There’s a ton of cruel irony in MLS Cup 2016 being Michael Bradley’s best performance in recent memory. In the match, the U.S. men’s national team captain controlled the midfield for Toronto as they dominated the Seattle Sounders for 120 straight minutes.
No one will remember those two hours of running and fighting for every inch. All the focus and talk will be about the poor penalty attempt he had saved in the shootout that eventually saw his team fall despite not allowing a single shot on target.
It was a very poetic way for 2016 to end for Bradley.
Since returning to MLS from Serie A in 2014, the running narrative has been that his form has deteriorated coinciding with that transfer.
It’s undeniable that Bradley hasn’t been the same player he was in 2012-13 when he was playing for Roma and in the form of his life for the national team. Excuses have been made for him regarding his positioning for both club and country. Jurgen Klinsmann’s constant tinkering with his role is one popular defense of his poor performances through the last few years.
Since the 2014 World Cup where he was sporadic in his play, his form has seen a constant downward trend. Friendly matches have been his reprieve, but in competitive matches, Bradley has been a mixture of disappointing and ineffective. 2016 saw that trend continue with poor performances in the Copa America Centenario and World Cup qualifying.
While Bradley’s club form helped guide Toronto FC to the MLS Cup final, there are still questions about whether or not the Reds will bring him back next season. Duane Rollins, a prominent Canadian soccer writer, stated in October that TFC could be looking to add a No. 10-type DP in place of Bradley who was drawing interest from AC Milan at the time.
The uncertainty of the 29-year-old’s future doesn’t stop at the club level. With Bruce Arena taking over the USMNT’s manager job, there will be inevitable changes coming. It doesn’t seem likely that he’d drop the team’s captain to begin his second stint with the national team. However, Bradley’s starting job doesn’t seem as guaranteed as it once did.
If the downward trend of his form in competitive matches continues on into 2017, it’s possible we could be looking a a scenario where he’s pushed out of the lineup. Unfortunately for the USMNT, there’s just not much competition in his position threatening to push him out. That could change as Arena scours the player pool in an attempt to give more players a chance.
2016 has seen the U.S. win their winnable games at home in the Copa America, but look downright noncompetitive against better teams. They sit fifth in the CONCACAF Hexagonal through two matchdays. Klinsmann bore the brunt of the criticism for those failures. Now that he’s been let go, the team’s captain could be next in line if a turnaround doesn’t occur.
For Bradley, 2016 is a year to forget and sets up what will be a vital year in his career. Will a new manager be enough for him to see a return to form for the national team? Or is time running out on the Bradley era? 2017 should provide some answers.