As the U.S. men's national team gets ready to kick off the last game in its send-off series ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup with a friendly against Nigeria in Jacksonville, midfielder Michael Bradley has quietly emerged as the most important player on the 23 man squad. He may not wear the captain's armband for the USA - that is reserved for Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard - but Bradley is without a doubt the on-field leader of the team.
And despite the fact that he is just 26 years old, Bradley has an accomplished 10-year career on which he has built his current form, growing up into the midfield general role that the U.S. team has not enjoyed since the heyday of Claudio Reyna. Shaky in the first send-off series game against Azerbaijan, Bradley came back with a solid performance against Turkey. And with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's rigorous training program tapering off in sync with the start of the World Cup, Bradley and his mates are peaking at just the right time.
"We will continue to work hard and continue to push ourselves so that we're going down to Brazil feeling like we are as fit as possible," shared Bradley earlier in the week. "But, as the games get closer, there is more of a detail on the football, on the tactics, on the little things."
In the pregame warm-up ahead of the Azerbaijan match at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, first-choice forward Dempsey was a late scratch from the starting line-up with tightness in his groin. No matter, as Bradley and crew welcomed San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski into the squad and persevered in a 2-0 victory.
"Chris is always going to find chances, in any team that he plays in," said Bradley. "When there are good things going on around him, he has a nose for the goal. He knows how to move inside the box and put defenders on their heels, slip into blind spots. We saw all those things the other night."
Wondolowski did miss two shot attempts in the game - and he was substituted out in the second half when the game was still scoreless - but the Quakes captain comported himself well, and in turn improved his trust level with Bradley should he be asked to start again in Dempsey's stead. Such is the goal of the pre-World Cup training camp and friendly series: be prepared for any scenario.
"[Clint] is an important player," said Bradley, "but we try to have a team that on any given day, no matter who is playing, can play well and compete and come away with good results. I think that was the case against Azerbaijan. Obviously, we all understand that we are a better team with Clint on the field, but as is always the case, you have to have the ability to play without certain guys."
That night at the ‘Stick and again last weekend at Red Bull Arena against Turkey, the USA featured a formation adjustment that featured Bradley in a more advanced role - the tip of a midfield diamond - a stark contrast to what he had been asked to do throughout the CONCACAF qualifying campaign. The Toronto FC leader quickly ascended to the position over the course of those two games, somewhat quieting the criticism directed at Klinsmann for tinkering with the tactics so close to the World Cup, something the coach himself feels is of minimal concern.
"It's not down to the systems anymore," explained Klinsmann on the last day of the team's training camp at Stanford. "It's now how our team stays connected and executes certain elements of the game - if it's high pressure, if it's dropping deep, if it's shifting, you won't see [set formations] anymore. These kinds of discussions over years, they will fade away. The trend is clearly that all players have to be prepared to go both ways, and that's what we are working on."
On the surface, such an analysis may suggest that Klinsmann's strategy is simply to put 11 guys on the field and implore them on with a "Go get ‘em." However, as Bradley and the rest of the team are in the moment, the constraints of formation must quickly be shed, and the effort must be collective. No more true was this than against Azerbaijan - a defensively minded team that was difficult to break down.
"Playing against a team like that, they were organized and sat back pretty deep," said Bradley. "It puts a real premium on trying to find space, and every guy understanding how to move, where to move, making a few yards here or there, because they're not going to give you much. All the movement, everything has to be done at the highest level, and I thought in a lot of situations that part was good."
When the first goal didn't come for the Americans, and the scoreless draw extended deeper into the second half, Bradley and company adjusted. They kept possession, kept the ball moving, and slowly grinded down the Azerbaijanis until substitutes Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson could find the back of the net. Keeping everyone moving - no matter the eleven on the field - and pushing the game instead of reacting: these are the attributes that Klinsmann asks for and Bradley has helped deliver.
"When you look around the field at the moment," said Bradley, "we're trying to develop good understandings, trying to work on things, and making sure as we are moving ourselves forward and getting closer to the first game against Ghana that now we feel in all ways there's a real understanding in how to play together, how to move together. I think in a lot of ways the other night was really good for that and we will continue to work on that as we move forward."
Following the USA's match against Nigeria on Saturday, kickoff scheduled for 3:00 p.m. Pacific time, the team will head for Brazil and prepare for its first group stage match against Ghana on Monday, June 16. And whether they feature a first choice starting eleven or an emergency start from elsewhere on the roster, Bradley and the U.S. will be ready to go, tested from a tough training camp and fine-tuned through its schedule of friendlies.