When Michael Bradley was at the best stage in his career in the early parts of this decade, he was known for being a box-to-box midfielder with instincts to crash the penalty area to finish off plays.
He reminded us of just that over the weekend.
Toronto FC delivered one of the bigger surprises of the weekend, beating the Philadelphia Union on the road, 2-0. While the result was in and of itself unexpected given Toronto’s 2018 woes and recent Concacaf Champions League failure, it was Bradley’s two-goal performance that made it even more intriguing.
Bradley had not scored in MLS play in more than two years, a byproduct of Toronto FC using him largely as a defensive midfielder during that time. On Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, however, the veteran had Marky Delgado sitting in behind him and was allowed to roam further up the field at times.
The tactic worked wonders. Bradley was able to help clog the middle of the field against a Union team playing in a narrow diamond, while also moving into advanced positions at times to help out a Toronto FC attack that was still without Jozy Altidore.
Bradley was not out there bombarding forward with the same regularity that he did when he was younger, but he picked and chose his moments to great effect. It is what allowed him to have the whole goal to shoot at twice and to score for the first time at the club level since Nov. 22, 2016.
Both plays were reminiscent of the days, back in the early part of this decade, when Bradley played the best soccer of his career. The days when he was manning the middle for Borussia Moenchengladbach in the German Bundesliga. The days when he was scoring an epic World Cup equalizer with the U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Slovenia.
One major problem, however, is that Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney may not see using Bradley in more advanced positions as a long-term tactical wrinkle.
“Sometimes he gets stuck too deep and is unable to get forward but with Marky covering for him he can choose his times to push ahead,” said Vanney after Saturday’s win. “We don’t necessarily expect that out of him, but he’s fully capable of those situations and going for it.”
Toronto FC should absolutely expect and ask that from of its captain this year, though, especially if the club wants to try to get back to being a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
As Vanney noted, Bradley has operated almost exclusively as a No. 6 over the past few years, a defensive midfielder tasked with blanketing the back line and distributing the ball quickly to magical attacker Sebastian Giovinco (who is now gone). Bradley has been so rooted to that withdrawn spot on the field that he has been robbed of some of his best abilities, finishing the past three seasons with 13, 11, and 12 shot attempts after having registered 52 and 57 with Toronto FC in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
It has been clear for some time, however, that Bradley no longer has the athleticism to be used in such a defensive role and is a liability there unless he has extra cover next to or behind him. After all, as has been noted here before, he does not have much speed anymore, does not have much range, and does not regularly get stuck in on tackles.
What Bradley can still do very well, especially if Delgado continues to sit in behind, is move the ball forward and recognize moments to crash the box and get on the end of things. It is true that it might not be ideal for Bradley to be used as a true No. 8 given his decreased motor, but playing something like, let’s call it a 6.5 role, that allows him to roam up the field on occasion could be of great benefit to Toronto FC.
It was on Saturday.