PHILADELPHIA — Try as hard as you might, there’s simply no way to look at Michael Bradley and not be constantly reminded of his father.
There are, of course, the token physical similarities between father and son. The younger Bradley has grown into a spitting image of his father since he's shorn his teenage locks, with only a pair of green eyes and something of a baby face to contrast him from his dad’s steely blue-eyed gaze that was a hallmark of the US national team for half a decade.
Michael Bradley also speaks increasingly like his father these days, with a measured diction and pace clearly refined after running the gamut of both serious and silly interviews about what it’s like to be the coach’s kid.
Yes, the younger Bradley at times wears his heart on his sleeve unlike his father and he has a notoriously prickly relationship with the media, but it’s clear that either genetics or simple repetition have made Michael increasingly adept at dodging potential land mines when reporters get the rare opportunity to try and pick his brain.
The biggest difference between father and son now, though, is one that will likely define Michael’s career. After Bob Bradley’s abrupt firing nearly two weeks ago, the 24-year-old Michael is without his father at a US camp for the first time in five years, suiting up under a new head coach in Jurgen Klinsmann and facing a game against Mexico on Wednesday (9 pm ET, ESPN2/Univisión) that marks the beginning a new chapter of his life.
“In soccer, in life, you learn along the way to deal with things that are difficult,” he told reporters before the Americans’ final training session on Tuesday. “You learn to deal with things that don’t go your way or that are difficult for people close to you. This is no different. It’s part of the game.
“Nobody would have expected [Bob] to be here for 20 years, and you know that going in,” he added. “I think my dad more than anybody realized that, and was committed to working as hard as he could and doing whatever he could to help the national team while he was here.
"The day they decided it was best to go in another direction, so be it. He’s confident with the work he put into it, and now, on our end, it’s been good and exciting coming in.”
No player was affected more by Bob Bradley’s firing than Michael, who has battled his critics ever since his father was hired as the US national team coach in 2006. He has spent the last five years seemingly always hounded by claims that nepotism landed him in the starting lineup instead of talent, even as he carved his niche as the team’s essential and indefatigable engine in the midfield.
He established an identity wholly his own even while playing under the watchful eye of his dad, one that seems to epitomize the Americans’ Rosie the Riveter ideal Klinsmann has romanticized since he got the job: hard-working, fearless, relentless.
And looking over Klinsmann’s hand-picked group for the Mexico match, it’s clear that Bradley is a team leader, whether his critics want to believe or not. The matches and moments that have defined the core of this group — the watershed win over Spain in 2009, the Charlie Davies injury, the team’s dramatic rise and fall in South Africa last year and even the Gold Cup meltdown against Mexico earlier this summer — played out as much with Michael Bradley at the center of it all as his father was.
“From the first day I came into the national team under [Bruce Arena], to the times under my dad and now with Jurgen, from my point of view, it’s never changed,” Bradley said. “It’s an honor to be here. I’ve given everything I can to the team, and I’ll continue to do that until one day, they decide they don’t want me anymore.”
But now comes the tough part for Bradley, who has likely already endured more changes and setbacks in the past 14 months than ever before in his life. There were certainly positives — he got married this summer, not to mention scoring goals in both the World Cup group stage and in the Gold Cup final.
But there were blowups, too, namely his unsuccessful loan to Aston Villa last winter, a much-publicized finger jab at former US national team star Eric Wynalda this summer and his current falling out with his longtime Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach.
But adversity also carved out the career of a young Landon Donovan, who opted out of his chance with Bayer Leverkusen as an unhappy teenager. Tim Howard was the next great phenom with Manchester United before he was replaced and shipped to Everton, but who could question the career he has carved out ever since?
Now, maybe it’s Bradley’s turn.
There were no outbursts Tuesday and Bradley toed the line for his new coach, sticking to the script to both praise the work his father did and use his best businessman-like approach to the decision that cost his dad his job.
He at least put some of the old Michael Bradley on the shelf for a while, coolly channeling his father’s glare and nimble way with words, but also taking solace in the fact that as his turn now comes around to endure some new challenges, he’s surrounded by the friends and teammates he has made as Michael Bradley, and not Bob Bradley’s son.
“It’s nice in the midst of a crazy stretch to have a few days of good training,” he said, “to see some familiar faces and have a change of scenery.”