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The curious case of Michael Bradley: How can Toronto FC get the best out of the captain?

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Greg Vanney has had more joy with the midfielder than Jurgen Klinsmann, but could there be more to come?

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“As the most complete player on the U.S. roster, there is little Bradley can't do. He drops perfectly weighted passes in front of streaking forwards. He is calm on the ball in traffic. He is one of the few American players who can create goals out of nothing. His decision making is so steady and reliable that it's easy to bestow upon him that tired basketball trope—that he is an extension of his coach on the field.”

- Beck Barnes, Deadspin, June 2014

And then Jurgen Klinsmann and the World Cup in 2014 happened.

It’s been discussed and critiqued in detail, but Klinsmann was the first manager who destroyed a bit of the lustre around Michael Bradley. Rather than playing Bradley in the role that he had thrived in at Roma or in previous iterations of the USMNT, Klinsmann was convinced that Bradley was best utilized as a central attacking midfielder at the top of a 4-4-2 in a midfield diamond.

You can’t really blame Jurgen, though. Before Greg Vanney had his own ‘come to Jesus’ moment, the Toronto FC coach had also tried playing Bradley at the top of the diamond behind Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.

The allure of that idea is simple, and you can’t fault the managers too much for falling in love with it. Bradley is a great passer. On almost every team he has ever played on, or will play on, no one has been better than him at that. It makes sense, then, to play your best passer directly behind your striker(s) and put him at their service at the top of the other team’s box.

Soccer: 2018 FIFA World Cup Qulafying-Mexico at USA Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

What Klinsmann and Vanney missed with this strategy, however, was that it removes Bradley from what are his true strengths are on the field: eating up the other team’s plays, hunting down their build-ups and protecting the back line.

After two years of deploying Bradley in an advanced role, 2016 saw Vanney play him as a defensive midfielder at the bottom of the diamond. Bradley’s offensive numbers dropped significantly, as he only had 12 shots on net all season compared to an average of 54.5 shots over the previous two campaigns.

But Toronto’s success dictates that this will almost certainly be Bradley’s role going forward. While the results are hard to argue, the question has to be asked: is the current version of Bradley the best we have seen with TFC, or is there even more for him to contribute?

Before we go any further, lets agree on one thing: it’s a 5-3-2 that the Reds deployed in the playoffs, not a 3-5-2. Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow are not midfielders. They are full-backs who excel at filling the wings, but their primary role is as defenders.

In the current system, the five defenders are protected by Bradley in the middle and no matter what the other teams did to circumvent the defensive stack, it usually led right into the hands of the veteran. The MLS Cup final against Seattle was 120 minutes of Bradley domination. For all the talk of Seattle’s creative midfielders and the American Messi, the Sounders mustered zero shots on net and that was in a large part down to Bradley.

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The inefficiency of this system is that when Bradley takes the ball in his own half, there are usually six TFC players in a defensive position and only four ahead of him, ready to counter. If Jonathan Osorio or Armando Cooper spread out to the wings, it often leads to Bradley playing long balls over the top directly to the strikers.

Recognizing this issue, almost everyone and anyone who covers TFC has suggested that the biggest need for this club in the offseason should be a true #10. An attacking midfielder.

While in complete agreement of this sentiment, I think a few smaller adjustments can also be made that allow Bradley to play to all of his strengths and not just a few of them.

1. Abandon the 5-3-2 for a 4-1-3-2

In this setup, your back line is protected by Bradley, essentially giving you three centre-backs. On the counter, however, the middle of the field isn’t empty. Some combination of Cooper, Osorio and New Player X should be there to act as connecting pieces for Bradley and then provide quick service to Giovinco and Altidore.

2. Trust Drew Moor

I love almost everything Bradley does… almost everything. My one pet peeve is that when the centre-backs have the ball and there isn’t any offensive pressure, rather than becoming a passing target, Bradley will drop to collect a two-foot pass.

This is destructive in two ways. One, it removes a target from the midfield for the defence to progress the ball towards, and two, it takes Bradley so far back that he can’t impact the final third of the field with his passing. If Bradley lets Moor push the ball up the pitch before he collects it, he better serves the team by then linking the defence to offence. If the team doesn’t trust it’s centre-backs to make more than two-foot passes to each other or Bradley, then there are far more serious questions that need to be asked.

3. Utilize Bradley in the middle of the field

One of the things that Vanney has to work on with this team is playing more connecting passes through the middle. Too often, TFC gets into the attacking third and are then forced out wide to swing 50/50 balls into the box. It’s OK to use the wings, but if they worked on moving the ball from middle to wide and then back to middle, it would utilize Bradley for tight through passes to the strikers.

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No one is expecting TFC to adopt a tiki-taka style this season, but the ball needs to be at the feet of its best playmaker in the middle of the field. And far more often.

According to WhoScored.com, Bradley had an 82.2% pass completion rate in 2016 off an average of 73.9 passes per game. He averages 8.8 long balls a game and only 0.1 through balls per game. He is dispossessed only 0.9 times per game.

The underlying numbers paint a picture of a brilliant passer: it’s up to the team and the coaching staff to find ways to get even more out of that weapon.

While with Roma, the locals referred to Bradley as tergicristallo, which roughly translates to ‘windshield wiper’. If given a month, I couldn’t find a better description for Bradley’s defensive play. Don’t forsake his defensive prowess, but find a way to translate that passing acumen into the attacking third. The transition of ‘Bradley the defender’ to ‘Bradley the creator’ just requires a little more fluidity in the structure around him.

The player has found his role and deployment changed a few times, but Michael Bradley 3.0 in a TFC uniform may not just be holding up an MLS Cup at the end of this season, but also an MVP award. It’s going to be a fun ride to watch.