ÅRHUS, Denmark — Every syllable combined to stack one familiar phase on top of another. Denmark coach Morten Olsen knew how the U.S. men’s national team functioned and why the side often managed to produce results beyond its means and its overall performances. The longest tenured national team manager in the world placed the approach in the sort of context provided by his glittering playing career at the top of European football and his 15-year spell in charge of his country.
All of the familiar traits emerged as Olsen assessed his opposition in the wake of the 3-2 victory for his side at NRGi Park on Wednesday. He cited difficulty presented by playing such a committed opponent. He noted the discipline within the ranks to impose those tenets on the game. He reinforced the direct nature of the play and the effective nature of the work on the break.
In the midst of his analysis, Olsen veered toward personal assessment. He highlighted the emergence of young players. He lauded on Jozy Altidore’s ability to close down defenders and hold up the ball. But his most notable verdict arrived at the outset as he highlighted the influence of Michael Bradley.
“Bradley, as you have seen today, is still a marvelous player,” Olsen said.
The high praise from a coach with a considerable reputation for his all-around work in central midfield punctuated a night years in the making for the Toronto FC midfielder. It did not conclude in the fashion he wanted or yield the desired result on foreign soil. He expressed his frustrations at the outcome and the familiar manner of the setback after the final whistle, but it will endure in his memory nevertheless.
For the first time in his senior national team career, Bradley captained his country from the start of a match. It is a peculiarity somewhat beyond belief given the duration of his tenure with the team and his prominence within the squad. He took the armband from time to time when someone else handed it to him during his nine years with the side, but, for one reason or another, he never wore it from the outset.
The circumstances in Denmark rectified it. U.S. captain Clint Dempsey picked up a hamstring injury in Zurich on Monday and returned home on Tuesday for further treatment. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann turned to Bradley to lead the team out instead.
“[It’s a] tremendous honor,” Bradley said. “Obviously, Clint is the captain. He’s done a fantastic job, but, for any of us to represent the national team, it’s everything. What it means when you stand on the field and you hear the national anthem, it’s what you dream of since the time you were little. And to have the honor and the opportunity to be captain, it’s a very special night, no two ways about it. It’s one I won’t soon forget.”
Bradley always plays with a certain level of responsibility. He grasps the burden he carries within this team with or without the armband and undertakes his duties accordingly. There is a baseline in place, a fundamental standard he seeks to establish and maintain every time he steps on the field. He seeks to spread it throughout the team, particularly if the group or certain individuals falls short of it. And it showed once more on a cold, rainy and windswept night against an opponent with the ability to dictate terms in possession.
It is easy to point to the clipped ball over the top on Aron Jóhannsson’s goal — the sort of delicate, incisive pass he reliably produces for club and country when granted time and space in midfield and a willing runner through the line — as his primary influence on the game. Like his goal from a corner kick against Panama as part of a man-of-the-match display against Panama back in January, it is easy to clip and show. That sequence constituted his most notable contribution, but his routine work in midfield offered a more complete indicator of his influence on the proceedings.
There is a careful, relentless cadence to the way Bradley plays for the U.S. national team and for Toronto FC. He assesses the situation and responds willingly no matter the circumstances. He closes down whenever and wherever required to apply consistent pressure to the ball. He prods his teammates to follow suit to ensure the team retains its shape. He slides into deft positions when he can to receive the ball in possession, soak pressure from the opposition and string together passes in midfield. He throws himself wholeheartedly into difficult spots and sticky situations in a bid to address and cure them.
Those same qualities do sometimes leave him exposed if passes go astray or the circumstances pull him away from his preferred operating positions. They also perhaps encourage him to try to exert too much control from time to time when other routes might produce more dividends. It is part and parcel of his desire to make an impact on the game, though. He remains the sort of figure capable of shouldering the load willingly and taking accountability for himself and his teammates when things do not go as well.
As Klinsmann noted in his post-match presser, Bradley offered a presence and served as an organizer in the center of the park. In a team filled with players finding their footing at the international level and learning how to grind out results, those traits are invaluable.
At this stage, they also feel just as familiar as the characteristics of the team itself. It is little wonder why Olsen then chose to transition quickly from the inherent characteristics associated with the team to a player who most often embodies them.