Michael Bradley holds the answer to the great Michael Bradley debate

The most polarizing player in American soccer is also the USMNT's most important.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The goal may be one of the best scored by an American in a meaningful U.S. men’s national team game, but Michael Bradley’s 40-yard chip against Mexico in June feels a distant memory.

The U.S. team has two qualifiers left to secure a trip to the World Cup next summer. Bradley, by virtue of wearing the captain’s armband, has more on the line than any other player on the roster. Should the U.S. win its next two games and book a trip to Russia, Bradley will have led them there. If it does not qualify, the failure will be laid at his feet more than any other’s..

It is a fact from which Bradley does not back down. He understands that, in many ways, these next two games will serve as a referendum for the entire U.S. program, but also uniquely on his career.

We understand what’s at stake. We’re excited by the opportunity to have it all on the line. As athletes, as competitors, the chance to represent your country, to play in the biggest games, there’s nothing better.

“Sure,” Bradley said, when asked if these next two games could be a defining moment for him. “Games don’t get much bigger. From the get-go in this Hex we’ve been in a situation where our back has been up against the wall, and we’ve played in games where we need to win, we need points and there’s been a real sense of urgency. Obviously, you get to the end, and our margin for error is virtually gone.

“We understand what’s at stake. We’re excited by the opportunity to have it all on the line. As athletes, as competitors, the chance to represent your country, to play in the biggest games, there’s nothing better.”

The critics' constant target. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

The critics' constant target. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Bradley may be the most polarizing player on the national team. You are just as likely to find an ardent supporter of his skillset as you are naysayers who believe Bradley has long been overrated -- that he’s been “handed” a spot in the starting lineup. Recently, the latter group has been far more vocal. The goal in Mexico silenced them only for a few minutes before the criticisms continued.

What makes Bradley so controversial is that he both plays a defensive midfield role that is vital to the defensive shape of the team and is also the start of most attacking action. It’s a job that can go overlooked and leaves much open to interpretation. That leads to plenty of open speculation and debate about whether Bradley is helping or hurting the U.S. Any bad pass or turnover is picked apart, highlighted and held up as evidence of Bradley’s failures, despite the fact that Bradley is an MVP-candidate in MLS and the leader of a Toronto FC team that has a chance to stake its claim as the best team in MLS history.

That Bradley is the most important voice of leadership on the team is too often ignored. The 30-year-old is counted on as the most vital vote in the lineup, and he’s the one constant in a team that has changed far too often – in formation and personnel. He’s also the voice most often put front and center for the U.S., whether it’s wearing a rainbow captain armband in the days after the Pulse shooting in Orlando or stepping in front of the media in the wake of a presidential election that split the country.

“He kind of provides everything for you,” said Paul Arriola, who only recently broke into the U.S. team as a regular. “He provides the calmness when things are building up, like right now, when the pressure’s on. He just lets you relax and play your game. He covers a lot of ground [on the field], obviously, but it’s great to play with him in the middle. He takes care of the center part of the field, and he releases players really well. He’s great at communicating and you feel extremely confident.

“When I hear him tell me, ‘Go left,’ I don’t think for a second, I just listen to him. Because I know he’s the eyes behind me. That’s something in my short career I haven’t had much of -- a type of captain and player like that is able to pump you up and also have such confidence that what he tells you is the right thing to do.”

Bradley takes on so much responsibility, and it’s why he’s respected by teammates within the U.S. locker room. Those qualities are also the reason so much is held against him when things go wrong.

In the next two games, Bradley will have a chance to silence those critics, at least temporarily, and at the very least provide evidence to tilt the debate about his legacy with the U.S.

One way or the other.

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