The United States Men's National Team won't get out of their group during the 2010 World Cup without strong performances by their central midfield. This statement shouldn't come as a surprise. The source of this strength, however, might be. When the final whistle blows on July 11, Michael Bradley will have emerged as the American's breakout star of this summer's tournament.
The progression has been a long time coming for the 22-year-old midfielder. He first appeared on the full team prior to the 2006 World Cup, but didn't truly make an impact until the 2007 Gold Cup. Bradley led the U.S. squad with 26 combined starts in 2008 and 2009. On the club level, he shined at Heerenveen before earning a four-year deal with Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach where he helped the team avoid relegation during the '08-'09 campaign.
For all his success, however, the coach's son endured constant complaints about his play on the National Team. The source of these frustrations was his penchant for giving up free kicks in dangerous spots and earning cards. The "Michael Bradley caution" forced its way into the lexicon of U.S. fans and journalists.
Occasionally, these transgressions stemmed from his passionate play but too often they were simply silly fouls. You could almost witness them occur in slow motion. Bradley, a step behind an attacker charging forward with the ball, would close and challenge from the back. The opponent would fall, the referee would blow his whistle, and the U.S. would have to deal with a free kick in a dangerous situation. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps the low point came in the American's epic victory over Spain during the Confederations Cup. Bradley saw red from ref Jorge Larrionda after a late challenge in the 86th minute. While the call was extremely harsh, the U.S. knows they won't get any favors on the international stage and it forced him to miss the final against Brazil. After the Spain match, the midfielder confronted the referee and earned a four-match suspension. Ultimately, he didn't miss any time -- he served his time during the Gold Cup which he was never going to in -- but the incident demonstrated the lack of discipline that plagued his game.
Something had to change, and it did.
"I don't know if I would characterize it as he's been better in the last six months as he has been previously, but he does figure out a way to make sure that he learns from his mistakes." John Hackworth, a former U.S. assistant coach who's known Bradley since he was a young teenager, told Goal.com, "I think Michael has become smarter about how and when to [commit fouls]."
Part of the evolution of Bradley's game stemmed from Gladbach manager Michael Frontzeck's decision to bench the midfielder. Bradley continued to start for the Americans, but spent most of August watching his club team from the sidelines. The Bundesliga coach said his charge "didn't realize his mistakes in the recent matches." In other words, get your game together, young man.
It took some time, but Bradley has. Since coming on at the start of the second half in a 3-0 loss at SC Freiburg on September 27, he's has played 18 games for Gladbach and two for the Stars and Stripes, earning a grand total of one yellow card. While Hackworth correctly warned not to make too much of those numbers as a player can draw a caution for many reasons, it's clear from watching the midfielder play that he has a new maturity about his game. At the very least, it's a marked improvement for Bradley, who saw four cautions and one straight red in his previous 11 matches.
While he's only tallied two goals during the past 18 club fixtures, Bradley's team is winning as he plays a starring role. Since October 24th, the squad's gone 6-4-5 -- including impressive wins against Schalke 04 and at Hamburg SV -- and moved well clear of the relegation zone. He's limited his mistakes and focused on helping Gladbach maintain possession of the ball.
That Bradley could match his physical gifts for the game with a sense of poise and purpose shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's ever heard his father speak. U.S. manager Bob Bradley is a soccer connoisseur and while Michael is very much his own person, it's clear he and the elder Bradley share a passion for the game.
"I know they hate to talk about comparisons to his father, but in reality Michael has always been a bit of a soccer junkie," Hackworth said. "I can tell you for a fact that he can probably tell you the starting line up of A.C. Milan from 1993 on, when he was six years old."
Of course, the younger Bradley still makes mistakes on the pitch. He -- along with the rest of the American team -- struggled mightily during their matches against Slovakia and Denmark. The former Metrostar still unleashes bad passes and gives up possession too easily. He's not the perfect player. Far from it, in fact.
But while the U.S. soccer world complained about his propensity to commit silly fouls and pick up cautions, Bradley learned to avoid these errors. Today, you could call him a heady player. He always had a knack for being in the right place at the right time -- a product of a late growth spurt that forced him to use his guile and instinct to succeed as a younger player -- and that gift only grows stronger. The goal he scored against Costa Rica in Washington D.C. serves as a primary example. Pure heart, hustle, and scrap. It's the type of tally the U.S. will need if they hope to shock the world in South Africa.
Make no mistake: If the Red, White, and Blue do rock the foundations of the footballing universe, Michael Bradley will be leading the charge.
Noah Davis covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com and will be reporting from the World Cup in South Africa.
Get all the latest on the US NAtional Team with Goal.com's dedicated page.