Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — The majority of the U.S. Men’s National Team players were finished with practice, dressed in casual attire and greeting or sitting with family members ahead of a Brazilian BBQ at Sao Paulo FC’s practice facility on Friday afternoon.
Michael Bradley, meanwhile, was one of the few remaining players still on the field, laying down cones for an extra drill that he was apparently going to run on his own. It was Bradley putting in more work in an effort to move past the previous day’s 1-0 Group G loss to Germany and towards the Round of 16 bout with Belgium, where there is a chance for him to erase the snowballing criticism that he has faced.
A symbol of consistency for the U.S. in recent years, Bradley has not enjoyed the type of World Cup that many expected him to have going into the tournament. The veteran midfielder covered the most ground of any player in Brazil through the group stage with 23.6 miles, but other parts of his game have not been up to his usual high standards.
His passing and decision-making have not been as sharp as usual, he missed a point-blank chance on a trailing run into the penalty area against Portugal that he normally puts away and just has not left the kind of impact that U.S. fans are used to seeing. Still, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the team are happy with what they’ve seen so far from Bradley and are confident he will be able to give more starting on Tuesday.
“I am very, very satisfied with Michael in this tournament so far,” said Klinsmann. “I know that he has another gear in him. If he already plays on this level right now – we came through this group because of his influence on the field – then if he steps it up another notch this gives us a big hope now getting ready for the knockout stage, because we know that players have not reached their highest spot yet.
“He is one of them, but overall I am very, very happy with him. He has covered so much ground, he is all over the place. The defensive work that Michael puts in is absolutely outstanding. It is one of the reasons why we barely gave away any chances for Germany in that game, Portugal the same way.”
Part of what may be playing a role in Bradley’s struggles this summer is that he is being deployed in a more advanced position, which does not play to his strengths as well as his customary box-to-box role. The fact that he is higher up the field also means that he has less time to move the ball around and the lack of a striker like the injured Jozy Altidore has left Bradley a bit isolated and without a real target to find with his patented precise long balls, which was seen when Bradley found Altidore for the U.S.’s second goal in the pre-World Cup friendly vs. Nigeria and on the promising play in the tournament opener against Ghana that was killed by Altidore’s left hamstring injury.
What Bradley has done exceptionally well is run, and run, and run. Bradley has used his near-endless motor to press centerbacks in each of the matches against Ghana, Portugal and Germany, which has helped in limiting how much time the Americans’ talented opponents have had on the ball.
“He’s been doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet and it’s stuff that we need against these teams,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “We were put in a group with some really quality teams, some teams have been together for quite a while, so we’ve needed him to cover a ton of ground, we’ve needed him to attack and we’ve needed him to do all types of things and he’s been doing it.”
The 26-year-old Bradley admitted in the aftermath of the 2-1 win vs. Ghana that he did not play up to the standards that he holds himself to. He did not repeat that against the 2-2 draw vs. Portugal – in which he received lots of criticism for losing the ball on a routine play, but one that on that occasion led to the Portuguese’s last-gasp equalizer – nor did he say it again after the 1-0 defeat to Germany.
Bradley, however, seems to know that he can do better.
“You get to this point in the tournament and you understand that to keep it going and to take it even further, every guy has to find more,” said Bradley. “Every guy has to look at himself and physically find more to give, mentally be that much sharper. That’s what we’re talking about at the moment: the ability to be excited and proud of what we’re doing, but still understand that it’s not anything yet.
“Now, if we can continue to push and if we can continue to be better and better, that now there’s still a lot more in our force.”
The microscope will be on Bradley to deliver in Tuesday’s match vs. Belgium, which boasts a bevy of skillful midfielders. It is imperative that Bradley has a good game if the Americans are to keep their World Cup dreams alive, and the U.S. believes that will be the case regardless of if he is playing high up the field or not.
“We know that he can add something extra to it going forward. He also needs to help with the team by shifting higher up,” said Klinsmann. “If we can get Michael more into that role behind Clint (Dempsey), I think we are even more dangerous then. There is more to come, but so far I am very happy with his performance.”