FRISCO, Texas – We probably make too big of a deal about captains in soccer. Maybe back in the day, on the muddy pitches of old Maine Road or wherever, when only the captain was technically permitted to address the referee, the position carried more than honorary weight. Maybe it had some functional benefit then.
Now it’s mostly just a ceremonial title. It does still mean a little something inside the locker room, mostly as a show of respect from teammates and a hat tip of recognition from management.
So even if we stretch the significance of the armband, it does remain something of an honor.
With that in mind, how nice was it that Michael Bradley, having recently been named U.S. captain, wore the armband for his 100th national team appearance Tuesday night in suburban Dallas? And there was symmetry about it all, too.
No, it wasn’t a pretty game, the United States’ 2-1 win over Honduras in the sides’ CONCACAF Gold Cup opener. It was a grinder’s game, which made it a game tailor made for figures such as Bradley and Texas man Clint Dempsey. It was another of those scrappy CONCACAF affairs that we tend to see … a lot.
Bradley played a big role, adding a veteran’s steadying hand and helping to problem solve in the midfield against a stubborn Honduran bunch that may well go far in the Gold Cup. (That’s no huge surprise; the Catrachos have, after all, qualified for the last two World Cups.)
So the veterans, Bradley and Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman and Brad Guzan, all provided the moments that mattered and managed out a U.S. performance that, all agree, still requires significant tuning. Dempsey, performing down the road from where he trained as a youth player, got both goals. Bradley supplied the far-post cross on Dempsey’s game-winner.
And he did it as captain, appropriately, in his milepost 100th U.S. appearance.
Bradley, surely, will be the team’s captain for the foreseeable future.
Then again, Bradley has long been the U.S. captain – even if not officially so.
When we think about the attributes that make Bradley a captain – that make any captain a captain – he checks all the boxes. In fact, he doesn’t just dutifully fill the roles, he absolutely nails them.
He plays for the team. It’s all about the group for Bradley, which is immediately obvious to everyone who shares a national team camp with the 27-year-old midfielder. That buys him tremendous, enduring respect within the group.
He’s an eloquent spokesman, able to communicate capably and thoughtfully about what’s going on with the team. Bradley is a pro’s pro in work habits and arranging his routines in ways that allows him to be the fittest, smartest, most complete performer he can possibly be. He’s a grinder extraordinaire, perennially among the fittest of the U.S. herd, which is why he was still moving with purpose toward the tail end of Tuesday’s match as the Hondurans pressed valiantly for a late equalizer.
That was also Bradley clapping and exhorting teammates to keep the focus on those late, defensive set pieces. Maybe if someone had done the same for Honduras, Dempsey would not have been criminally unchallenged from point blank range on his game winner.
And Bradley has long been the brains of the team, the connector of pieces and, generally, the midfield stabilizing arm, going back four or five years now. (Supporters who still, somehow, don’t see Bradley’s true value on the field should study more of the matches where he didn’t play. Then maybe they will understand.)
Last year, a brow or two was raised when Jurgen Klinsmann named Dempsey captain for the World Cup. The suspicion was that Klinsmann knew Bradley was an ultimate team guy, and that handing the armband to Dempsey was the manager’s way of squeezing just a little more from the team’s top attacker. Dempsey always knew how to get the best from himself; maybe this was Klinsmann’s effort to get Dempsey thinking a little bigger, trying to do more of the little things that get the best from an entire group.
That’s what Bradley has always done. No surprise, either, that a coach’s son would take a more comprehensive look at the world (and the team) around him. Which is why he has long looked like the team captain.
Three years ago at a World Cup qualifier in Kansas City, I watched closely as Bradley interacted with teammates and then, not long after, with the media. I turned to a colleague and said, “Bradley is the de facto captain of this team … I don’t care who is actually wearing the armband.”
Anytime I’m around Bradley, something happens to reinforce that feeling. Two months ago, I asked him about whether he’s more effective in that advanced playmaker role – the one Klinsmann is so keen on Bradley adopting – when Dempsey isn’t in the lineup. My observation was that Dempsey’s freelancing style makes it more difficult to operate as a playmaker (because they frequently find themselves in the same spaces).
Bradley’s response was that of a true team man. Essentially, Bradley told me the team (there’s that word again) is clearly better with Dempsey in the 11. Bradley said the task of adapting is on himself, that every game has different needs, contingent on the opposition, his own team’s personnel, the conditions, etc., and he’s fine with the responsibility of being the one who plays chameleon and adapts.
That is a real captain’s response. So is this one:
I asked Bradley last night about his 100th cap. Unless you want to look like a big ol’ dummy, the only way you start that conversation with Bradley is by saying “I understand the result is most important thing to you … ”
But then I asked if he will allow himself, in the hours ahead or the days ahead or sometime ahead, to consider it, to relish it, to feel good about reaching 100 caps for his country?
Said Bradley after his usual pause, his way of attempting to consistently formulate considered responses: “Anyone who knows me knows that I play for the team, give everything I have for the team. And that’s what I enjoy. There will certainly come a point where I’ll be able to look back on this, and hopefully look back on even more, and enjoy it and be proud of it. And even now, in the moment, I’m very proud. Don’t misunderstand. But I’m also focused on the task at hand. And in the bigger picture, in the moment, we all know it will take six performances, six all-out efforts to be holding a trophy at the end of the month.”
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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