There is no other way to say it: Toronto FC was a bad defensive team in 2015. That stark reality didn't sit well with coach Greg Vanney, a defender in his playing days and a man who believed you build a team starting with a strong defense. Something had to change, and while part of the adjustment would come from key offseason additions, another would come from within.
Michael Bradley was just as unhappy as his coach with how easy TFC was for opponents to play against, and he believed he could help address that problem. Feeling like his qualities were progressing in a direction to be able to thrive as a deeper-lying midfielder, Bradley made a position shift.
"He wants to be one of the great sixes out there, and that’s where he feels he can make the most growth and have the most impact, and play at a really high, elite level," Vanney told Goal USA. "It was something he was committed to, and it was something that, as a team, I thought we could use because last year we leaked too many goals.
"He asked us to work with him and to allow him to be patient so he could get those defensive instincts that he had back," Vanney said. "He said growing up that’s what he was, a ball-winner, and connected the game, so the instincts were there, but he just needed to bring them out again because he had been asked to be a more attacking-minded player for so long."
Bradley's transition to a more defensive-minded role was a smooth one, and resulted in an outstanding 2016 for TFC. His play, coupled with the additions of Drew Moor, Steve Beitashour and Clint Irwin, helped TFC become one of the stingiest defensive teams in MLS, going from a league-worst 58 goals allowed in 2015 to 39 allowed in 2016, the second-fewest in MLS.
"The conversation that Greg and I had was all of that and I said to him, when I looked at our team, I felt like if we could tighten things up a little bit and become harder to play against and have a better mentality with our ability to go forward, with Seba [Giovinco], with Jozy [Altidore], we were going to have the chance to really be good," Bradley told Goal USA. "I feel like when I look at the year as a whole I think it been a positive thing for everybody, for myself, and most importantly for my team.”
Bradley and TFC will take the field in Wednesday's Eastern Conference final second leg against the Montreal Impact knowing that one more strong defensive performance could help secure the team's first trip to an MLS Cup final. If TFC succeeds in turning around the 3-2 first-leg loss, Bradley's efforts in midfield will play a major role, not just as a ball-winner, but as the focal point of the midfield.
"(Bradley) is most spectacular when, from an attacking standpoint, he’s able to pick up the ball and have the game in front of him," Vanney said. "Last year we played him a lot — and with [former U.S. national team manager] Jurgen [Klinsmann] he’s played a lot — as an attacking midfielder, and that’s not really Michael. He doesn’t play in between lines necessarily. He picks up the ball and he wants to face the field, and then he can distribute and move a game around from there. So it was natural for him."
That's what sometimes gets misconstrued about Bradley's desire to play in a deeper role, both for club and country. It doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't still want to have an influence in the attack, but as he showed in the first-leg loss in Montreal, he can still pick spots to get forward and, when not providing service from deep in midfield, can still surge forward when the moment dictates.
"Ultimately it still comes down to the game and who you’re playing with on a given day and what the game is asking for," Bradley said. "As much as I’ve played a lot of games this year for both Toronto FC and the national team in a deeper role, you also have to have the ability to tweak things based on the game. There’s been games on TFC where we’ve gone down and if you go down in a game the job changes.
"It’s trying to do all the same things but you need to be able to do it on the edge, you need to be able to push things and push the tempo and take a few more calculated risks ... and be a little more aggressive in certain moments and certain parts of the field," Bradley said. "So when we’ve needed that this year I think I’ve been able to do that."
TFC will need just that against a tough Montreal midfield that has caused problems for some tough midfields in the playoffs. Bradley was a driving force in Toronto FC's second-half surge in the first leg, and with his team on home soil for the decisive match on Wednesday, Bradley will once again be expected to play a leading role in what is the biggest match of Bradley's time in MLS.
“We feel very good about the position we're in," Bradley said. "This is why we play. One game, 90 minutes at home, to get to a final. Opportunities like this don't come around every day. We have a group who understands that, who are ready to leave everything out on the field.”