Picture the biggest moments in Toronto FC history, and Michael Bradley probably doesn’t first come to mind. It could be Sebastian Giovinco’s slaloming run to put Toronto in the playoffs for the first time, Jonathan Osorio’s spinning backheel against Tigres, Jozy Altidore’s goal against Seattle, or Vazquez holding up his jersey after clinching the 2017 MLS Cup win.
In fact, many of Bradley’s chances to play the hero have ended in disappointment, such as the penalty misses in both the 2016 MLS Cup final and the 2018 Concacaf Champions League.
However, when Toronto FC steps on the field on Sunday for their fourth major final in four years, Michael Bradley is the only player who has been there through it all. He has been on the field for every minute of every playoff game in the club’s history. Giovinco’s contract dispute resulted in a move to Saudi Arabia, Altidore has dealt with injury issues throughout. This makes Bradley the thread that has united all of Toronto FC’s success.
So as Bradley leads Toronto FC onto the field for what could be his final game with the club, or the game where he secures yet another big pay day, or somewhere in between, it is worth defining his legacy. He has proven time and time again that he is the most important player in the club’s history.
In Sam Walker’s 2017 book “The Captain’s Class”, he argues that what unites all of the best teams in sports history is their captain. It’s not the coaching, not the number of star players, while all of those are important, but the on-field leader who can have the biggest impact on a dynasty.
Bradley certainly fits Walker’s criteria of a top tier captain. He has never been the best player on the team, but he has always been the most reliable and hardest working. In that sense, he sets the pace that the rest of the team follows.
He plays with an intensity matched by few others, but rarely if ever crosses the line. Sunday will be his 200th appearance for the club. In that time he has amassed 47 yellow cards, but has never been sent off.
He has not been afraid to call out his teammates, even the star players, if he feels they lack the intensity needed. Shouting matches with Giovinco (in Italian!) were reportedly a regular occurrence, and both players were likely better for them.
There have certainly been players that have not responded well to intensity. Ager Aketxe was reportedly one of them, as Toronto’s captain and the Spaniard never quite saw eye to eye. Aketxe was quickly sent packing.
While his contract is a major storyline going into this year’s MLS Cup final, that is hardly Bradley’s doing. He has made it a non factor all season, in contrast to some of the other big names on the club who negotiated quite publicly.
Bradley has also never been the most obvious contributor on the field. His lack of statistical impact in terms of raw goals and assists has always drawn criticism from casual fans. He scored just a pair of goals in all competitions between 2016 and 2018.
Nobody noticed that much when Toronto were having success. Last year, however, like with most of the club, was hardly a banner year for Bradley. Coming off a big reputation hit, earned or not, after the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Bradley missed that aforementioned penalty in the CCL final. He then spent a good portion of the year playing out of position at centre back, which hardly helped the perception of his play.
Now at age 32, it is clear he doesn’t quite move around the pitch like he used to. This has brought on debates about what wage bracket Toronto should keep Bradley or if they should even keep him at all. A few performances from Liam Fraser, not least of which in Canada’s recent victory over the United States, in which the apprentice outplayed the master, have turned a few heads.
However, he remains a critical piece of Greg Vanney’s possession-centric brand of soccer. He was fourth in the league, behind three LAFC players, in terms of expected build up per 96. This is a statistic compiled by American Soccer Analysis that measures expected goal movements that players are involved in but didn’t make the final pass or final shot. He was also ninth in the league in pass success percentage per Who Scored.
More than that, while Bradley could be replaceable as a player — certainly at his current price point — Bradley the leader has proven to be the unifying factor in the club’s success. Moving on from him could well be a big blow to the club both on and off the field in a way the other departures haven’t been.