Perhaps the most consistent narrative in the weeks before the World Cup was this one: that the USMNT would go exactly as far as central midfielder Michael Bradley would carry them. The idea was shared almost universally among the American soccer media. There was no reason to doubt its viability.
As the most complete player on the U.S. roster, there is little Bradley can't do. He drops perfectly weighted passes in front of streaking forwards. He is calm on the ball in traffic. He is one of the few American players who can create goals out of nothing. His decision making is so steady and reliable that it's easy to bestow upon him that tired basketball trope—that he is an extension of his coach on the field.
Imagine everyone's surprise, then, when Bradley stumbled out of the gate at this World Cup. How quickly the narrative changed. He was near invisible against Ghana, the story went. He blew a sure goal and gave away another against Portugal. Then he went out and displayed awful touch in the Germany match. Now here we are, tamping down calls for Jürgen Klinsmann to bench his cerebral star.
One thing the shifting narrative hasn't taken into account is that prior to an April friendly with Mexico, Bradley had never played at the top of the diamond in a 4-4-2 midfield, which is how Klinsmann elected to deploy him entering the World Cup. Bradley took a two-month crash course in learning the new role before the tournament. This new position saw him stationed high up the field in a spot usually designated for clever, creative playmakers.
Although he looked comfortable in the role, shining in friendlies against Mexico and Nigeria, it's important to remember this is not his natural position. When he was winning accolades and turning into the USMNT's Next Big Thing, he had done so as a deep-lying CDM, shielding the back line and occasionally swashbuckling into the attacking third to create opportunities.
Then, 21 minutes into his World Cup debut as an attacking midfielder, his role was once again redefined. When Jozy Altidore went down in the opening half of play against Ghana, the U.S. lost the personnel needed for Klinsmann's 4-4-2 diamond. Though he initially plugged Aron Johannsson into the equation, Klinsmann ultimately scrapped the diamond formation, choosing instead to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 the team had featured so often during qualifying. Only this time, Bradley stayed in his high-lying CAM position, situated just behind Dempsey as, ostensibly, the second-highest player on the pitch. For the second time in two months, he was learning a position he'd never played before.
Maybe more than any other player, Bradley has been a victim of the USMNT's "This is Water" moment. When Klinsmann dispatched Landon Donovan from the national team's pre-tournament training camp he set into motion—for himself and for the American soccer media—a re-imagining of each of the remaining players' abilities and roles. It called to mind the parable told by a recovering addict in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and later repeated during a commencement address the author delivered at Kenyon College.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
Just as with the young fish, the American soccer media was forced to take a look around and consider what had long gone unnoticed. With no Donovan at the center of every USMNT narrative, the complementary players were thrust into the spotlight and were recast into their own roles. Jürgen played right along.
Suddenly we learned what a terror Fabian Johnson could be attacking down the right flank. We recast DeAndre Yedlin as a super sub in the midfield. We unleashed Jermaine Jones from the CDM role and my goodness what a revelation he has been.
But Bradley's new role was bigger than these. He was supposed to be everything for this team, and that has simply not been the case—at least not on the surface.
Despite two glaring errors in the Portugal game, and some highly visible poor touches in the attacking third against Germany, Bradley has been plugging right along, playing the same bulldog role he always has. His positioning has been flawless and his work ethic is quite literally unmatched. Through the group stage, no player at the World Cup has covered more ground than Bradley.
It's worth noting here that Klinsmann is on record as saying his team's formations will be fluid.
"We defend as a whole unit and we move forward and keep it compact no matter what shape it has in that instance," Klinsmann said. "We can easily adjust to a 4-4-2 diamond. We can go from a diamond into a flat midfield four. We can go into a 4-2-3-1 which becomes a 4-3-3."
In theory this fluid style is encouraging. In practice it means that the midfielders bunker near the back line in a flat formation, and then morph into an arrow going forward. As the tip of that arrow, Bradley must bunker with the back line in defense, then tear ass down the field at a faster pace than his teammates on the counter, then quickly recover to join in the defense again in the event of a turnover. In essence, for Bradley, it is a 90-minute series of thankless, often off-camera wind-sprints. In the World Cup. In suffocating heat.
Perhaps none of these sprints has been more crucial to Bradley's narrative than the one that found him on the receiving end of a perfect Johnson backpass inside the six-yard box against Portugal. One wonders what the narrative surrounding Bradley would be had he just lifted that point-blank shot over a sliding defender. Non-native soccer media would certainly be more reluctant to criticize someone who contributed one of the team's precious few SportsCenter moments.
But to judge Bradley on that near miss and his late giveaway that led to Portugal's equalizer is short-sighted, at best. There were portions of the Portugal game where he was the best player on the pitch. He repeatedly lofted impeccable long balls that landed at the feet of our high-lying wingers. It's probably no coincidence that his best moments came in the half that is widely considered the team's most impressive period of play during the World Cup.
You have to also wonder what his narrative might be if Jones wasn't having such a massive tournament. Though the two have been the unquestioned starters in the U.S. central midfield throughout the entire qualifying cycle, their success has always been viewed as strangely zero-sum. In the past, when Jones has gotten forward into the attack, the refrain has been that he is stepping on Bradley's toes in doing so. Now that Jones has morphed into one of our most dynamic attackers, there are those who wish to see Bradley benched.
Thankfully, Klinsmann sees Bradley's value to the team, even when the 26-year-old isn't at his best.
"I know that he has another gear in him," Klinsmann said. "We know that he can add something extra going forward—he needs to help the team by shifting higher up. If we can get Michael more into that role behind Clint, I think we are even more dangerous then. So there is more to come, but so far I am very happy with his performance."
Throughout the group stage, the Toronto FC man displayed some of his better attributes. He's been calm on the ball despite chaos around him. He sprays passes to the best spots on the field to relieve pressure. He is dogged in pursuit of attackers, no matter how much ground he is asked to cover.
On a very base level, he has been a solid contributor on a team that played well enough to escape an incredibly difficult World Cup group. Although it's tempting to judge him more critically than other, lesser players on the U.S. roster, to do so is misguided. At his absolute worst, he is an equal on a team of overachievers—a wolf among wolves who have yet to show their best form. There is good reason to believe that when that form arrives, it will be because Bradley has finally found his footing in Brazil.
Beck Barnes (@Beck_Barnes) is a Memphis-based editor for Meister Media Worldwide by day and an online editor for Howler Magazine by night. On the weekends he coaches the mighty U-10 Collierville Rovers.
Photo Credit: Getty