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The WTR Top 20, No. 1: Michael Bradley pulls all the strings at Toronto FC

Number four in your programs, number one on the team sheet.

MLS: MLS CUP-Toronto FC Champions Parade Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

First off, thanks for bearing with us throughout the WTR Top 20. If you want, you can review our full rankings here, and let us know how you would’ve rated Toronto FC’s players!

Anyway, to business. Honestly, I don’t think there could’ve been a different name at the top of our rankings. Up from fourth in last year’s rankings, Michael Bradley is Waking the Red’s definitive MVP from TFC’s 2017 campaign. Of course, two WTR writers had Sebastian Giovinco ranked first, but Bradley came out on top pretty soundly.

I’ve been beating the “Michael Bradley is awesome” drum for a while now, but even I didn’t think he’d have the impact he did last season. What makes him so critical to TFC’s success (in my view) is that he, and no other player, is the one piece without whom everything falls apart.

The Reds still managed to win without Giovinco or Jozy Altidore. They went without Victor Vazquez a couple times, and did okay. TFC’s average points per game without Bradley in 2017? 1.25. Their points per game with him in the lineup? 2.13. Two of Toronto’s worst games of the season — a 3-0 loss at New England and a 1-1 draw at home with the Colorado Rapids — were while Bradley was away on international duty.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley only missed two other games, a 1-1 draw with New York City FC and a 2-0 win over New England. When not away with the U.S. men’s national team, the captain was always available for TFC. Nobody on the team had more appearances (35) or minutes played (3150) than Bradley.

The American skipper pretty much bossed the rest of the league around. He was first in MLS in successful short passes (2140), seventh in minutes played, 12th among midfielders in tackles (80), second among mids in interceptions (69), 10th among mids in clearances (45), and [inhale] 10th in pass success rate among players with 2000 or more minutes played (88.1%).

That was a lot. Bradley is pretty firmly entrenched as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. He has the ability to utterly suffocate a team’s most dangerous players (remember what he did to Clint Dempsey in the MLS Cup Final?).

Toronto FC have never had a player quite like Michael Bradley. Few professional footballers can match his fitness and work rate. I don’t know how many times last season I suggested it might be time for him to get a rest, only for him to play 90 minutes in both the weekend and midweek games almost every time. He is a machine.

When talking formations, it’s an injustice to bury Bradley’s position in the numbers. TFC never played a 3-5-2; they played a 3-Bradley-4-2. The way he carved out a unique spot in front of the defence all for himself was what made him so good in 2017.

We’ve seen Bradley played in a number of different formations, particularly with the USMNT. In their 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in September, he played in a flat four-man midfield with Darlington Nagbe. That didn’t work out.

As we’ve seen, Bradley does best when he has his own central territory staked out to roam a little bit. Whether TFC lean primarily on the 3-5-2 or the diamond this season, Bradley’s role will not change.

That said, I do think Liam Fraser’s promotion to the senior team implies that Greg Vanney may try to give Bradley a night off from time to time in 2018. Especially with the CONCACAF Champions League, it might make sense to manage his minutes just a tiny bit more. We don’t want to see him burned out in November.

On the flip side, though, TFC will probably have the luxury of not losing him to international duty this season. I doubt he or Altidore will be getting many USMNT call-ups anymore; I’d say that Marky Delgado, Justin Morrow or Alex Bono would be much more likely to go.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Of all Toronto’s superstars, I think Bradley is the most likely to be here as an old man. He’s 30 years old now, but fit enough that he absolutely has enough fuel in the tank for some more good seasons. Even when he does retire, I can definitely see him joining the ranks of TFC mythology by taking on a coaching job in the academy.

Nobody gets TFC the way Bradley does. He seems to live and die on the club’s success, in the way a fan would. Actually, his relationship with the supporters is pretty special; after the heated second playoff leg against the New York Red Bulls, he spent a good five minutes marching up and down BMO Field’s southern byline clutching the crest on his jersey. That’s one way to endear yourself to fans.

The letters Bradley’s written to TFC fans were great too. After the utterly exhausted captain missed his penalty in the 2016 MLS Cup, he apologized for it. When TFC won the Supporters’ Shield, the weight behind the trophy’s name was not lost on him.

Maybe it’s because he was here in 2014, when things were still pretty tough for the Reds. Bradley just seems exceptionally in tune with what TFC fans have had to go through.

I think that’s enough sappy praise of Bradley’s character. The bottom line is, he’s the general of this Red Army. Although his contributions often go unnoticed, and his mistakes sometimes stick out more than his successes, Michael Bradley was Toronto FC’s most important player in 2017.

Thanks for sticking with us through the WTR Top 20! With all said and done, here’s our final rankings:

  1. Michael Bradley
  2. Victor Vazquez
  3. Sebastian Giovinco
  4. Jozy Altidore
  5. Justin Morrow
  6. Alex Bono
  7. Chris Mavinga
  8. Drew Moor
  9. Marky Delgado
  10. Eriq Zavaleta
  11. Jonathan Osorio
  12. Steven Beitashour
  13. Nick Hagglund
  14. Nicolas Hasler
  15. Tosaint Ricketts
  16. Raheem Edwards
  17. Armando Cooper
  18. Jordan Hamilton
  19. Jay Chapman
  20. Benoit Cheyrou

Honourable mentions: Clint Irwin, Jason Hernandez, Tsubasa Endoh, Ashtone Morgan