Michael Bradley's legacy is more complicated than it should be

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley is an essential piece of the USMNT, but his detractors remain strangely persistent.

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Michael Bradley’s legacy with the United States men’s national team, already a tall tower but still adding floors, can and always will be summed up in two words: it’s complicated.

Let’s be very clear here: it shouldn’t be. The guy has been an ideal professional, a model teammate and generally a high-level performer, ever willing to suffer for the cause. And yet …

While so much remains in a constant state of flux or evolution with this U.S. team – managers change, men of the moment come and go, expectations expand – regard for the U.S. midfielder and captain has long been an exercise in extremes.

But here we are, addressing this again because it’s newly topical. He did it all in Sunday’s big match against Mexico, but it won’t be enough for plenty of what we’ll call “Bradley Deniers.”

Even on a day when he was an irreplaceable cog in an unforgettable match, doing all the usual Bradley things and scoring a goal for the ages (and nailing the post on another rangy effort), he is a fat target for them, and that is difficult to understand.

Don’t undersell the fact that Bradley was one of four U.S. men who started both World Cup qualifiers last week, the kickoffs just 72 hours apart and both games in the difficult, thin air. The guys Bruce Arena needed most were Christian Pulisic’s young legs and go-go mentality, Geoff Cameron’s experience in marshaling the back line, DeAndre Yedlin’s push up the right side and Bradley’s experience and fearless pluck in midfield.

As sure as his goal was amazing with a capital A, this will do little to untangle the man’s oddly and unnecessarily complex legacy.

We are now more than 10 years and 133 appearances into Bradley’s time with the U.S. national team, so the detractors and their entrenched attitudes seem unlikely to be dislodged at this point.

The seriously dug-in Bradley Deniers may offer a begrudging, “Yeah, but … “

“… he’s still an average player.”

“… he loses the ball too much.”

“… he’s not a playmaker!”

“… he plays in MLS.”

Where do we begin?

Sourcing the disproportionate level of criticism

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley doesn’t need defending. He’s a well-paid professional who certainly understands how criticism is part-and-parcel with the vocation. It’s just that some of the criticism seems unfair, wrongheaded or perhaps naïve.

The roots of disquiet when it comes to Bradley branch out in various directions.

First came the nepotism barkers. Never mind that it was Bruce Arena who first invited a young Bradley into camp, just before the 2006 World Cup. The manager already saw a lot of promise in Bradley, then 18, recognizing the benefit of exposing the emerging talent to international-level training. Getting into more camps and games was a natural next step, whether his father, Bob Bradley, had been named manager or someone else. But too many people just couldn’t see it that way.

They were convinced Bradley didn’t earn his place. If you watched the games, actually saw what was happening on the field, that was an increasingly specious viewpoint; at least, it was specious to the people not predisposed to dismissing all the positives, focusing intently on the negatives.

After that, the soccer snobs had their say, outraged for Bradley’s decision to return three years ago to MLS.  FourFourTwo colleague Paul Tenorio just wrote about that here: “The decision to return to MLS, especially, tweaks some fans who have made up their minds that the domestic league is far inferior to everything and anything in Europe. It’s a perception gap that hasn’t caught up to reality yet, and those fans are probably never going to change their mind – at least not in the next 10 years.”

Meanwhile, plenty of U.S. Soccer supporters understand the bigger picture: that these are grown-ups who get to make their own life decisions. Even if playing in MLS diminishes their performance level – if it does, it’s likely a nominal degree – performance in the national team shirt is but one consideration in choosing a club and in choosing a life for a player and his family.

Late-coming critics have a little bit more leg to stand on, at least. They still aren’t right, but at least their arguments against Bradley are rooted in actual performance level. Because over the last year or two, the Toronto FC man wasn’t always at his best in the U.S. shirt.

Even then, he hasn’t been bad, and there hasn’t been a better person for the job. Some games just weren’t up to his standards. Generally speaking, however, he was doing as well or better than everyone else, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s unpredictable ways dragged down overall quality and threatened the team’s formerly robust esprit de corps.

Replacing Bradley – no small task

Here’s the question for his critics: Who do you want in there? Who can do the job?

Who can organize and run the midfield? Who is willing to show for defenders and keep working to make himself available, willing to accept the ball in traffic? Who has the same passing range? Who is willing to hurry into the gaps that inevitably develop in a fluid contest? Who will go to the manager in real time, explaining that his cockamamie and unrehearsed system isn’t working? (Bradley and Jermaine Jones did that last fall against Mexico.) Who can be this same kind of leader?

Who can hit that goal? The one we saw Sunday. The one that you’ve probably watched over and over now.

Obviously, the United States has other players who can do some of those things. But how many central midfielders in the U.S. pool can do pretty much all of it well right now?

Bradley has also been the captain for years, the emotional heartbeat and an eloquent team spokesman. Nobody else on this U.S. team is as thoughtful as Bradley. That doesn’t transfer to better results necessarily, but the overall attitude does. Even the biggest Bradley bashers can’t suggest that he doesn’t care deeply for the U.S. cause.

Not that any of this is completely unique to Bradley. As Tenorio pointed out in his story, there’s a lot of undeserved animus out there for Jozy Altidore, too. And in another day, Landon Donovan was the target of curiously high-capacity derision.

Bradley’s legacy should be safe. He was a critical element of two successful World Cup qualifying cycles. We can pretty much check the box on three, now. He was a critical element to two World Cup teams that advanced into the knockout round, and he will be again, given good health.

A highly skilled midfielder, captain, consummate team guy, thoughtful spokesman and scorer of big goals just isn’t enough for some people, apparently. That’s hard to get your head around, but there it is.

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.