Let's get this out of the way, I'm a huge Michael Bradley fan. I believe he's one of the best American soccer players we've ever produced. But, it's time to admit that he has a major issue with handling the pressure of big matches.
The USA's first big win under Jurgen Klinsmann came in Italy. It was a friendly against the Azzurri and the U.S. won 1-0. Bradley was the undisputed Man of the Match. He was all over the field, breaking up plays, distributing the ball like a machine, and being the complete midfielder he was meant to be.
Through the last five years, Bradley has been consistently been one of the USMNT's best performers in friendly matches. It seemed like any time the U.S. has a favorable result in a friendly the narrative is "Michael Bradley carried the U.S. with his midfield play." That consistency earned him the affectionate nickname "The General" and even the captain's armband.
However, a worrisome trend began to rear its head in 2014 during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. When all of the USA's cards are laid out on the table in the biggest matches, Michael Bradley begins to falter. Gone are the confident touches and the perfect distribution around the field. A timid and hesitant player is what comes out when the pressure is turned up both figuratively and literally.
During the friendlies, when opposing teams are willing to let the U.S. have the ball at their own will, Bradley looks like a world-class player. When teams begin to high press the midfield and play at 100 percent intensity, his weaknesses are magnified.
Against Portugal in the group stage, his turnover in the waning moments of the match led to an equalizing goal and very nearly cost the U.S. a spot in the knockout stage. A year later in the Gold Cup, Bradley would again be relied about to carry the team on his back when it mattered most. After an embarrassing semifinal loss to Jamaica, in which Bradley struggled in the first half, the U.S. were eliminated from contending for the championship.
Excuses have always been made for Bradley. His position on the field has constantly been tweaked by Klinsmann, but the fact remains that he's responsible for his own play once the actual matches kick off. It hasn't ever mattered if Bradley was asked to play a holding or attacking role, he's usually the main player on the ball for the U.S. in the midfield. He's relied on to be American's linchpin, to get possession from the defensive end to the attacking end.
When there's freedom on the field, he can pick out passes like a true midfield general. It's these performances that have built up his reputation as one of the USA's best players.
Unfortunately, as Friday night's ugly showing once again proved, Bradley fails to replicate his brilliance when the opposing team is giving full effort and are unwilling to let the U.S. do as they please with the ball. Certainly this isn't just isolated to Bradley. The whole team has an issue of handling defensive pressure and holding onto the ball. It's a reflection of the overall quality that the USMNT lacks compared to the best teams in the world. But as the focal point of the midfield, he is singled out because so much is expected of him.
There have been rumblings about replacing Michael Bradley in the lineup. That seems like a drastic measure to take at this point, especially with no one better to take his place. Virtually any midfielder the U.S. have will have the same problems he has in the same circumstances. The quality of the USA's midfielders doesn't get any better than Bradley. It's just a matter of him being in the spotlight every match. The back-up is the most popular person on the team until they are put into the game.
Some will argue that Darlington Nagbe is much better in tight spaces than Bradley or that Geoff Cameron/Kyle Beckerman are better defensively. Those are both true, but neither are legitimate alternatives in the role Bradley is asked to play. Nagbe doesn't have the defensive steel and Cameron/Beckerman are even more prone to turning the ball over in tight spaces.
It's becoming more and more apparent that Bradley struggles to handle the big occasion, but there isn't any magical solution to the problem. He's still one of the team's most talented players. It's up to Klinsmann to try put the right players around him and up to Bradley to overcome the pressure and step his game up.