Defining Michael Bradley: How another dominant MLS Cup display speaks to his true legacy

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The USMNT captain will always carry with him the failed 2018 World Cup qualification, but it isn't what defines him.

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It's unlikely Michael Bradley will ever fully escape the ignominy of the United States men's national team's failure to qualify for next year's World Cup, but his legacy is far deeper than one lost campaign -- and 90 listless minutes in Trinidad -- and if that's easy to forget, he stepped up with a big reminder of what he's really about in Saturday's MLS Cup final.

Toronto FC's captain provided a dominant display in a 2-0 romp over the visiting Seattle Sounders, a do-everything, be-everywhere performance the likes of which legends are born. His majesty in midfield, and not just here, will be remembered in Canada long after he's gone, and maybe it's time his contributions to the game -- to Major League Soccer and, yes, to the U.S. national team -- were celebrated ungrudgingly south of the border.

Bradley is the Great Yank the fans love to hate, a role he inherited from Landon Donovan. If that speaks to an odd schism within American soccer fandom, there's no such bitterness among our neighbors to the north. Toronto FC sits atop Major League Soccer, arguably as the best side the league has seen over its 22 seasons, for many reasons, but Bradley, especially on this day, is foremost among them.

The club's first league championship, part of an unprecedented “treble” started with Canadian Championship and Supporters' Shield triumphs, is product of a mid-decade rebuild under general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney -- with a nod to former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief Tim Leiweke, of course. Bradley's arrival in 2014, following eight years in Europe, provided the foundation, with fellow pillars Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco joining a year later, and Victor Vazquez showing up in the wake of last year's disappointment.

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Giovinco has received most of the credit, for good reason, and Vazquez's contributions are widely and rightly recognized -- he was, literally, the “missing piece” -- but Bradley always has been the key figure, the foundation on the field and in the locker room. He's hardly perfect, and he's not always met expectations, but he's arguably the finest holding midfielder the U.S. men’s national team has fielded and he's often, despite that October evening in Trinidad, come up best when it's mattered most.

He has given two of his finest performances in MLS Cup finals, and he might never have been better than he was in the 2017 final. He was the driving force for the Reds, taking command in the middle -- as defensive anchor, as fireman, as conduit, as playmaker -- as Vanney swapped out his usual 3-4-3 for a 4-4-2 diamond formation designed to position Vazquez closer to Giovinco and Altidore. To work, outside backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour would have to get forward, and Bradley was left with enormous responsibility against Seattle's five-man midfield.

No problem. The Sounders, missing ailing Osvaldo Alonso terribly, struggled to build anything before Jozy Altidore fired TFC ahead in the 67th minute -- Bradley's touch started the sequence leading to the goal -- and rarely penetrated into the final third.

Bradley, flanked by Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio, expertly won tackles, distributed from deep, fed chances and, in the dying minutes, made a huge clearance as the Sounders sought a late equalizer. He was the best player on the field, the biggest reason Toronto FC possesses the trophy it most desired.

“This has been the dream for four years,” Bradley told ESPN during the postgame celebration. "Since the day I got here. And for the last year, the dream has become an obsession. And for this group of guys to work every single day, having to remember last year, to get back here, to play that game, in this atmosphere, with that on the line, it's unbelievable.”

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle didn't put a shot on frame in the 2016 final -- Bradley had much to do with that -- and did so just twice in the rematch. That, too, had Bradley’s stamp on it.

The game wasn't decided until Vazquez knocked home the rebound after Armando Cooper hit the right post deep into stoppage, but has an MLS Cup ever been more one-sided?

Bradley has been widely, and sometimes unfairly, criticized since he signed at 16 years old with the MetroStars, who were coached by his father, Bob Bradley. The naysayers saw nepotism, but the soccer-versed saw potential that grew in Europe. He scored 18 goals as an attacking midfielder his third season with Dutch club Heerenveen, then was a regular -- with some success and some difficulty -- at Borussia Moenchengladbach, Chievo and AS Roma.

His decision to return to MLS at 26, as he was heading into his prime years, was denounced as regression. His work for the national team, especially as captain, was too often lambasted, although he was excellent at the 2010 World Cup and did his best to fill a needed role outside his wheelhouse in 2014 after Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan at home.

The Americans' 2018 failure was largely placed upon his shoulders, and he and Altidore were harshly taunted by opposing MLS fans in the weeks after the U.S.’ elimination.

Altidore called the New York Red Bulls crowd “classless,” but Bradley, mostly, has kept his thoughts to himself. He turned down media requests, the better to prevent his words from being cherry-picked out of context by those with an agenda, following the U.S. defeat in Trinidad. After Toronto's victory, ESPN's Taylor Twellman asked him about it.

“I don't have to say anything,” Bradley replied. “I love to play, I love to compete. That's it from me.”

Bradley will carry the U.S. failure with him the rest of his days, but it's not what defines him. It's not what ought to define him. He's had his ups and downs like every player, has had performances he wishes he could take back, but when his teams succeed, he's so often at the center of that success, and that speaks volumes.

And MLS Cup 2017 might have been his greatest night.

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