Perhaps no word has been used more in Toronto FC circles in 2021 than “the press”. Chris Armas’ new system has led to much intrigue, debate and questions about how it would look in practice with this group of players.
So far, it is fair to say results have been decidedly mixed. In some games, the aggressive system allows Toronto FC to dictate the tempo of the game and cause all sorts of problems for opponents. In others, it has made them look lethargic, disorganized and defensively vulnerable. The lack of consistency has not been altogether surprising considering the team is still adapting to the new system while playing a condensed schedule with several injuries.
One player, however, thrived in the system immediately and has been a shining example of what it could be at its very best. That is captain Michael Bradley, who is admittedly “Mr. Consistent” at the worst of times. But through eight games under Armas, he has regained the best part of his game and has been the team’s MVP so far this season. Armas will be hoping as his leader goes, the rest of the team will follow.
A defensive midfielder responsible for starting attacks from the back and screening the backline for most of his time under Greg Vanney, Bradley has played a new role early in 2021. Here, in his own words, is what Armas is asking of him:
“He wants me to be more mobile, more dynamic, to move around the field, to get up and connect things in the attacking part of the field, as well,” Bradley told media after the Columbus match. “Obviously with that comes a responsibility to also, you know, score goals and help set up goals, and so that part — that part is going to be important.”
Bradley had a goal and an assist against Columbus, Toronto’s lone win of the MLS season thus far. It was his first goal since September 2019, but given his new role, it was not all that surprising. A more aggressive, offensive, Bradley is averaging 20 touches in the attacking third so far this season in MLS action, the most he has since at least 2016 (all stats per FootballRef).
Goals and assists aside, however, Bradley’s “search and destroy” style allows him to be Toronto FC’s most effective presser of the ball. He leads all Toronto FC players in pressures (63) over the first four MLS matches and is second to Mark Delgado in successful pressures (16), meaning pressures in which the team regains the ball after five seconds or less.
It is not just that he is pressing the ball, that has always been part of Bradley’s game, it is where those pressures are taking place. He has already made as many pressures in the attacking third (10) in four games as he did all of last season for Toronto FC. This aggressive play has been turning into offensive opportunities.
Literally, the first goal Toronto FC scored this season came off of a well-timed Bradley press. Bradley’s step to the ball forces a rushed pass and allows Erickson Gallardo time to dispossess the Club Leon defender.
Another good example came against the kings of the press themselves, the New York Red Bulls. Here Bradley recognizes that the keeper is going to make an ill-advised pass out of the back and pounces on the unsuspecting defender. It didn’t result in a goal but was arguably the reds best chance of that match.
These moments will only become more dangerous when Toronto FC are at full strength. If Bradley is forcing turnovers and then quickly able to get the ball to guys like Alejandro Pozuelo and Yeferson Soteldo to go up against an unorganized backline the result will inevitably be more goals.
In this position, Bradley has still been able to pull the strings when Toronto FC are in possession, just as he has done since he arrived in 2014. Bradley still leads the team in touches, even if he is getting far less in this system than he would in Vanney’s possession-driven patient buildup style of yesteryears.
The key now will be making sure that when Bradley takes those steps forward that he feels like he is covered defensively. Too many times last season—the last few seasons really— when Bradley stepped up and wasn't able to win the ball, the team would be caught in transition. This led to a more conservative approach from the captain in 2020, one where made the fewest pressures per game of his time with Toronto FC.
If Bradley is going to play this role successfully, it will fall on the likes of Jonathan Osorio, Ralph Priso and Delgado to cover for the captain. They will need to put in more work in defence and the midfield so that the captain is able to spend more time on the fertile ground of the attacking third.
For the pressing system is going to succeed, Toronto FC will need someone to lead it. As always, Bradley has shown himself to be the man to shoulder that responsibility.