photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
From a physical standpoint, Michael Bradley has not changed all that much over the last four years. From a mental standpoint, there is a subtle but noticeable difference.
Bradley is in his second consecutive World Cup preparatory camp in which he is a key figure for the U.S. Men’s National Team, but the weight of responsibility that is currently on the midfielder’s shoulders is much bigger than that of 2010. Bradley was indeed an integral part to the success of the 2010 squad that made it to the Round of 16 in South Africa, but now he is the player that many fans and experts see as the creme de la creme on the U.S. squad and the one that has to deliver a strong World Cup campaign in order to ensure that the Americans make it out of a difficult Group G that also includes Ghana, Germany and Portugal.
The 26-year-old Bradley knows very well that he has those expectations placed on him ahead of next month’s tournament in Brazil, and he is more than up for the challenge to meet and surpass them.
“I embrace it, absolutely,” Bradley told reporters in Stanford, Calif. on Friday. “To be a big player, to be a player that is counted on by coaches, by his teammates, to make a difference, to make plays, to be a leader, that motivates me. The challenge of all that is something that excites me and I try to do that in any team that I’m in.”
Bradley has always been a team-first kind of player and one that accepts all changes. That has not changed. What has become different, however, is his outlook on his standing within the U.S. setup.
He knows he now bears more responsibility as a veteran midfielder who has more than proven his worth at the club level and has World Cup experience to boot. In fact, Bradley and Maurice Edu are the only players listed as midfielders on the U.S.’s 30-man preliminary squad that have previously played in the tournament.
That makes the Toronto FC midfielder even more important as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann puts his team through the rigors of the preparatory camp. Bradley is now a player most – if not all the squad – looks to for leadership and guidance and he does not shy away from that.
Instead, he cherishes it.
“I sure dreamed of it,” said Bradley of being one of the top players on the U.S. “It was always what I thought about, always what I wanted. Look, I’m incredibly lucky and honored to be a part of this team, to be where I am and, trust me, nothing gets taken for granted.”
Bradley’s all but guaranteed a starting spot in the World Cup this summer. Klinsmann constantly refers to Bradley as one of the members that makes up the spine of the U.S., a stark difference from where Bradley was when Klinsmann first took over the U.S. program in 2011.
Back then, Bradley was not a shoo-in in Klinsmann’s lineups and he even missed out one of the German manager’s first camps due to a lack of playing time at the club level. But Bradley showed character, worked hard and made his way back into the squad and ultimately the starting lineup with a steady dose of strong performances.
That still did not stop some observers from recently questioning how effective he might be this summer after it was made public that Bradley would undergo a procedure on his foot in late April, but Bradley eased those fears on Friday.
“It was an injection. I don’t know where the procedure first [came from], who used that word first,” said Bradley. “We all know how these things go, but it was just a little injection that had been scheduled for a while. Physically, I feel fit and sharp and really as good as I’ve felt.”
With health not an issue, Bradley’s sights are currently set on enjoying a strong camp and then helping the U.S. navigate its way out of its challenging group. He will not only have to deliver impactful performances to do so, but also plenty of leadership to a U.S. squad with its fair share of players lacking World Cup experience.
He’s more than ready for that.
“As an older guy, as somebody who’s been through it before, certainly you want to be a strong presence,” said Bradley. “You want to be somebody who guys can look to and feed off of.”