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Memory Lane: Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley remains the constant

Michael Bradley has become the bellwether for Toronto FC, and in doing so, the constant for all that it is and all that it has become.

In the fairly distant dystopian future, it is my dream to one day be an old man sitting in a rocking chair with even less hair on top than today and more grays in my beard. I will sit and hold my son’s child in my lap, a nice glass of scotch in the other, and tell them the story about how their father and I developed a deep bonded root over our favourite football club: Toronto FC.

“Grandpa, tell us about how you and dad first started going to Toronto FC games,” they’ll ask. “What do you remember...who do you remember?”

And I’ll go all the way back to 2014: the first time I walked into BMO Field to watch a Toronto FC match live, pushing a stroller and a diaper bag around my shoulders, excited, yet nervous for what was to come. Little did I know then, but amidst all this change around the club, one thing going forward was not going to change. It was going to become the rock on which the Toronto FC foundation was built on.

My first memory of seeing Toronto FC live is my first memory of Michael Bradley.

Soccer - Major League Soccer - Toronto FC v D.C. United - BMO Field
Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley applauds the crowd in 2014 with a bandage wrapped around his head.

All of us were there to see the Bloody Big Deal Jermaine Defoe, but it was this bald-headed midfielder who went up for a header, got cut, and then returned to the game with gauze wrapped around his head that had us equally (if not more) captivated by the end of it.

I remember thinking then that while Defoe was the sexy Ferrari we had bought, it was Michael Bradley who was going to be our Ford F-150 — the one that did all the heavy lifting; the one that pushed through mud and pulled through rain; the one that never gave you a “check Engine” signal on the days you needed to count on it the most. He was low maintenance, and he was worth every dollar. No other star player can have both things said about them, before or during Bradley’s tenure in a Toronto FC uniform.

My second memory of Michael Bradley came the day the Reds made it to the playoffs for the first time, and were then thoroughly out-played and out-classed by Montreal.

Fans have a tendency to think that sometimes we want it more than the players actually on the field: that while they do it for a pay check, our passion is beyond capitalism and therefore more pure. The word professional becomes derogatory, a term synonymous with ‘doing it for the money’ and not for the joy of sport. It is certainly an ideological fallacy, but one that afflicts every fanbase.

Well after that loss in 2015, I was furious and disappointed, yet Bradley looked like it hurt him more than it hurt me. That never happens. His post-game comments and demeanour were of one who did not take that loss lightly. They were of an athlete who understood that the loss was unacceptable, and that TFC were defeated because they were outworked, and that he simply could not and would not tolerate that. I was stunned, and I believed him.

My third memory of Michael Bradley came the day Toronto FC fell behind 3-0 to Montreal in the opening leg of the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, only to see the Reds fight back and get two crucial away goals setting up the return leg in Toronto and possibly the greatest Toronto FC game ever played.

Toronto FC v Montreal Impact - Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 1
Matteo Mancosu #21 of the Montreal Impact is chased down by Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during leg one of the MLS Eastern Conference finals at Olympic Stadium on November 22, 2016

That night in Montreal looked to be hell and a repeat of the loss in 2015.

And then the Captain happened, and on his back a second half of sublime soccer was played by TFC.

Post game he commented about never giving up and always believing, and how important it was to play with all out determination and energy until the final whistle. I didn’t think they were just empty words thrown together for another clichéd interview. You could tell on your television how badly he believed what he was saying, and how that likely carried into and permeated the mindset of every other player in the orbit of the captain.

He reeked of effort, and no one around him was able to escape that (good) stink.

My fourth memory of Bradley came the day after the 2016 MLS Cup Final loss against Seattle.

It was disappointing; it was confusing; and it was hard to explain. We had outplayed them and yet were trophy-less for our efforts.

I had yet to begin writing for Waking The Red, so I remember going through multiple twitter rants to try and explain what I was feeling and the sadness of it all, but in the words of Noel Gallagher, “damn my education, I can’t find the words to say, all the things caught in my mind.”

But then Michael Bradley released an Instagram post. I didn’t need to say anything. No Reds’ fan did. Nor did Tim, or the other Tim. Or Greg. Bradley had us.

You just knew if the Captain said we’d be back, we would be back.

Teams and owners spend years trying to find this intangible thing called “culture”. Sometimes it’s termed locker-room chemistry; sometimes it’s called leadership; but regardless, culture has become the de facto answer for when organizations are unable to pinpoint why it is that they’re stuck in loss and despair.

Players get moved around and even staff gets replaced in the name of improving team culture. Heck, one year the Edmonton Oilers even fired the guy who made the popcorn. It means nothing if it’s not organic. The great teams have it inherently; the poor organizations struggle for decades to replicate it.

With Michael Bradley, Toronto FC was gifted with a one-man culture: Winning, more winning, and class.

My fifth memory of our captain, of our leader Michael Bradley came, on the day after the President of the United States of America released a statement about banning Muslims from travelling to the US.

It was a statement that divided Americans, angered millions and insulted many around the world. Many people decided it was better to “stick to sports”. Many people aren’t leaders like Michael.

Michael responded with a statement of his own:

“When Trump was elected, I only hoped that the President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong”

He then doubled down a few weeks later with another post about President Theodore Roosevelt, and in my opinion, what a real leader does.

View this post on Instagram

President Theodore Roosevelt #Democracy

A post shared by Michael Bradley (@michaelbr4dley) on

It was an interesting moment in my fandom of Toronto FC because the captain clearly refused to stick to sports, instead lending his loud voice to those whose whispers could easily be ignored. In my eyes, he joined LeBron James as athletes who no longer would just “shut up and dribble,” but would hold their place as icons with regard and with sincerity.

I became a fan of Michael Bradley the man as much as I did the player during that time.

My sixth memory of Michael Bradley came a few Sunday’s ago.

His effort was unmatched, his hunger resonated from the pitch a thousand miles away and across the television, yet there he stood, once again having tasted defeat in another final.

There came a moment in the recent MLS Cup Final’s aftermath where the camera crews panned around Toronto FC players. Some looked shocked, some looked stunned, and some looked flabbergasted as to what had just happened. Alejandro Pozuelo had his hands on his head. Jonathan Osorio looked shell shocked. Marky Delgado looked despondent. The look of defeat was one experienced before.

But something in Bradley’s eyes was different. It was resolve. He was defeated in the sense the game had been lost, but he wasn’t defeated. I urge you to go back and watch the replay. Watch how the President of the club and the owner of the club come to him with a handshake and a few words. I’m not sure that they came to offer him words of lift and condolences as opposed to receiving the strength from him that never wavers. He gives them both a nod of “we’ll be alright.” It is reassuring. You look at Michael and you see this unwillingness to accept that would be the end. That there was more to this story.

And that’s when it struck me. It’s always been the case, and Mitchell Tierney quantified it just recently, but Michael Bradley is the Toronto FC fans’ Constant.

(BACKSTORY: The Constant is one of my most favourite episodes of Lost ever. In it the character Desmond is trapped in a hellish time travel through multiple universes, and when things get bad and downright sad, he realizes as long as he finds Penny (the love of his life), he can escape to a better period. Of course the hell will always return, but he’s reassured that as long as he has the one Constant, eventually everything will be okay.)

So when you start to piece it together from the Bloody Big Deal, to momma Defoe, to Sebastian, to Italian agents, to Jozy’s cheese-string leg muscles, to the miracle against Montreal, to the heartbreak against Seattle, to the redemption against Seattle, to the unprecedented march in CONCACAF, to the injuries and failures of TAM and GAM signings, to the President taking on new roles, to the GM heading to Columbus, to World Cup qualifications, to a return to a third MLS Cup Final in four seasons…there has been one constant.

No matter how bad it ever gets, deep down we always knew for the past five years, that Michael Bradley was there. And as long as we could believe that, we could always rest secure in the knowledge that no matter how many days or weeks this hell was going to last, there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. It was constantly there.

Even this season, when the club started with a 3-0-0 roar out of the gate to when they sat well outside the playoff picture, to the loss in Panama, and the heartbreak in the Voyageurs Cup, there was always a baseline, a safety net that was called Michael Bradley.

I’m not sure what my seventh memory of Michael Bradley in a Toronto FC uniform will be.

I’m not quite sure yet what I’ll tell my grandkids about decades from now at this part of the story when I share the whole tale. But for now, I’m just not yet prepared to finish this story without it’s Constant.

I’ve lived through the dark days of Toronto FC, through the days when disappointment was our only companion. I’d much rather have this story — the one where the light at the end of the tunnel always exists, and we know of it, even on the days we can't see it. That’s what having a Constant means.