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FourFourTwo's USMNT 50: No. 6 – Michael Bradley

There's no debating Michael Bradley's place among the United States' best players.

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No one wears the U.S. shirt more proudly than Michael Bradley, the United States captain who has 126 international caps and counting. And he’s a high performer in so, so many of those outings.

So isn’t it ironic that he has been such a career-long flashpoint? In fact, while he’s among the top U.S. midfielders ever, there may never have been a U.S. man that generated as many arguments, in as many different ways and over such a lengthy period of time.

It started back in Bob Bradley’s managerial days (although it was actually Bruce Arena who first introduced a skinny, young Michael Bradley to national team camps). As the coach’s son gradually expanded his international role, cries of “nepotism” careened across the interwebs. But not by everyone! Plenty of supporters saw the same talent and focus that European clubs saw. First was Heerenveen in the Netherlands, then Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, a short spell at Aston Villa before two stops in Italy, at smaller Chievo and far more prestigious Roma.

What they all saw was heady and skillful midfielder who kept maturing. Where his game once had a real edge, he gradually replaced more of that raw grit with a real intelligence about it all. Sometime around 2008, Bradley became the key link in the U.S. midfield chain, the guy who might not always do something spectacular with the ball, but almost always managed to do something sensible with it.

He was a critical element of the 2009 Confederations Cup runner-up bunch and the 2010 World Cup team. By around 2012, Bradley was de facto U.S. captain, an increasingly thoughtful and eloquent spokesman, still intense about the game but no longer wound so tightly around media.

All the while, a few critics remained, suggesting Bradley was overrated – and even more sure of it when he rejoined Toronto and MLS. That was one of his Klinsmann-era flashpoints, the notion that he somehow traded in national team ambition.

His performance level for the national team did drop a notch over the last two years, igniting the next debate. Was that Bradley? Or was it a product of Klinsmann’s insistence on making Bradley a No. 10?

Bradley, in a more comfortable, deeper role, bossed the midfield as Toronto came so close in the MLS Cup final. Now, at 29, he’s still a huge part of the national team plan, most likely bound for a third World Cup. And probably destined to be the centerpiece for another debate or two ahead.

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