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Will the General lead TFC out of the basement?

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Michael Bradley’s leadership has been behind much of TFC’s success in the past.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

I remember walking down Bloor Street with a friend in 2014 and running into Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley. I recognized him first by the scar on the back of his head, from a gash received during an aerial battle in a game against D.C. United. After a brief pause to get his head wrapped, he carried on playing and would later need 13 staples to seal the wound.

As a lifelong hockey player, his “spit on it and keep playing” attitude toward the wound impressed me.

At a red light I decided to introduce myself. Since he was still pretty new to the team, I asked to make sure: “Hey, are you Michael Bradley?”

He seemed somewhat surprised, as no one else passing by was taking notice of him, and answered casually, “Hey, yeah.”

We talked for thirty seconds about TFC and when the light turned green, we shook hands and he continued on his way with his family.

Two things really impressed me about my exchange with “the General”:

First was how approachable he was and willing to have a conversation with a stranger on the street, having just arrived on a $10 million transfer from Italian Serie A side AS Roma.

The second was his passion for winning, which even on his day off was apparent in his demeanor and his answers to my questions. Between our chat and his decision to continue playing with an open gash in his head in the home opener of the season, any concerns that he might be coming to TFC for a paycheque and to cruise were quashed.

Anyone who has watched a TFC game in recent years is familiar with the captain’s intense glare, a ‘look of eagles’ you might compare with the likes of Clint Eastwood. That look was no less present on the sidewalk than it is on the pitch.

2017 MLS Cup: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC
Michael Bradley celebrates advancing to the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 MLS Playoffs
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After years of watching TFC struggle in the basement of Major League Soccer, I had a good feeling about the future of the team. There had been a revolving door in the locker room and the front office for years, but now, slowly but surely, the culture of the team would change from one of frustration and individualism to one of determined, disciplined improvement. Undoubtedly, Michael Bradley was essential to that transition.

Bradley further proved his warrior mentality by playing through his debut season at TFC with a nerve issue in his foot, which he would undergo surgery to repair at the end of the season.

When TFC did not make the playoffs in 2014, Bradley said: “we need more guys with personality, more leaders, more competitors, more men.” Since he is someone who is careful with his words, this statement stood out to me, and apparently the front office too.

So TFC brought in more men.

Massive credit to Greg Vanney and the front office, including Tim Bezbechenko (and Tim Leiweke while he was here) for their roles in turning TFC around. But Bradley is key to translating the high level vision onto the field, just as he is the link between the backline and the midfield, the spine of the team. His attitude, workrate and character were exactly what TFC needed.

Contrary to the basement dwelling TFC of years past, the treble winning, CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) finalist version of TFC possess a pride, no matter who they are playing, which is clearly visible in the body language of the players.

When TFC were battling Tigres UANL in this year’s CCL quarterfinals and the Mexican side scored first, TFC came back and scored two goals to win leg one, and would eventually advance.

After falling 2-1 at home against Chivas Guadalajara in the first leg of the CCL Final, it would have been easy to accept defeat. Instead, TFC won the second leg in Mexico by the same score before falling in penalties — the closest an MLS team has come to winning the tournament. Despite the loss, I had never been more proud to be a TFC fan, after years of dismal performances.

At their best, TFC are indomitable in spirit, which has translated into results over the past two years. Even when they are not playing their best, the championship version of TFC do not lay down. Michael Bradley has been a big part of instilling that spirit in the team.

MLS: 2017 MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC
Michael Bradley raises the trophy as TFC celebrates their victory over the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup Final
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

After Bradley missed a PK in the shootout loss to Seattle in the 2016 MLS Cup Final, TFC came back and dominated the MLS Cup Final against Seattle in 2017, capturing the first domestic treble in MLS history and the record for the most points by an MLS team in a single season. So even after the CCL Final loss this year, when Bradley also missed a PK in the shootout, I remained optimistic about the rest of the MLS season, and a return to the CCL.

However, TFC’s season clearly has not gone according to plan. Much has been said about the injuries to so many of the starting XI, which is certainly part of the problem. But the lack of intensity and pride at key moments in matches in particular has been troubling. The spirit of champions seemed to be missing at times. There are many potential reasons and excuses, but my point is this: as long as Michael Bradley is the captain of TFC, his behaviour and level of play will set the bar for his teammates.

If TFC are to pull themselves out of this rut, the General will need to rally the troops and lead by example. After meeting him eye to eye, I believe he has it in him.