The last goal Michael Bradley scored was in Mexico.
You may remember it: the best goal in his career, a 40-yard chip over a helpless Guillermo Ochoa in a key World Cup qualifier.
That seems like a long time ago. Since then, Bradley has added to an already lengthy list of experiences at the top levels of professional soccer. He’s won a Gold Cup, a Canadian Championship and an MLS Cup, and lost a high-stakes World Cup qualifier in Trinidad & Tobago.
But as he prepares to lead Toronto FC into the second leg of its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Liga MX side Tigres UANL, the chance to test himself on Mexican soil motivates him as much as ever.
“I enjoy the [Mexican] league a lot,” Bradley said before flying out to Monterrey. “I have a lot of respect for their teams, their players, their national team. I always enjoy playing against them, and when I have opportunities to play games in Mexico it’s always something I enjoy.
“Especially as an American, for as intense as the rivalry is that exists between us and Mexico, I’ll tell you what –there’s a lot of respect between players, between players and fans, between fans, all across the board. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
It is clear the roots of that rivalry factor into Toronto’s mindset ahead of Tuesday’s game, which TFC enter with a 2-1 aggregate lead, at Estadio Universitario – particularly among the club’s American players. It may not be USA versus Mexico, but it is MLS versus Liga MX.
That is not a matchup that has gone well for MLS clubs over the years.
As a result, Bradley is reluctant to label this season’s Champions League – and the victories Toronto, the Seattle Sounders and the New York Red Bulls recorded last week – a watershed moment just yet.
“Look, what I would say is this: regardless of results, I think there’s no question that MLS continues to grow and improve in big, big ways,” he said. “In terms of these ties, we’re halfway through. So we’ll talk after 90 more minutes. The mentality, the experience that comes with playing in these two-legged series means you understand that nothing’s done after 45 minutes or 90 minutes, or even 135 minutes. It’s two games, sometimes 30 more minutes.
“We’ll be ready to deal with all of that.”
The belief that MLS has taken major strides the last couple of years is part of what is driving Toronto.
“These opportunities to test yourself individually and collectively at the highest level don’t come around every single week – where there’s so much on the line, even in terms of just perception, right or wrong,” Bradley added. “The opportunity to prove ourselves to a few people who don’t think we’re as good or the quality of the league is as good … we take the responsibility very seriously. We obviously put a lot into [the first leg] on Wednesday night and we’re ready to do it again.”
Said teammate Drew Moor: “I think since I’ve been in [MLS], Champions League has become more and more important. It’s hard not to support the MLS sides, even teams you kind of learn not to like because they’re opponents in our domestic league.
“I think it’s a very nice rivalry the U.S. and MLS has against the Mexican league. It’s always been there. And it always will be there. So we feel like while we represent TFC and that’s the most important thing, we also want to make a statement on this continent.”