COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michael Bradley’s ditched the crutches, relying solely on a black wrap to support his sprained left ankle as he took in United States national team training on Monday.
And while he’s walking – and smiling – again, Bradley is still too hobbled to play on Tuesday against Mexico (8 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas), meaning the midfield hole the US failed to truly fill against Costa Rica is gaping once again ahead of a massive home qualifier at Columbus Crew Stadium.
In his first media availability after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a grade 2 sprain during the final throes of warm-ups at Estadio Nacional in San José, Bradley said his ankle is improving day by day and blamed the waterlogged turf for forcing him to miss two crucial matches with World Cup qualification in sight.
“The field was soft to begin with,” he told reporters on Monday. “After a few days of rain in Costa Rica, it had gotten real soft and almost soupy. I just stepped into a spot that was really soft. I planted with my left and was going to shoot with my right. As I put my left foot down, the field kind of gave way and I rolled over on it.”
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the images of Bradley’s injury certainly explain aren’t pretty.
Of course, neither was way the way the US coped with his absence, as Geoff Cameron replaced Bradley in the starting XI alongside Jermaine Jones and the Americans gave up two goals in the first nine minutes to dig a hole they could never climb out of.
Unfortunately, Cameron isn’t available against Mexico either after earning a yellow card in the first half that triggered an automatic suspension. Now, after the cohesion in the midfield clearly improved over time against Costa Rica despite a dreadful start, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be forced into another change.
The logical replacement is Kyle Beckerman, who warmed up alongside Cameron in San José following Bradley’s injury, but Jose Torres, Brad Davis or perhaps Mix Diskerud could also be in the running to line up alongside Jones.
“Michael is an important player for us," Jones told reporters. "Me and him have been playing a long time together and we know each other well. The guy who steps in for him I think needs to take his role. I’ll try to help this guy who steps in. … We know that Michael is important for the team, but we know how important the game against Mexico is.”
Jones said Beckerman’s presence as a true holding midfielder allows him a bit more freedom to push forward, but neither he nor Klinmann give any concrete hints as to who might join him in the middle of the park against El Tri.
Either way, the dynamic in that part of the field is certain to change. Not only because Bradley is the US’ tidiest player on the ball and a creator as well as destroyer, but also because he’s now one of the elder statesman and a player others look to for guidance in high-pressure situations.
“Missing Michael is not easy because he developed into a real leader… with Clint, with a Tim Howard, with a Jermaine Jones,” Klinsmann said. “But we’ve constantly been during the last two years constantly through challenges with the roster, with availability, with yellow cards. … We’ll find ways to balance it out.”
Balance between the urge to attack and protect the backline was what was often missing against the Ticos, as turnovers put the US on their heels, midfield runners went untracked and sustained possession failed to generate the requisite scoring opportunities.
Should he get the start, Beckerman would certainly help alleviate some of those issues, but no matter who fills his shoes, Bradley was insistent that the Americans are prepared for what is likely their marquee game during the Hex, one in which they could seal a place in Brazil with a little help from Honduras.
“This team over the years has been all about the team," he said. "The national team is bigger than any player, bigger than any coach, bigger than any of us.
"There’s 11 guys on the field and a bunch more on the bench and a bunch who are maybe sitting at home watching on TV that feel a part of it and are ready to give everything they have for the team. That’s what our team is about.”