or status that Bradley is given on this team. The midfielder being replaced by a star attacking player has been proposed many times.

MLS is, after all, a league that is top-heavy in terms of talent. Just look at the MLS best XI this year: a collection of strikers stuffed into a starting eleven. Essentially every season the MVP award is won by an attacking player.

But never has it been clearer than these playoffs why Toronto FC needs Bradley. The club has plenty of leaders, but none quite with the drive and influence of “the general”. As he has led Toronto FC has followed, all the way to within one win of the promise land.

Should Bradley hoist the MLS Cup as Toronto’s captain on Saturday, he will have played a huge role in getting the team to that point. It is debatable whether Bradley has been the team’s playoff MVP, but he has certainly stepped his game up more than any other player.