102512_bradleymichael_isi_usmntjt1015123587 John Todd/isiphotos.com
Player Portrait

Being Michael Bradley: The Evolution of a Star

Before he was the most important player on the United States national team, the midfielder was a high-energy player with a famous father. Ryan O'Hanlon tackles the transformation.

BY Ryan O'Hanlon Posted
October 25, 2012
9:30 AM
Editor's note: Player Portrait runs every other Thursday.

Apple released an iPad a few days ago. Or they introduced one. Or they talked about one that they plan on actually selling. Or whatever. Doesn’t matter. Fact is, the iPad is the same as every iPad that came before it, except it’s smaller. So, no big deal. Except, really big deal. Every time Apple releases something, whatever it is, it’s the next new great thing that will change the way we function as human beings and possibly also accelerate evolution to the point where blinking serves the same purpose as eating food. Even if it’s just a slightly better thing or slightly different or slightly smaller thing that’s really not gonna make much of a difference—no, this is a game-changer.

John O’Brien. Benny Feilhaber. Ricardo Clark. Maurice Edu. Jermaine Jones. Freddy Adu. Sacha Kljestan. Jose Torres. Freddy Adu again. Stuart Holden. Mix Diskerud. Joe Corona. Fabian Johnson. Timmy Chandler. Danny Williams. Brek Shea. Eddie Johnson. Graham Zusi. Josh Gatt.

All Apple products. Shiny, streamlined, cool things that we only just realized we’ve been waiting our whole lives for.

No one’s immune to the Apple-ization, it seems. If you’re a semi-competent American player who hasn’t yet worn out his time in front of our eyes, hope your back can hold the weight of a tiny nation because you’re our savior. The midfielder who can finally create with his feet. The leftback who can finally not be Jonathan Bornstein. The striker who can score goals with a soccer ball. The OH MY GOD JOHN O’BRIEN. The etc. and etc. and etc.

That is, unless you’re the most important player on the U.S. National Team. Unless you’re Michael Bradley.

It’s sort of like if Steve Jobs’ son was the iPod shuffle, maybe? I don’t know. There’s no straight-up correlation because I’m talking about human beings and mp3 players. But for whatever reason, when Michael Bradley started starting for the USMNT, he wasn’t the first-coming/a Macbook that could cook you dinner and teach you to read Braille. He was a guy with the same last name as the head coach who no one really liked. (You didn’t like him, OK? You just didn’t.) Maybe he was boring. Michael Bradley? Saying that name is like eating a piece of cardboard. Maybe Benny Feilhaber was more exciting. Whatever it was, Michael Bradley wasn’t it.

But he played soccer wrapped in an American flag, dipped in red-white-and-blue paint. If there’s a stereotypical American central midfielder, it’s pre-head-shave Michael Bradley. Like a hamster wheel tipped on its side, he always moved around the field, spinning in whatever direction toward wherever the ball was, never really in control of anything. He’d make short passes and occasionally score goals, but the most memorable thing about young Bradley—other than what the hell was going on with that hair, man?—is that there was so much Bradley. He’d be everywhere, making marks all over the field, but never really putting his mark on the game.

And that’s what we want, isn’t it? It’s what we say. While passing and tackling stats now help give a picture of how a game played out, we want center midfielders to be the ones we remember when the game ends. Even if he doesn’t score or set up a goal, it’s being able to say that dude had a hell of game, and sounding like you know something the non-Illuminati soccer fan doesn’t. However flawed our perceptions are after 90 minutes, there’s always a strand of truth in them, too. Soccer’s subjective, so if you think a guy played well, he most likely did in some sense.

But that strand, it’s something Bradley always grasped for but never held on to. Or maybe a better way to describe it is that it was always just floating there, but he preferred running back and forth with his eyes elsewhere, yelling at reporters and referees because who wants to hold a piece of thread when you can do this?

It changed somewhere, though. This all fits really nicely into the “young American player goes to Europe, does well, gets too self-satisfied, is humbled, finds new club, and becomes the mature player he was meant to be” narrative, and that could very well be it. Or maybe it’s just the rightful progression of a hard-as-hell worker who realized that working as hard as you can only really works when you’re almost-better than everyone else.

Instead of the spinning hamster wheel, it’s like Bradley became a buoy in the chaos that’s the average USMNT game under Jurgen Klinsmann. The games seem to rock up and down more than ever before, and Bradley’s always a part of it, but he always seems in his element, no matter what spot on the Periodic Table of Insanity the Americans decided to occupy that afternoon or night. When he gets the ball now, you expect something good to happen. The ball at his feet’s a blessing, not a bother, like it used to seem at times. He’ll make the right pass or take the right touch out of pressure or leave his feet to tackle at the right time. It’s a feeling you get watching guys you’ve watched a lot—almost never doing wrong— and generally, from guys who aren’t American. But Bradley’s there now.

Except, if things get rough and if he needs to rock back and forth to keep things steady, he can. He’s used to that—he shook it off, but he didn’t forget how to run a ball into a wall of Slovenians and stomp out whatever candlelight was left in the enemy’s house. And yeah, he can still take a step too far, but he’s a 25-year-old human being, so it’d be weird if he didn’t still accidentally threaten to draw-and-quarter a referee’s entire family. He’s coolly detached, but also still an American. Also, he’s still Michael Bradley. He doesn't need a new plug.

Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) is an ASN 100 panel member and an editor at Outside.

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