You probably missed it on Wednesday night. Hell, most people probably couldn’t even see it thanks to that pea-soup thick fog in Bradenton, Fla.
But very quietly, Michael Bradley took a huge step in his still-peaking career: He put on the captain’s armband and led a team onto the pitch for the first time as a professional.
The result wasn’t particularly remarkable – Bradley’s Toronto FC defeated D.C. United 1-0 in the Canadian club’s first competitive match of 2014. The visibility wasn’t great, and it certainly affected the quality of play.
What should stick with any fan of Bradley, TFC and the US national team is the latest quantum leap forward in the evolution of a kid who may end up being on the short list of the most accomplished, respected Americans ever to play the game. And given that he’s only 26, he might not hang 'em up until after Qatar 2022.
In many ways, this World Cup cycle has been the Michael Bradley cycle. He has matured into the USMNT’s most pivotal player, the guy whose absence is the most apparent and whose skills are missed more than anyone else’s. He was among the most-capped players in the pool over the past four years and he's become a spokesman for the team.
What’s remarkable about that is that it’s all happened almost as quickly as the kid burst onto the scene a decade ago as a skinny 16-year-old. The Bradley of four years ago was a much different animal. He was impatient. He was impulsive. He played angry, and he stayed angry after the whistle blew. He had a constant chip on his shoulder, almost like he had to prove to everyone he belonged.
There were the impetuous bookings: the red card vs. Canada in the 2007 Gold Cup, the yellow-card suspension during the 2008 Olympics and the red in that epic 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal upset of Spain.
There were the occasional media outbursts, perhaps none more infamous than the “All the [effing] experts in America” one after the US somehow advanced out of their group on goal differential at the ’09 Confed Cup thanks to spanking Egypt.
I was on the receiving end of my own Angry Michael moment a year later after the US’ rally from two down to draw Slovenia in Johannesburg. Eric Wynalda got a well-documented one a year later after the 2011 Gold Cup final.
He’s not that guy anymore. He’s channeled all that and he’s become a smarter player. He leads with his composure, not his lack of it.
When Brian Straus’ notorious Sporting News story exposed a lack of togetherness within the national team a year ago, Bradley was the one who stepped forward and delivered another passionate tirade. But this time, it wasn’t directed at outside forces. It was pointed at his own locker room, as he called out the whistle-blowers in his own ranks.
“You cross a line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team, outside of the inner circle,” he said.
Maybe that’s where Bradley the Captain was born. Maybe that’s the point where we all realized that the angry kid who kept fighting to show he belonged had become a man who wanted to lead by example. It’s no coincidence that weeks before that, many fans were hoping Bradley, not Clint Dempsey, would inherit the armband from Carlos Bocanegra.
But the mature Bradley we see now has been a little longer in the making. He grew a little when his father was fired as national team coach three years ago. He learned some perspective on how to carry himself. He learned that, at the core of it all, the only one he had to prove something to was himself.
“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 at the USMNT's first camp under Jurgen Klinsmann. “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.”
He grew a little more when he got married in 2011, and grew a lot more after the birth of his first child, son Luca, a year later. He learned what was really important.
“It sounds cliché,” he said shortly afterward, “but his birth completed me. A baby teaches you to be unselfish.”
Now it's a new chapter in Toronto. Bradley the man says he's complete. Bradley the player is not. He has a chance, as he has stated many times, to be part of a "something special" – to write a new chapter in the history of a club that has seen little success on the field. After seeing what Francesco Totti means to Roma, he wants to be something similar to TFC. And that's a challenge he's never taken on before.
The Bradley you'll see manning central midfield at BMO Field this season isn’t quite a finished product. He’s still learning his own game and he’ll be trying to win over a new locker room. But make no mistake: This isn’t the last time you see him wear the armband, for club or for country.
This is the golden age of Michael Bradley. Not even a thick fog can obscure that.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.