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Michael Bradley is Toronto FC’s heartbeat and the USMNT’s scapegoat

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Why are perceptions of the midfielder so different between club and country?

Soccer: 2018 World Cup Qualifier-Panama at USA Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the takes flying around following the United States’ failure to qualify for the World Cup, this was one of the more common ones:

It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the general idea - that the U.S. should tear apart its current lineup completely, discard anyone who will be older than 28 by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around and throw in the kids - is an enticing one.

That won’t happen, and nor should it, but it does serve to illustrate the utter disgust with which the team is being treated following its dreadful 2-1 defeat at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago.

Because of the nature of the loss to a team that was inferior on paper, the natural reaction has been to question the character of Bruce Arena’s players. “[Brad] Friedel, Jeff Agoos, Earnie Stewart, Cobi [Jones]… those guys would have never let that happen,” Landon Donovan said.

“This was a team with players acting like they thought they had already qualified for the World Cup, and it showed,” wrote Grant Wahl in Sports Illustrated.

There has even been anger on the Trinidadian side. “Not only is this the worst U.S. team I’ve seen, this is the most arrogant U.S. national team I’ve seen for the last 20 years,” Shaka Hislop fumed - with some justification - about the way the Americans had reacted to the flooded perimeter of the pitch a few days before the game.

No one is a more popular target for this kind of backlash than Michael Bradley.

That mostly comes down to the perception that no one in the U.S. lineup in Trinidad is more ‘establishment’ than Bradley: he’s the captain, has been with the senior team since he was a teenager, has had very little in the way of a challenge for his place in the side and is the son of a former coach of the men’s national team.

And for many fans, his performances for the U.S. have not matched his seemingly lofty reputation for a while now.

One lengthy Twitter thread analyzing the U.S. performance summarized the general attitude neatly:

So, what’s going on here? What makes Bradley such a figure of admiration at Toronto FC but one who comes in for so much heat with his country?

The crux of the issue seems to be the expectations many U.S. fans have for Bradley as a player. Perhaps recalling a younger, more energetic model, the 30-year-old has been criticized for setting the tone for the team’s regular sense of lethargy of late with pedestrian midfield play.

“I would’ve seen Michael Bradley flying into tackles and yelling at guys,” Donovan said of what he had “grown accustomed to” in a crisis when a member of the national team himself.

Anyone who has watched five minutes of Bradley during his time in Toronto could tell you he is not - or no longer - that kind of player. He organizes, but does so by providing a tactical reference point for his teammates instead of ordering them around. He prefers to win the ball cleanly or direct opposition attacks to unthreatening areas of the field rather than hunting the ball with little thought of what might happen should he fail to get it.

The same thread that accused Bradley of living off his reputation presented this video evidence:

This footage sums the discrepancy in what Bradley does and what American fans want him to do perfectly. Let’s go through it clip by clip:

1. Bradley holds his position at the base of the midfield, attempting to protect the space in front of the defence, rather than charging out to close the Trinidad player in possession down. Unfortunately, the two midfielders in front of him - Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola - are doing absolutely nothing, meaning the ball carrier can pass past Bradley completely unchallenged.

2. Bradley reads a pass and steps up to intercept it. He doesn’t take the ball cleanly, but does enough for the U.S. to regain possession only for DeAndre Yedlin to go to ground with a bizarre sliding tackle.

3. This one’s a missed tackle, sure. Don’t know what Jorge Villafana is doing allowing the winger to cut inside on to his preferred foot rather than showing him down the touchline, but whatever.

4. Bradley and Omar Gonzalez (I think?) have a potential counter-attack trapped near the touchline with no Trinidadian support nearby. Gonzalez overcommits when he has absolutely no need to and is forced to foul.

Bradley doesn’t really do a lot wrong here, but he’s not singlehandedly and decisively putting out fires as is the expectation.

Nowadays, he prefers to play in such a way as to prevent the fire from breaking out in the first place - but controlling the flow of a game requires a team, and cannot be achieved through individual brilliance alone.

The real problem is not Michael Bradley. It’s the U.S.’ inability in recent years to build a functioning side - or even just a midfield - around him.

Jurgen Klinsmann struggled with it as much as Arena has. It was plainly obvious in the 4-0 victory over Panama that the U.S. was not offering enough resistance out of possession in midfield, but Arena decided a win was a win and the problem did not need addressing against lowly Trinidad.

Forget the opposition: in a game in which a clean sheet guaranteed their World Cup berth, the U.S. decided to trot out a 4-1-3-2 formation. And by a 4-1-3-2, I mean a 4-2-3-1 but with a defensive midfielder removed for another striker and Bradley left to fend for himself.

It wasn’t a diamond. Not to any meaningful effect, anyway, when the two midfielders supposedly lining up between Bradley and Christian Pulisic play the vast majority of their club football in a band of three behind a forward.

Here’s that gigantic ‘that doesn’t sound like it’s gonna work’ in visual form, from the Panama game:

To mount a defence of Bradley is not to argue that he was perfect during this qualification cycle, and there are a few theories about the U.S.’ shortcomings floating around that have something to them.

I do think, for example, the fact that this squad of many 30-somethings has not been pushed by more players in the 24-29 age range over the past few years is problematic. On the other hand, I don’t buy the suggestion that Bradley, Clint Dempsey and so on have it too comfortable with their clubs; in fact, what is - ironically - more relevant is the way MLS has helped to improve a number of other CONCACAF nations. The U.S. has played like that has taken them by surprise.

Whatever you think of the standard of MLS, though, the idea that the captain and heartbeat of a team that boasts some very accomplished players somehow wilts in a different jersey just doesn’t wash with me.

The gulf between Bradley’s form with club and country rests on two different ideas of who he is as a player. Results suggest Toronto have the right one and sadly, with four-and-a-half years to wait for another shot at the World Cup, the U.S. might have missed the boat.