Like most US soccer fans, I can still feel the sting of yesterday’s 2-1 knockout round loss to Belgium.
Despite clearly being the inferior side in a technical sense, the match was there for the taking. Tim Howard’s incredible performance in goal and a clever tactical plan laid out by coach Jurgen Klinsmann made that possible. Though when I close my eyes, I can still see Chris Wondolowski skying the ball over Thibaut Courtois’s gaping goal from the edge of the goal box in the dying seconds of regular time. And while it was a valiant performance from our boys, that result was inevitable if we were going to concede so many chances to an extremely talented Belgian side.
And in the disappointment, we’ve been subjected to a glut of articles raining criticism down on the players, the manager and the US soccer federation from both professionals and armchair pundits alike. Some complaints have merit. But quite a few are downright absurd.
One of the most common — and accurate — critiques levied against the US team deals with what this side was really capable of in the first place: were we even deserving of the quarterfinal spot that was denied to us?
From a technical standpoint: hardly.
It’s clear that the US national team still has a long way to go when it comes to producing the talent to compete at the next level. Our opponents yesterday featured a side rich with world-class talent. We might have two players that can be classified in that way. When Belgian manager Marc Wilmots decided Belgium needed to make a change up front, he was able to bring on the $37-million-rated, 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku — a player coveted by many of the top sides in Europe. However, when Klinsmann decided he needed to make a similar change, he had to make do with $2-million-rated, 31-year-old Chris Wondolowski — a man coveted at best by a few MLS clubs.
But there’s another popular theory about the US’s performances during the World Cup that doesn’t make any sense yet seems to be pouring out of every corner of the internet. That theory: Michael Bradley had a bad World Cup.
And I’m here to pour cold water all over that claim.
Before I get started, I’ll first concede that Bradley was not at his best offensively. For a guy that we’ve seen dominate in the Bundesliga, Serie A and at the international level, he didn’t exactly dictate produce in the way we all hoped he might. And against Ghana and Portugal in the first two Group G matches, he certainly made some critical mistakes.
But even in those first matches, it wasn’t as if he had bad games. They just weren’t what we’ve come to expect of him.
That said, there are quite a few important factors to keep in mind when evaluating his performances that many lambasting Michael are either ignoring or aren’t considering.
First and foremost, he’s being played out of position. While playing in the hole behind the single striker is something he’s capable of, Bradley is much better playing a deeper role. When he was at his best in Italy and Germany, he was deployed as a deep lying playmaker. Instead, he was stationed in an offensive midfield position that — while potentially beneficial to the US — didn’t exactly play to his strengths.
On that same point, he was posted up behind a player for a majority of the tournament that was himself being played out of position. Clint Dempsey, like Bradley, is capable of playing up top by himself, but is actually much better in the role that Michael was forced to play. And as such, he wasn’t as used to playing it the way that someone like Jozy Altidore would be more used to working. As such, it left Bradley to try and hold up play a bit more than someone would be asked to do when playing in the apex of the three-man midfield. Bob’s kid was left with few outlets to play to, with Bedoya and Zusi often pinched in and expected to track back on the opposing wingers.
Secondly, for an offensive midfielder, Bradley was expected to and needed to put in a lot of defensive effort. While he might have been sloppier in his distribution than we’re used to, he was expending a lot more of his energy covering ground defensively than should be expected of an offensive center mid. In fact, no player in the tournament has run as far as he has. And that will absolutely take its toll on his ability to make decisions and play precise passes..
As for those who needs stats to lean on, why not compare other players who have played similar roles. I’ve picked four players below who that have not only made it as far as the US did this World Cup, but have actually helped their teams reach the next round too. Influential players, much like Bradley. What you’ll find might actually surprise you.
||Juan Cuadrado (COL)
||Eden Hazard (BEL)
|% Pass Forward
|% Pass Back/Side
|Pass % Opp Half
|Pass % Def Half
|Tackles Won (%)
The two stats that really stand out here are distance covered and passes/pass accuracy. Despite being burdened with the need to run more, he still managed to complete more passes than all of his counterparts. Not only that, but Bradley completed his passes at a better rate and more passes forward than the rest of them as well.
When you consider that Bradley was one of two players that opposing sides absolutely prepared for ahead of facing us — alongside Dempsey — those stats become even more impressive. The Toronto FC midfielder nearly always had two men pressuring him when he received the ball, meaning he had to be precise if he didn’t want to cough it up.
Now, I know he did cough it up at times when we hoped he might not. But I’m not going to skewer a guy for a few mistakes. While he wasn’t the second coming of Andrea Pirlo, Michael was far from being the next Jermaine Jenas.
But we do need to all consider what kind of expectations we placed on him. If you expected to see Bradley lift the trophy this summer, you’re probably on the wrong bandwagon.
The he helped us get out of the Group of Death should be enough for everyone, but many still aren’t satisfied. And they never will be.
But I am, Michael. You’ve done more than enough for me.