And then Michael Bradley turned his steely gaze on me and let me have it.
I feel comfortable telling this story now, but it didn’t feel right then. The Michael Bradley of 2014 is a poised, polished and mature figure. The intensity of 2010 still burns just beneath the surface, but nowadays he smiles often, thinks before he speaks and is aware at all times of how he’s being perceived.
On that afternoon in Johannesburg four years ago, it was all white-hot fire and a burning nucleus of pure emotion rising from a 22-year-old on the brink of stardom.
Two brilliant things occurred in the US national team’s second group-stage game of the 2010 World Cup:
They rescued themselves from absolute disaster, rallying from two down at halftime against Slovenia and somehow pulling points out of a game that, had they lost it, almost surely would’ve seen them eliminated before their third match. And they became the first team in World Cup history to win a game after trailing 2-0 at the half.
Except they didn’t.
Sure, Maurice Edu put a third US goal into the net four minutes from time off a fantastic Landon Donovan free kick. But first-time World Cup official Koman Coulibaly raised his arm and negated the goal for reasons which aren’t clear to this day. The assistant referee didn’t raise his flag for offside, and there was no whistle for a foul in the box.
The US still walked away with a 2-2 draw which, in many ways, encapsulated their run in South Africa far more thoroughly than did Donovan’s miracle goal vs. Algeria five days later.
For a second straight game, they had fallen behind after an early strike. And three minutes before the break, they fell behind even further. When they hit the locker room at Ellis Park, the mood was “pretty close to panic,” as Bradley himself admitted to ExtraTime Radio this past February.
Yet that old “American spirit” you still hear players talk so much about took hold. Three minutes into the second frame, Donovan took a ball down to the endline and fired it at the face of Slovenia ’keeper Samir Handanovic for an opener. The US continued to push, and the equalizer finally came eight minutes from time on Bradley’s half-volley.
Two minutes later came the controversial moment. If you watch the replays, you can see that Bradley is one of a handful of US players who are bearhugged by Slovenian defenders as Donovan's free kick curls into the box. And Bradley is also one of the most visibly outraged by Coulibaly’s call, staying in the face of the Malian referee. (Benny Feilhaber actually had to pull the now Toronto FC man away.) No answer was good enough, and Coulibaly’s silence enraged him even more.
That’s the Bradley who turned on me in the postgame interview area.
By my reckoning, the story was just as much how poorly the US started the game – how badly they had underestimated the talented Slovenians and how a sense of desperation was required for them to snap out of it – as it was the incredible fightback from the plucky Americans, and the injustice of having a would-be winner taken off the board for no real reason.
Bradley clearly disagreed.
“How do you put this behind you?” I asked him in the mixed zone, surrounded by fellow journos. “What do you take out of this to move on to the next game?”
And then came the angry stare.
“Put it behind us?” he responded, his eyebrows arching. “Why would we want to put it behind us?”
I’d heard the stories of Bradley reacting to questions he didn’t like during that qualifying cycle, and lashing out at the press like he did most famously after the US’ titanic upset of Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. I could tell pretty quickly I was about to have my turn.
“You got a result,” I tried to answer, “but...”
“We were down 2-0 at halftime,” he interrupted.
“But you've got move forward to the next game, right?” I responded, trying to stick to the classic cliché of We take this one and move on to the next one.
“Why would we … tell me why we'd want to put that behind us?” he answered.
“You wanna focus on the next game, right?” I kept going. “It's all about the next game.”
And then the moment I’ll never forget.
“Tell me why we'd wanna put that behind us?” he kept going. “Ridiculous question.”
Interview over. Bradley stormed off to the team bus, unable to comprehend how anyone could’ve seen the amazing events that night any differently than he did.
I understood. He didn’t want to hear it. He and his mates had staged a truly incredible series of heroics that kept them in contention, and turned many neutrals watching the World Cup into temporary US fans.
It was also the moment that sticks with me perhaps more than anything else I experienced that summer – a rare instance when the adrenaline of battle got the better of the gladiator and he showed what he was truly feeling. It was the truest expression of pure, unfiltered passion from a guy who is now by far the most important player on the US national team.
He’s not like that any more. The professional, polished side of Bradley has emerged, hardened by years of experience.
But on that day, he turned me into a fan forever.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.