SAO PAULO – On the pristine soccer pitch at the World Cup training headquarters of the United States national team, Michael Bradley stands above most of the other players. It’s not simply because he is taller than most, 6-1 with an upright posture that accentuates his presence. It’s that he is better. Most of the time.
If you were new to soccer tuning in to try to catch a little World Cup fever and one of your learned friends told you to watch the guy with the shaved head, because everything the U.S. does right usually flows from him, you’d have been a bit puzzled by the end of the Americans’ 2-1 victory over Ghana. It would have been like catching Kevin Durant on a 6-of-22 shooting night. It's doubtful the U.S. could afford another in Sunday's second Group G game against Portugal and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know it wasn’t my sharpest night,” Bradley told the media convened at Sao Paulo F.C.’s headquarters Friday morning. “But unfortunately, they’re not all going to be.”
After the Americans jumped to a 1-0 lead in the first 30 seconds against Ghana in the World Cup opener for both teams, they spent the rest of the night primarily in their own defensive half because they struggled to regain possession and struggled even more to keep control when they had the ball.
Ghana wound up with a 59-41 advantage in time of possession. That didn’t always lead to the shots the Ghanaians wanted because the U.S. did an excellent job forcing them into less favorable positions. Consider the piece of individual brilliance, the exquisite back-heel pass from forward Assamoah Gyan, required to at last produce a tying goal after 80 minutes.
A prototypical performance from Bradley, 26, would have helped slow that rush. He has developed into a commanding box-to-box midfield player who defends the middle of the pitch and also can be dynamic in attack, as when he scored against Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup. But he explained that once it was established that he was not be his best, “It’s about finding every way possible to help your team.”
Bradley didn’t hide, and he did run. He covered nearly 20 percent more ground than any other American player during the course of the game. He completed only 75 percent of the 56 passes he attempted. By comparison, and perhaps it’s not a totally fair one, Italy had two midfielders – Andrea Pirlo and Daniele DeRossi – attempt more than 100 passes each and complete better than 90 percent in a game against England when the teams nearly were split almost evenly in ball control.
As several of the U.S. players have stated this week, Clint Dempsey’s goal 30 seconds into the game did have an impact on how the game developed, making the U.S. more protective and less aggressive.
“I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn’t going it be a night for making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer,” Bradley said. “When you talk about the best teams, there’s an ability to win games in all different ways.”
Bradley’s midfield partner, Jermaine Jones, believes some of the issues with the U.S. possessing the ball were more emotional than technical.
“OK, that was a problem against Ghana, but I think it was the first game so you’re going to be a little bit nervous,” he said. “Now we have a good result. We have a win, so we can go win the next game with more trust in ourselves – take the ball and try to hold the ball better.”
Now earning $6.5 million per year with Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, Bradley has been around the game his entire life. His father, Bob, was the previous U.S. head coach. So he has seen how teams develop during the course of a major tournament and believes success rarely happens for those who deliver their most brilliant effort the first time out.
“You want to feel like as the tournament is moving on … the team and every guy is continuing to grow and get better and get stronger,” Bradley said. “It’s important that we started off with three points. Now we want to follow that up with another good game and more points.”
He said “another.” Gotta have one good game for that to be possible, but a guy has to be forgiven a mistake here and there.