Excitement and optimism surrounded Michael Bradley heading into the Copa America Centenario. Jurgen Klinsmann had finally given up on the 'Bradley is a No. 10' experiment and pushed him back to his more natural holding midfield role. Many people, including myself, lobbed pressure onto his shoulders by subscribing to the "As Bradley goes, so goes the national team" theory.
The USMNT captain started all six of the team's matches in this tournament. Here's a look at his stats:
Games Played: 6
Minutes Played: 529
Yellow Cards: 1
Just as the manager gets credit/blame when things are going well/poorly, the captain of the team usually goes through the same roller coaster. There's no denying that Bradley's on-field performances as a whole were a letdown. However, the team showed great spirit in some of the matches. Most notably against Paraguay when they had to play 40 minutes down a man. The team banded together and prevented a goal from going in. That amazing show of teamwork eventually paid off immensely as the difference between a 1-0 win a 1-1 draw ended up winning the USA their group.
As much as it's the new fad to pile onto Michael Bradley for the team's overall struggles in losses, he deserves some of the credit for the vastly improved team spirit that they showed throughout the Copa America.
Okay, now that's out of the way, it's time to take off the gloves. Of the 11 consistent starters for the U.S. in this tournament, it's probably safe to say he was the most disappointing of the bunch. That pains me to say. I'm admittedly a big Michael Bradley fan. Yet, I pointed out after the opening match against Colombia that he had a real problem with handling pressure, both figuratively and literally. When the U.S. play against good teams that high press them in the midfield Bradley struggles mightily. Part of that could be his teammates failing to provide options, but the majority of the blame has to be put on him. In friendlies where teams allow the U.S. to play freely he looks like a world-class player and that's where the inconsistencies in his play confuse a lot of people. He can look like a world-beater one match then look absolutely terrible in another. It's an extremely frustrating trend.
We've noticed that in competitive tournaments that he's leaned more towards the terrible side and I believe it still stems from the pressure issues. Against teams like Colombia or Argentina he's expect to carry the midfield, but constantly loses the ball in tight spaces or misplaces passes. When he's supposed to be the linchpin of the midfield that's only going to increase the expectations of onlookers. Is Michael Bradley a bad player? I truly don't think so. I honestly don't think anyone in the U.S. national team player pool could step into his position and do a better job. Did Michael Bradley have a really bad tournament? Yes he did. ESPN even named him to their Worst XI of the tournament. Oof.
Copa Grade - D
Aside from a few of his patented long balls out to the flank to start an attack or some decent defensive plays in front of the defensive 18-yard box it was an extremely difficult tournament for Bradley. Some of his careless giveaways led to goals either directly or indirectly. His effectiveness in the passing game seemed a lot less noticeable than in previous tournaments. While he gets credit for being a leader on the field, his performances in several of the matches, including the most important ones, were detrimental to the team.
Bradley has already returned to Toronto FC and is reportedly on the mend from a knock picked up in the third-place match against Colombia. As much as USMNT supporters like to question Bradley's position in the starting lineup, it's hard to envision any drastic changes being made anytime soon. He's the captain of the team and still, on paper, one of the best midfielders in the pool. I just can't see Klinsmann dropping him ahead of two important World Cup qualifying matches. Perhaps his leash will be a little shorter than it was entering the Copa America, but he's still one of the first names on the teamsheet, like it or not.