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WTR Top 20, No. 4: Michael Bradley proof of the value of continuity

The captain has had his ups and downs, but enters 2017 in as good a place as ever in the red jersey.

Luke Galati

The way Michael Bradley has taken to life in Toronto, you start to wonder whether the captain has a future in the city beyond his playing days.

It’s a long way off, of course - he is still only 29 - but Bradley seems happy to see out his career on the pitch with Toronto FC. Asked where he hoped to be in five years by the Sun earlier this week, he replied: “I hope I’m in Toronto. I realize every day how lucky I am. That isn’t lost on me.”

It would be surprising if he did not see himself taking a stab at coaching or front-office work down the line given his leadership skills, experience in different countries and the success of his father, not to mention how he was willing to offer a blunt assessment of where the United States were going wrong towards the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge. With how settled Bradley now seems in Canada, perhaps there is a natural transition to be had.

Luke Galati

Anyone doubting what Bradley brings to the TFC locker room was silenced during the 2016 playoffs, when the former Roma midfielder not only set the tone as far as focus and intensity were concerned but also turned his own performances up a notch, capping an excellent postseason with an MVP-worthy display in the MLS Cup final. “He was fantastic for the whole game,” Greg Vanney said. “He competed hard, closed people down, dug things out, kept the ball moving. He did what he did, what he’s capable of doing, for 120 minutes for our group [and] gave us a great chance to win a game.”

For a while last season, it did not always seem that Bradley’s long-term future in Toronto was secure. There was the temptation of rumoured interest from Serie A, where he enjoyed success with both Chievo and Roma, as well as speculation he could join his dad at Swansea City in the Premier League. Bradley had been good for TFC to that point, but not so spectacular that he would necessarily seem to be indispensable if the right offer had been put on the table.

The Reds’ core management group of Vanney, Tim Bezbatchenko and Bill Manning has, however, shown a deep loyalty to the three designated players on the roster - Jozy Altidore, too, has had his ups and downs - and a belief in the value of roster continuity. If there was genuine interest, it did not seem to reach an advanced stage.

Luke Galati

Bradley was drawing criticism for his performances with his country at the same time, and 2016 really ended up being about a necessary evolution in his game. Vanney anticipated this better than Klinsmann did, placing him in a deep-lying role in front of Toronto’s defence while the German persisted with orthodox two-man central-midfield pairings because he could not get anything else to work. Less than a month before his best display of the season at club level in the MLS Cup final, Bradley was badly overrun alongside Jermaine Jones in the USA’s 4-0 defeat to Costa Rica.

While Vanney’s 4-4-2 diamond removed the burden of covering a lot of grass from Bradley’s shoulders, the 3-5-2 that the Reds later adopted did the same while still allowing him to stretch his legs at the right time. The four-man defence required Bradley to sit in between the centre-backs as defensive cover; with an extra defender behind him, he could pick his moments to venture out of position while still having Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio for company to ensure he was not having to account for more ground than he was capable of.

Luke Galati

It will be interesting to see what kind of dynamic is created by the arrival of Victor Vazquez, who will bring a new level of technical ability to Toronto’s midfield but may not necessarily lead the press the way Osorio did to good effect in the playoffs. While the MLS Cup final demonstrated the need for an option like Vazquez, one of the most significant elements of the Reds’ success in the playoffs until that last match had been the way they stepped up their efforts to put pressure on opponents out of possession and turn the ball over.

The regular season is a long one, and will bring many more tweaks and adjustments to the exact shape and setup of the team. That Bradley enters the 2017 campaign looking more comfortable than ever in Toronto both on and off the field, though, is a good place to start.