Ever since Jurgen Klinsmann pushed Michael Bradley into the central attacking midfield role, the U.S. Men’s National Team captain has faced scorching criticism from fans and at times strong but less incendiary criticism from the media. While Bradley had built a career at several clubs in Europe, eventually leading MLS to bring him back to the league for a record $10 million fee, under Klinsmann with the National Team his deficiencies in a position he didn’t usually play were laid bare. In trying to push Bradley into the attacking midfield role, the manager of the Von Trapp’s, as the Men in Blazers named them, wrote a song that never needed to be sung in the first place: How do you solve a problem like Michael Bradley?
Bradley got his first cap at age 18 in the lead up to the 2006 World Cup under Bruce Arena and became a regular when his father Bob Bradley took over as manager. In his career with the USMNT, he’s been asked to play a lot in different roles under three national team coaches. Against Mexico in 2009 he put the dos in ‘dos a cero’ and in the 2010 World Cup he played as a box to box midfielder paired with either Maurice Edu or Ricardo Clark in the D-mid role. His work rate and timely equalizing goal in the match against Slovenia ensured that the Stars and Stripes would have a fighting chance to get out of their group in the now legendary game against Algeria.
When Mexico dispatched the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup, Sunil Gulati brought in Jurgen Klinsmann hoping that the German would bring the team to the next level of international soccer. Under his new coach, Bradley fell victim to Klinsmann’s philosophy about character and mental toughness that excluded certain players from the roster.
Off of his deep 2006 World Cup run with Germany, Klinsmann took the U.S. job in 2011 and wanted the same kind of versatility he could expect with his former team. It is as if he looked at Geoff Cameron and saw Philip Lahm, through his eyes Landon Donovan became Oliver Kahn, and somehow he looked at Michael Bradley and believed he had found the American Michael Ballack. Some of those moves paid off, Cameron has shown that he can play anywhere on the backline and even defensive midfield, while the insistence of playing Michael Bradley as a no. 10 was his most consistent and puzzling failure.
The former USMNT manager was obsessed with adaptability, demanded that players ‘challenge themselves,’ and droned on incessantly about players going outside of their ‘comfort zone.’ Meanwhile it was clear that his tactics were lacking and constant roster adjustments failed to fulfill the promises that he made when he was hired. Klinsmann also wanted a certain kind mentality and work ethic which led him to push Bradley into an unfamiliar role over players more capable of filling it.
Rather than looking to existing attacking midfielders like Benny Feilhaber, who may have had a bit too much personality for Klinsmann’s liking, and Sacha Kljestan, who was getting playing time in the Champions League, Klinsmann left them in the cold. In their place he tried to shoehorn Michael Bradley into a role he assumed the most talented player on his team could handle.
Perhaps because of Klinsmann’s decision to play him out of position, and his failure to live up to expectations of becoming the next great American soccer player, Bradley has constantly been under a microscope for club and country no matter where he plays on the field. He may be the most visible and divisive defensive midfielder in soccer never to have broken Stuart Holden’s leg. Part of the problem is that in his role the impact Bradley has on the game is rarely reflected in the box score. Effective positioning, pressing to force back passes, and taking smart angles to cut off faster attacking players are invisible as far as statistics are concerned and a key part of Bradley’s game that goes under appreciated.
Despite the fact that he has played in two competitive games under Bruce Arena, there is a loud contingent on Twitter and internet comments sections calling for Bradley to be benched. Matt Doyle wrote a piece that dismissed these cries and mentioned that he got more than 80 questions about the midfielder - 80 - and that was after an exhibition match.
There’s no question Bradley has declined since he was playing as a starter for A.S. Roma. He’s a shell of himself both in terms for form and productivity, but as Doyle points out he isn’t nearly as bad as he’s made out to be. Part of the issue is that U.S. fans, fed by the media, are anxious over producing world class players and especially fetishize the idea of an American no. 10 tearing through defenses on the way to scoring an American goal of the century and Bradley never turned into that player.
While the trequartista may be a moonbeam nobody can hold in their hand, U.S. fans still yearn for it and settle by waiting in vain until the emergence of the next Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey and watch to see if Christian Pulisic truly blooms into a player that surpasses them. Bradley failed at becoming the player he was never destined to be and fans hold that against him. So, how do you solve a problem like Michael Bradley? Play him at defensive midfielder in his best position and forget that he was the next ‘chosen one,’ or at least stop holding it against him.