NEW YORK — Michael Bradley is 30 years old. He reached that milestone age just last month, capping a decade that saw him go from a goal-scoring sensation at Heerenveen to a respected midfielder in the Bundesliga and Serie A before his return to Major League Soccer, where his career began at 16.
The return to MLS was seen by some as the premature downgrading of his career. After all, at the age of 27, and playing at AS Roma, Bradley figured to stay in Europe a few more years. When he made a blockbuster move to Toronto FC, it was seen as something that would lead to the premature demise of his career.
Four years later, Bradley is enjoying a year that could easily be called the best of his career. He has helped Toronto FC turn into the best team in MLS, and he has also captained the U.S. national team to an undefeated record heading into Friday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.
Might this be the best Michael Bradley we have ever seen? Bradley believes so, and he's not the only one who thinks so.
"I think that I continue to get better as I get older," Bradley said on Tuesday. "I love to play, I love to train, I love to compete and ultimately when those are your starting points then it doesn't feel like work. It's never a burden for me to wake up and go into training because it's genuinely what I love doing.
"I try to live the right way. I look after myself. I live my life in a way that I hope means that I have my best years in front of me," Bradley said. "I will continue to try to push myself, challenge myself to improve, look at things that need to be better, and ultimately take everything that I do on the field and in the team and make it count for more and hold up in the biggest and best moments."
Bradley's play with the national team in 2017 has been outstanding, with a strong performance against Mexico in Mexico City and his Golden Ball Award-winning showing at the Gold Cup serving as the best examples of the improvements he has shown. Improvements that, perhaps not coincidentally, have come since the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. coach and the return of Bruce Arena.
"He’s proving his worth, both at the national team level and at the club level. Both sides right now are very successful," Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney told Goal . "They’re stable. With Bruce and the national team things are a lot more stable than they were before. Our club is stable and it’s made it much easier to perform at the level that they’re expected to perform at when the environment is stable."
Vanney agrees with Bradley's assessment that he's getting better with age, in part because of fundamental changes that are helping him be more efficient, and helping him make his teammates better.
"As you get older, you get a little bit wiser," Vanney said. "As a younger player he was such a doer and he saw every situation and he tried to solve that problem by getting to that space and doing it. A lot of it was based on a lot more running and a lot more work, and maybe sometimes not as efficient as he could be. And he learned to be more efficient, to move people around him, to communicate and get guys to do their jobs in a way that he doesn’t have to run over and try to do it.
"He sees things earlier and he sees things clearer now," Vanney said. "A lot of that has coincided with him dropping in and playing a more specific role, the six role, and having some real consistency there. We are a little more specific with roles, and guys around him understand their roles, which allows him to move pieces around instead of trying to do everything. He’s learned a lot in terms of reading the game and manipulating the game sometimes, not just by doing, but by telling, and by demanding and by moving all the pieces around him."
Bradley has rebounded well from a 2016 that ended in painfully disappointing fashion for him and the teams he leads. The U.S. opened the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with a pair of losses last November, while the year ended with TFC losing the MLS Cup final to the Seattle Sounders in penalty kicks.
Bradley didn't waste any time sulking over those disappointments, and he went into the offseason believing both of his teams would soon rebound and have success.
“I did envision it this way,” Bradley said of the winning ways TFC and the USMNT are enjoying in 2017. “When you go through moments where things don’t go your way, there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself. There’s no time to stop. We had conversations in Toronto at our training ground the morning after we lost the final. When you looked around, you could see in guys' eyes that we wanted the season to begin the next day.
“There was a similar feeling in January camp when we started with this group," Bradley added, referring to the national team. "We understood that we let things get away from us at the end of the year and there was big motivation to make sure that we put things right. We all understand that getting to a World Cup is pass or fail, and at the end, it doesn’t matter who the coach is. Nothing else matters. It’s up to us players to step on the field and make sure that we find the right ways to do whatever it takes to qualify.”
Though players such as Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey have grabbed the headlines during the U.S. team's resurrection of its World Cup qualifying chances, Bradley has been just as instrumental from a playing standpoint and a leadership standpoint. His wonder goal against Mexico set the tone for a crucial draw at Estadio Azteca and his work in midfield helped the U.S. attack steamroll Honduras last March. Along the way, Bradley has asserted himself more as a leader in the locker room.
"He’s been one of the greatest captains I’ve played for. He’s just always there putting in the work and grinding," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of Bradley. "For me, it’s great to see him get player of the tournament (at the Gold Cup) and see him lead his team to the top of the league and see him lead this team where we’re going. It’s good to see a guy get his just rewards for the effort he puts in.”
"He's intense, he's very competitive, not just in training, not just in games, but all the time," Howard added. "To be a good leader is very hard. You have to wear it all the time. There's no days off in that regard. I think that's what stands out the most about him. He is very steady. There's never an off day with him. He's always thinking football. He's always trying to make the team better, whether it's a small conversation in the lunch room or whether it's getting into a guy in the dressing room. He's always on, and I think that's important to be a captain."
Bradley has already lifted his share of silverware in 2017, having won a Canadian Championship with Toronto FC and the Gold Cup with the U.S. this summer. He knows the real work is yet to come, which is why he isn't spending much time basking in the glow of what has been an outstanding year to date. He knows his year will truly be measured by the games that lie ahead, starting with Friday's match against Costa Rica.
The goal is clear: to reverse the disappointments that ended 2016. Anything short of a place in the 2018 World Cup for the U.S., and an MLS Cup title for TFC, will feel like a disappointment to the man who wears the captain's armband for both teams, a player who is playing some of the best soccer of his career, and a player who is laser focused on making sure this year ends on a pair of high notes.
"The chance to captain the national team and my club, it’s a huge honor, and it’s been a good year so far, but I also understand that we haven’t done anything yet," Bradley said. “We haven’t done anything yet in terms of qualifying, even though the Gold Cup was a big moment for us. We haven’t done anything yet with Toronto. The biggest games are still to come. The big prizes are still coming, and as long as that’s the case, I’m going to keep going.”