SAN JOSE, Calif. — When the roster for U.S. Soccer’s annual January camp was released back in December, one name stuck out. Michael Bradley — a mainstay of the team for over a decade, but a significant part of the group that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — was certainly a surprise selection among a group of relative newcomers to the national team.
But the decision to invite Bradley, 31, was an easy one for new head coach Gregg Berhalter, who values the qualities the veteran and longtime U.S. captain brings to a team. And such are the skills and leadership the midfielder possesses, that the rookie coach saw fit to start him last weekend in the United States’ 3-0 victory over Panama, a game that saw seven other players earn their first international appearances.
“It’s pretty remarkable when you realize he has more caps than the rest of the roster combined,” Berhalter said this week, as the team prepared to take on Costa Rica to conclude its winter camp Saturday.
But Bradley’s inclusion in a training camp that has traditionally been a proving ground for up-and-coming talent had another benefit: his institutional knowledge and the experiences he’s had wearing the U.S. jersey, something he has done since earning his first cap back in 2006. His words carry a lot of weight, both with his teammates and the new coaching staff, according to Berhalter.
“It’s the conversations he has with players throughout camp, sharing with them some of his experiences in soccer,” Berhalter said. “He’s been all around the world and played in many different countries, he’s played in multiple World Cups and he played through a number of qualifying cycles. He has that experience, and it’s been invaluable to have him impart that on the group, especially for the younger players.
“From the coaching staff point of view, we go to him and some of the other veterans to bounce some ideas off of. ‘Hey, what do you think of this rhythm? How do feel about doing weights before training instead of after training?’ These little things that the veterans are in tune with. They’ve been doing this for a long time, they understand. Our job as coaches is to put the players in the best possible position to perform, and the veterans are able to support us in that.”
Bradley is somewhat reticent to take too much credit for his role as a leader. In a camp that features many players getting their first experiences with the national team, he hasn’t changed his approach on or off the field, and measuring his impact on his younger teammates is genuinely something he’s yet to contemplate.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them,” Bradley quipped this week from the training ground adjacent to Avaya Stadium, the site of Saturday’s game against Costa Rica.
Wil Trapp, who, like Bradley, plays as central midfielder and entered the game as his replacement late in the Panama victory, welcomes the wisdom the Toronto FC talisman brings to the team.
“He’s the guy everyone looks to,” Trapp said. “He sets an example that should be followed, obviously not only because of his experience, but just by how he carries himself and how he performs. And off the field, he has done a really good job of connecting with guys that he’s known, or new guys within the camp and the coaching staff. It’s been really fun to have Michael around.”
Joining Bradley in the midfield against Panama was Seattle Sounders youngster Cristian Roldan, who earned his sixth cap in the friendly at the same time Bradley collected cap number 143. The two battled each other at the club level, including in two MLS Cup Finals, but throughout this camp they’ve shown their skills are complementary. The veteran’s impact on the team has made a lasting impression.
“Michael has understood his role here in this camp, but he’s also let other players lead,” Roldan shared. “And I think that’s the beauty of Michael Bradley’s experience and leadership. He’s willing to sacrifice a little bit of himself for the team. Michael is by far one of the best leaders, and we are happy to have him, but he is also making the team better each and every day, on and off the field.”
Bradley had a solid game against Panama, but one thing missing was the captain’s armband on his sleeve. That honor, instead, went to Aaron Long, last season’s MLS Defender of the Year with the New York Red Bulls and a player Berhalter sees as potentially picking up the leadership mantle once Bradley’s days with the national team are over.
Long accepted the honor wholeheartedly, but he was still glad to see Bradley stationed ahead of him in his familiar holding midfielder role.
“Whether Michael has the armband on or not, he’s going to be a leader,” Long said. “Against Panama, he was a leader on the pitch, tactically talking during stoppages, bringing the group together. He’s always going to show that leadership, and it’s a good role model for all of us.”
While his leadership style is welcomed throughout camp, Bradley simply goes about his business. He has always valued good communication among teammates, and that extended to the many new faces Berhalter brought into the month’s long training. And if those players walk away with a better understanding, a better appreciation for what it takes to be successful with the U.S. national team, then he knows his impact will have been felt.
“I try to find the right balance by setting the right tone by how I play, how I train and I how I act every day,” Bradley said. “But I also understanding that words are important as well, especially when you are building a new team. It’s important to get to know guys on a personal level, to ask them about themselves, their families, some of the different experiences they have.
“It’s been enjoyable when you are in camp like this. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of guys who are looking around and ready to do anything to help the team. So I think, when those are the starting points, then it makes for a good few weeks.”