STANFORD, Calif. – Michael Bradley is living a dream.
And despite an internal drive that is perhaps more intense than anyone on the US national team, even he never really considered being its most influential player at a World Cup.
“I sure dreamed of it,” he told reporters on Friday at USMNT camp at Stanford University. “It was always what I thought about, it was what I wanted.”
It just wasn’t necessarily in the realm of reality. Not when he shagged balls at Princeton, where his father Bob ran men’s soccer practice. Not when he was a snotty tween trying to show up Hristo Stoitchkov at Chicago Fire training. Not even when he was a 16-year-old rookie with the MetroStars.
But he was certainly inspired when, at the age of 6, he saw his first-ever World Cup game at Giants Stadium when Italy beat Norway 1-0 behind a goal from Dino Baggio.
“Obviously in 1994, it was a special time for all of us,” the New Jersey native said. “… It means I could pop over and see these guys up close.”
Today, Bradley is preparing not just for his second World Cup, but also to be the most important player on the field for the US. Whether the Toronto FC talisman is tasked with pushing the team forward and attacking or asked to track back and help hold the line, there is probably no player whose very presence affects Jurgen Klinsmann’s side more.
And he’s the model of consistency here at USMNT camp. There are only 23 World Cup roster spots for the 30 participants here, and those bubble players will be looking at Bradley specifically in the hopes they can feed off his fire, his passion and his unbelievable engine: Bradley has not failed to go the full 90 minutes in 20 straight appearances for the national team, dating back to 2010.
He may not be captain (that’s Clint Dempsey’s job), but when the main event starts on June 16 against Ghana, he’ll be relied upon to be the squad’s leader. Bradley understands that role and he welcomes it.
“I embrace it, absolutely,” he said. “To be a big player, to be a player who’s counted on by his coaches, by his teammates to make a difference, to make plays – the challenge of all that is something that excites me in any team that I’m in.”
That’s not to say this is anything new.
The enduring memory of Bradley in his first World Cup four years ago was his hard-fought equalizer against Slovenia in Johannesburg. Landon Donovan’s opener shortly after halftime got the US on the board, but it was Bradley’s goal that embodied the team spirit. Eight minutes from time, he surged up the pitch and hit a sliding half-volley past Samir Handanovic that sparked a dog pile at the corner flag.
The scary thing is that for as good and influential as he was in 2010, he’s even more so now. Bradley consistently makes more touches on the ball than any other player. He regularly completes 80 passes or more per game. When he’s involved in the offense, he’s as dangerous a player as any in a lineup that includes Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Donovan.
“I’m four years older now, I’m more mature,” he said. “I think I’m a better player. Obviously that’s up to me to show when the games come, but really always as you get older, I feel like you have to understand the game more.”
And despite that steely stare and white-hot intensity on the pitch, that 6-year-old sitting in the nosebleed seats at Giants Stadium is still inside there.
“I’m incredibly lucky and honored to be a part of this team, to be where I am,” he said. “Trust me, nothing gets taken for granted.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.