SAO PAULO – Michael Bradley isn’t one to shirk responsibility or pass the buck. So when he was asked to evaluate his own performance in the United States’ World Cup-opening 2-1 win against Ghana, Bradley didn’t mince words.
On a night when the Americans struggled mightily to hold any sort of extended possession while Ghana racked up 38 crosses and 21 shots, yet lost via goals from Clint Dempsey and John Brooks, the Toronto FC star admitted he was partially accountable for the ultra-defensive, yet ultimately effective, performance.
“I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know that it wasn’t my sharpest night, but unfortunately, they’re not all going to be,” Bradley told reporters before the USMNT departed for Manaus. “On those days it’s still about finding every possible way to help your team.
“I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn’t going it be a night for making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer, but it was about run and attack, closing down and making the game hard on Ghana.”
To wit, the US recorded just 275 passes to the Ghanaians 456, and ended with less than 40 percent possession, a mark they haven’t dipped below during the past year. Bradley, who leads the team with three assists in 2014, failed to register a key pass and his normally sure distribution was noticeably off, especially going forward.
Part of that was certainly a function of the lead the Americans took after just 30 seconds, an advantage that Jurgen Klinsmann said caused his team to sit back and allow Ghana to drive the match.
Bradley said that tendency was “only natural” and lauded the defensive effort, but admitted the US were never able to get the game back on their terms after putting so much energy into protecting their early lead.
“Ghana was a weird game. They’re a team that presents different challenges than a lot of other teams,” he said. “When you score after 30 seconds, it makes what is going to be a crazy game, even crazier right from the beginning.”
So while it wasn’t beautiful or flowing by any means, three points is three points, and Bradley emphasized the goal is to improve as the tournament goes on rather than peaking early. To make that happen, though, it’s clear his showings must follow the same trajectory.
When the Americans play beautiful soccer, it’s often Bradley who’s pulling the strings. His chipped ball to set up Fabian Johnson against Turkey and pinpoint assist onto Jozy Altidore’s chest against Nigeria, in particular, come to mind during the US’ preparations for Brazil.
After being granted a more advanced role in the ever-evolving diamond 4-4-2 formation favored by Klinsmann, the onus will be on Bradley to produce some of the creativity, the ingenuity on the ball to open up Clint Dempsey and, should the US stick with two strikers, either Chris Wondolowski or Aron Johannsson.
Of course, if it turns out compact lines and dogged defense rule the day again should a goal come early or the Portuguese come out flying, don’t expect Bradley to shy away from that either.
“In any big game, the battle that goes on in the midfield is so important. It goes such a long way in deciding who wins the game,” he said. “As far as playing Portugal right now, there’s two ways to look at it. One is that they lost 4-0, they played 60 minutes down a guy, a few injuries. It would be easy to look and say this is a good time to play them.
“But the other side says that it is, in some ways, a desperate team that is playing for their lives because they need a result. We have to respect that. We have to understand how much they’re going to put into it.”