Often for better - occasionally for worse - Michael Bradley was a major factor for the United States' strategy against Colombia in the opening match of the Copa America Centenario Friday evening.
The Toronto FC DP and captain looked primarily the part, particularly in the first half, exhibiting elevated poise and intelligence on the field to keep the Americans attacking despite conceding two tough goals to swallow in the first half.
The first goal for Colombia came on a beautiful low shot off a corner. It was an undeniable goal the US could do little to stop. The second goal came from a much more questionable handball call against DeAndre Yedlin that even the ref seemed unsure of. James Rodriguez easily scored on a tight shot to the bottom right corner.
In all, there was actually a bit of positivity to take away from the match for the Americans, who maintained a heavy possession and high-pressure game that regularly intercepted a more skilled Colombian side, and much of that success came straight through the play of Michael Bradley.
A Strong, If Losing, First Half
Bradley and Co. held the ball for 56% of the first half and it showed.
While it was much discussed before the match, Bradley's role on the field was that of a defending CDM with the flexibility to facilitate the attack during the slow build-up. And the US was more than happy to play slow, methodical soccer.
In spite of the lack of shots on goal, there was a heavy and consistent build-up attack from the USMNT that limited Colombia primarily to look for the quick counter-attack. Clearly that was working for them, given the 2-0 scoreline, but USA fans were admittedly still hopeful going into the locker room, particularly knowing the second goal was highly questionable.
Bradley was omnipresent during this half, to the extent that a British commentator remarked "Bradley must have touched the ball more than any other player in this game so far, the United States Captain" in the 34'.
Just as he provides for Toronto, Bradley was the consistent dump to switch the play, which he performed effectively. He also dropped back to assist the defensive line on more than one occasion, and intelligently backed up the FBs when they challenged forward.
There were few attacking plays for the USA that didn't begin with a creative pass from Bradley. On one series, the Americans tried pushing the ball up the left, only to be pushed back. Then they tried the right side, only to be stonewalled. When they finally used Bradley to pass up the middle, the result was an effective series in the attacking third.
While Klinsmann did not elect to utilise Bradley closer to the attack, much to the chagrin of certain TFC fans who've seen it work so effectively, it did not seem so unreasonable to expect the USMNT to get a quick one in the second half.
And Then Came The Chaos
No more goals were scored, but that doesn't quite describe the tale of two halves on display. The USMNT went from organized-but-losing to chicken-with-its-head-cut-off in the blink of an eye, or however long it takes Jurgen Klinsmann to deliver a horrifically dull halftime speech.
There were no changes to the lineup at the second whistle, which seemed odd given Nagbe and Pulisic lingering on the bench while the team looked in dire need of a spark.
Nonetheless, the second half continued with business as usual. The US played a similar style, for a short while, which culminated in a beautiful corner kick from Bradley towards the front centre of the box, where Geoff Cameron laid a killer header on goal that was just barely saved by an assisting Colombian defender. So close.
And from there, the wheels fell off.
To be fair, leading up to that corner, things were getting shaky. US passes were quickly losing accuracy, Bradley's included. Colombia looked emboldened on the counter and they were more successfully exploiting the weak man on the line.
But after that header, and even with the injection of Nagbe and Pulisic all at once in a double substitution, the USA never looked to regain any kind of cohesive formation, tactical plan, or confidence.
Perhaps by trying to do too much to save the match, or perhaps because he was simply gassed, Bradley was also out of sorts throughout the half. His errant passes led to a handful of avoidable interceptions and he lost his touch in the finishing third. While he remained a viable option to switch the play in the back midfield, he could not corral the team to play as a unit and thus the plot was lost.
Too Many Fingers To Point Just One
This loss is clearly not all on Bradley's shoulders, though he'll likely take it as such. There was little to admire in the Americans' performance and plenty of blame to go around. Coach Klinsmann needs to do a lot better carving out a workable gameplan, especially given his roster selection of seasoned national team veterans.
But Bradley also needs to step in when the coaching is inferior. We've seen this play out time and time again in Toronto when Greg Vanney's "tactics" break down - Bradley confidently steps in to orient the younger players on the squad and ensure the formation is upheld. He's had even more success with this in 2016 than in seasons past.
The national stage is no different, if significantly more challenging in the opposition's quality.
Bradley's qualities are all still there. He's the go-to man on corners and free kicks just out of Dempsey's range. He redirects the play anytime it's needed. He tracks back on defence with significant hustle, even if his max pace isn't the highest. But he will need to find greater consistency and emphasise his leadership skills if the USA are to make it out of the group stage in this tournament.