Michael Bradley is, and was, better than you think.
One of the most divisive players in U.S. men’s national team history, Bradley is, depending on who you ask, either an unheralded midfield engine who’s an underrated attacker or, on the flip side, a plodding, slow bore who refuses to do anything but pass backwards.
For years and years, I was in the former camp. I remain in the former camp. I think Bradley, even at age 31, is an underrated and important player for the U.S. who covers tons of ground, can score a goal when needed, is a necessary calming presence, and maintains possession for a U.S. team that often struggles to do so.
But after last night’s USMNT game against Chile, which ended in a 1-1 tie, it’s also become clear to me: It’s time for the U.S. to move on from Bradley.
He had lovely spells, but a knock on Bradley has always been that when you pressure him high – as Chile did all night – he tends to get overwhelmed. This is fine, as a lot of players get overwhelmed when you put them under a lot of pressure. What top level players in Bradley’s position will eventually do, though, if you over-commit with high pressure, is use a bit of skill to break that pressure and start getting up the field.
Bradley doesn’t usually do that. He can do it. I’ve seen him do it. But too often he tends to go into protect mode when he feels an onslaught of pressure. He wants to slow the game down. When pressure comes, he tends to shield the ball, and then make the safe pass, backwards or sidewise, like a character out of that perfect Simpsons bit. (This is one of those rare times I will agree with the casual soccer fan who brays “HE KEEPS PASSING IT BACKWARD” at a player.)
Last night was the quintessential Bradley game in that respect. For fans of his, he completed 90% of his passes (great!) and covered a ton of ground (also great!) For detractors, the question was: What did the passes accomplish?
Here’s his passing map from the game.
Green means completed passes in the diagram above. Red means incomplete. Fans of Bradley’s will note the sea of green. Detractors of Bradley’s will note the direction of the green arrows, and the direction of the red ones.
This was a totally fine and competent performance from Bradley. He kept the ball, he kept it moving, he didn’t give it up, he didn’t try to do too much. Many coaches love that in players. For fans of the other football, Bradley is the system QB who doesn’t turn the ball over. He plays within his means. He’s safe.
But is this what the USMNT wants to do and be?
And, more importantly: Is keeping Bradley in there allowing USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter to see what he has in other, younger players?
For the USMNT, Adams is fitting in with the team in a hybrid right defender/center midfielder role that Berhalter designed with Adams in mind. (You can read a bit more about the hybrid role here.)
When compared with Bradley, Adams similarly covers acres of ground (his heat maps are laugh-out-loud funny.) He is similarly a smart passer of the ball who completes a lot of his passes. What he does that Bradley doesn’t:
- Beats guys off the dribble when pressure comes
- Tries stuff
That number one is hugely important, as Adams’ pace and technique allows him to absorb pressure then beat guys off the dribble when pressure comes, which can spring counter attacks. For a USMNT with Christian Pulisic, a counter attack is often all you need to get a goal.
Look at this play from a recent game against Leipzig. Adams is dealt a pass, under pressure, with defenders closing down on him in his own half. Many defensive midfielders would shield the ball here, try and draw a foul, or perhaps carve out a bit of space and pass it back to the defender on the other side of the field.
That’s not what Adams does.
A quick bit of skill, a positive pass, and Leipzig is off and running. This is what Adams already offers, at the age of 20.
The number two, trying stuff, is also vastly important. Adams won’t complete as many passes as Bradley, and occasionally he will give the ball away. But Adams won’t shield his eyes from the up the field, even in the face of pressure. He wants to go forward, always. That’s his instinct. He wants to make stuff happen. It might not always work – he’s 20 – but at least the ideas, the intent, is there.
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Adams isn’t the only young player who can do these things for the USMNT, though. Berhalter has a host of young, exciting midfield talent that can cover ground and win tackles like Bradley, but more importantly, wants to go. This is an underrated skill in a midfielder. Yes, young players can be too energetic, too eager to go forward. They can make bad decisions.
But they are willing to try things. And for a USMNT that’s looking to the future, Berhalter has to get young guys in now who are willing to attack, to look to break down lines of defense.
Bradley is a wonderful player and an underrated passer. He can be a good leader for the team moving forward. But the time has come to move on to new things. Young players need to get in, and Berhalter has plenty of young, exciting options to start experimenting with.
I’ll leave you with this clip of Paxton Pomykal, a 19-year-old American who plays center midfield for FC Dallas.
Pomykal wins tackles. He covers a lot of ground. More importantly, he wants to go. He wants to attack. Every pass might not be perfect, but the intent is there.
Pomykal is just one of a whole list of exciting American midfielders who are impressing in MLS and aboard. There are some that are names you probably know – Adams, Weston McKennie – and some you will hear a lot more about soon – Djordje Mihailovic, Pomykal, Richie Ledezma. Will all of them work out? Definitely not.
But it’s time to start seeing what we have. If the USMNT is going to get more attacking, more creative, and beat the press that teams know to put on us, they’re going to need to bring in new, fresh blood who can break a game open.
Bradley is better than you think, but it’s no longer his time.