CHESTER, PA– Toronto FC’s roster is the deepest in Major League Soccer history in the mind of Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin, but there’s one player who stands out when preparing for the Reds — Michael Bradley.
The United States men’s national team midfielder is one of the most important players to his team, and the Union recognize that in advance of Friday night’s clash at BMO Field.
“They have the best roster that’s been assembled in Major League Soccer history,” Curtin said. “Michael’s career speaks for itself. He’s a top player in our league. He’s a guy that has the ability to run and control the tempo of the game. We’ll have to do a good job, we focused a lot on that today, of not letting him be the one that’s on the ball.”
Getting ready for Bradley is a bit harder ahead of Friday since he’s spent some time at centerback in recent weeks due to Toronto’s injury troubles.
“We prepared for him at centerback, at the No. 6, we prepared for the 3-5-2 or possibly the version of a 4-3-3 they played in recent weeks,” Curtin said. “They have a lot of injuries to their back line. They have some guys coming back it seems. Are they quite ready? We’re not sure. It’s tough to predict.”
Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya is plenty familiar with Bradley and said for the club to have success at the start of its three-game road swing, it must keep him off the ball.
“For me, I’m sure what a lot of teams try to do is disrupt his game,” Bedoya said. “They try to put pressure on him and get him away from the ball so other guys make plays because he’s probably one of the only guys on that team that can ping a 60-yard ball or get it to (Sebastian) Giovinco on the counterattack.
“As long as we get him off the ball and disrupt his flow as much as possible, I think we’ll be alright and be able to handle the rest. Looking at tape, they’re a team that can be countered on and we just have to be opportunistic and take our chances.”
Bradley enters Friday night second in passes per game in MLS with 80.8, a total only bested by the Union’s Haris Medunjanin, who has 82.3 average passes per contest. The next best midfielder in passes per game for Toronto FC is Jonathan Osorio, but he has a significantly lower total of 63.8, while Marky Delgado averaged 45.3 passes over four games.
“Michael is one of the better players the country has ever had, so wherever he plays, whether its center back or midfield, he’s always going to be getting on the ball and trying to dictate the tempo of the game,” Bedoya said. “It’s just to try and disrupt that tempo and try to play our game.”
Said Curtin: “They’ve juggled a bunch, but they still have real quality throughout their roster and team. I agree it certainly does start with Michael Bradley, he’s their engine. We have to do our best to take him away, not allow him time and space to spray the ball all over the field and pick you apart and find Giovinco and get into that type of game.”
If the Union contain Bradley, no matter which position he starts in, it forces others in the Toronto FC attack to distribute the ball and find Giovinco, who could be the lone outlet up top depending on the health of the Reds and Greg Vanney’s selection choices.
The Union, who are looking to reverse their poor fortune on the road from recent years, are hoping an uptick in possession from the first seven games helps them attack a depleted Toronto squad.
“For us, it doesn’t matter who the personnel is, we’re going to try and play our game and stick to the way we’ve been playing,” Bedoya said. “I think away has been better this year than last in terms of trying to keep more of the ball. We have to do better with our chances, which finally we were able to put three goals in this past weekend, but that’s given us confidence to move forward.”
If the Union are in possession more, look for more combination play between Bedoya, Borek Dockal, Ilsinho and Keegan Rosenberry on the right side of the field. In his first start against D.C. United, Ilsinho, who replaced Fafa Picault, brought a different aspect to the attack that unlocked more quality.
“They’re two totally different players,” Bedoya said. “For me, I feel more comfortable maybe playing with Ilsinho because we understand each other better, it’s a different type of game. Fafa is a little more direct. With Ilsinho, I know where he wants the ball all the time. He the guy that wants it at his feet and you can combine with him a lot.”
All of the talk about attacking on the counter can only come to fruition if the Union thrive with their defensive game plan. And if they do, stealing a point on the road could become a reality.