TORONTO — It’s never easy to lose key players on international duty. It’s especially painful for Toronto FC, riding high on an eight-game unbeaten streak and leading MLS by five points heading into the weekend.
TFC was missing Sebastian Giovinco due to injury and Jozy Altidore to suspension, but the Reds managed to crush the Columbus Crew, 5-0, on Friday night without their top scorers. Michael Bradley started and delivered one of his best performances of the season.
The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder completed a team-high four tackles and was constantly passing his team out of danger whenever the Crew were lurking around the top of the box.
“I thought he was excellent,” said TFC coach Greg Vanney in his post-game press conference. “I think [it’s] his ability to keep everybody organized. We had two guys up front, we needed to communicate through different changes. I think always playing Columbus, they will always overload you in different areas and you’ve got to manage things and you’ve got to talk through things. You’ve got to keep a group organized keep everybody sort of on-task.”
Bradley was also crucial in shutting down Justin Meram and Federico Higuain. Meram is the Crew’s joint leading scorer with seven goals, yet he failed to register a shot. Higuain has proven to be one of the top creators in MLS, yet he was ineffective as well.
“I think from the first whistle to the last, he did a good job of leading the team tonight,” Vanney continued. “Picked off some balls, won some balls and got us out of some situations where we were able to get going forward and into some transitions. I thought a great job from him and great leadership across the game.”
The TFC captain has been an ironman of sorts for the team this season. Apart from Wednesday’s match in the Canadian Championship, Bradley has played in every minute of every game this year. In fact, Aug. 3 was the last time he did not complete the full 90.
However, both Bradley and Altidore will be on USMNT duty next week as the team prepares for a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers next month. Vanney claimed that MLS teams have an agreement to release players for the Venezuela friendly on June 3, so both of his Designated Players will miss TFC’s next match against the New England Revolution.
The friendly does not fall in line with the next FIFA date, which begins on June 5. Nonetheless, MLS teams are required to release their players, which Bradley says is not ideal.
“It continues to be the worst part about playing in the league,” said Bradley. “I’ve said it in different ways publicly. I’ve said it to anybody who listens privately. I love playing in MLS, I love playing for this club, for Toronto FC, in this city. I’m lucky, we’re lucky that the club goes through every length possible to avoid playing on FIFA dates and really minimize the number of games that we miss. But missing anything is frustrating.
“You hope that there continues to be strides made in those ways so that ultimately, you don’t miss anything on either side.”
Nonetheless, Bradley still feels that the level of play will not drop without him and Altidore. It will be a challenge without all three Designated Players, but the squad has the capability, according to the captain.
“We can win on a lot of different days,” said Bradley. “We can win by keeping things tight and not conceding and being a hard team to play against. We can win on some days with just sheer mentality. We can win on other days by our football, by being a team that plays and moves and plays forward and puts teams on the heels in those ways.
“The most exciting part for me is that I continue to look at our team and feel like we have big room for improvement still. I don’t say that in any negative way. I think that we’ve made big progress. But I still see big margin for improvement. I think we all do. And ultimately, that part is exciting, because if we can continue to work, continue to get better and better, I think the possibilities are good for us.”
TFC has five days off until its second leg of the Canadian Championship semifinal with the Ottawa Fury. The USL side has a one-goal lead after earning a 2-1 win at home. Vanney and the squad have spoken at length about the depth in quality, but without the big names available, the roster will be thoroughly examined over the next week.