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Bradley believes it's time for new USMNT leaders to emerge after Long takes armband

4:55 PM WAT 28/01/2019
Gregg Berhalter Michael Bradley USMNT vs Panama 2019
The midfielder didn't mind new coach Gregg Berhalter's decision to name a different captain for Sunday's win vs. Panama

When Aaron Long was named captain for Sunday's U.S. national team friendly against Panama, it was seen as a surprising decision given the presence of former captain and veteran midfielder Michael Bradley on the squad.

Gregg Berhalter's decision raised some eyebrows, but one person who had no issue with the decision was Bradley, who took time to give Long some advice on wearing the captain's armband for the first time.

"I told him to enjoy it," Bradley said of his talk with Long before Sunday's 3-0 win against Panama. "I told him to be himself, to play and compete how he always does because in those ways he always sets a real example and a high bar for everybody. Whether that’s at Red Bull or here for the national team.

"For any player to have the opportunity to captain the national team, that’s something special, so on a night like this for him to make sure that you understand how special it is. You enjoy it, you take advantage of it. I think he did all that."

Berhalter made a point to have a talk with Bradley about his decision to give Long the armband, admitting that he was once in the same position that Bradley was in during his playing days, and wasn't spoken to about the decision to go with another player as captain. Bradley didn't take the decision as a slight, making it clear that he understood the need for the team to have new leaders developed.

" There’s a group of guys that have to now start to take more responsibility and be encouraged and engaged to put more on their shoulders," Bradley said. "To think about more than just themselves and their own performance, but to think about the group, to think about things in a bigger way. To take on more. Aaron is certainly one of them. Will Trapp, Walker Zimmerman, there’s probably one or two that I’m missing. There’s certainly one or two European-based guys that I would throw into that category as well.

"I am who I am, and that part is never going to change, but it’s important for me to find the right ways to engage those guys in that process and make sure that there’s room for them to grow in all those ways," Bradley said. "If Gregg thinks that an important part of that is making sure those guys understand the responsibility of being captain then, yeah, I think that part’s great."

Berhalter pointed to the leadership qualities Long displayed in the January camp as leading to the opportunity for the reigning MLS defender of the year to be named captain.

"I don’t think it was a knock against anyone else that they weren’t captain. I think I would look at it more as a positive that Aaron was the captain because of what he’s been doing in these last couple of weeks," Berhalter said of Long, who admitted to being surprised when Berhalter told him he would be captain.

"My road to get here has definitely been the road less traveled, that’s for sure, and this is just one more step that’s just a little bit different for me in my career," Long said. "To be named captain third cap is unbelievable, and it’s a dream come true, but it’s a bit surreal."

Though he didn't wear the armband on Sunday, Bradley was still very much a leader of the group, from giving Long words of encouragement in his first match as captain, to delivering instructions to the group before the match and at halftime, when the USMNT held a 1-0 lead.

"I am who I am," Bradley said. "Who I am as a player, who I am as a competitor, who I am as a leader. It’s brought me this far, and while it always has to be tweaked, it always has to be improved, regardless of how old you are. Whether or not I am the captain, I’m not the captain, I wear the armband, I don’t wear the armband, these things aren’t important. It’s about the team. It’s about having a group of guys who understand what it’s like to be in something together. It’s about having as many guys as possible who are able to look around and pay attention to their teammates. To think outside themselves, to make sure that they’re able to play well and take care of their own performance, but also find the right way to challenge others, and I’ll always do that."

Bradley's comments make it clear he believes more leaders need to emerge from the new generation of talent working its way up the USMNT pipeline, but as he showed on Sunday, Bradley will continue to be one of the most influential leaders on the team, even if he doesn't have the captain's armband.

"He’ll still be a leader when he’s on the field by his performance," Berhalter said. "The armband is maybe just authority, but you can lead through your actions and I think Michael has certainly done that tonight."