There's a single frame of the video from the playoff tunnel melee at BMO Field that has stuck with me.
In a lot of ways, it meant nothing. It was neither a red card nor a goal. But at the same time, it felt like it meant everything. It felt like it spoke to so many of the questions I’ve had lately.
At the end of the fracas in the tunnel, the Red Bulls players are ushered back through a set of double doors. As the last Red Bulls player (and coach) is guided through the entryway, we see the back of a bald, reflecting head. Toronto FC's Michael Bradley appears to be screaming at someone from the Red Bulls.
The anger radiates from his body language and then his facial expression. The otherwise mild-mannered midfielder seems to be losing his cool. Amidst an altogether entertaining and strange moment, it feels particularly noteworthy.
Since the US men's national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup, Bradley has become a target of opposing fans in MLS. American supporters across the country have made their displeasure known when Bradley walks into the stadium. At the same time, however, other USMNT players haven't experienced the same vitriol. Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler, among others, have all been left unscathed. It's created a strange question. Why Bradley?
There are plenty of potential explanations: The captain always deserves to carry the heaviest burden. Bradley has generally been the only uninterrupted starter over the cycle and throughout most of the qualifying process he played beneath the ability we know he’s capable of achieving.
But I don’t think the vitriol has to do with how he played or where he came from after starting his US career with the added weight of being the "coach's son." Rather, the frustration stems from us and our perception of how a leader should behave and react.
Peeling back the layers
There's a paradox at the core of Michael Bradley's recent career, spurring both his success and his biggest sin. He always seems to be in control.
As a midfielder, he has the ability to think his way through a game. He rarely gets emotional on the field, keeping everything to calculated decisions honed over a lifetime's worth of rehearsal and study. At its best, it's gorgeous to witness, the steady hand among hectic waters. When it falters, however, it falls down a steep slope. “Cerebral” quickly turns to “uninspired.”
But he hasn't always been so collected and there are clear markers in his evolution.
A 2009 New York Times article described Bradley as "often characterized as passionate if a bit of a loose cannon on the field, prone to emotional outbursts and the occasional dodgy tackle," after the midfielder got suspended three games and missed a Confederations Cup final because he got a red card and verbally confronted a referee after a game. Unfortunately, I barely remember that happening, let alone that player ever existing.
The Klinsmann era undoubtedly changed Bradley. During Klinsmann's laissez-faire years, Bradley had to assume a more comprehensive role. He felt the need to steer the entire ship. He could no longer go flying around the field; he had to be the mature one holding everything together. He assumed new duties and lost grasp of old ones.
And with the change went something core to who Bradley was. And I'd argue it's what fans want to see today.
Blame it on the zen
USMNT supporters have been run through the gamut over the last couple months.
As fans, we wanted to throw something through the wall. The last thing we were willing to tolerate was uninspired. We've felt all sorts of emotional and crazy, and yet our captain, as ever, appeared calm and composed through the qualifying storm.
Perhaps Alexi Lalas said it best in his now-famous USMNT rant on FOX last month: "Michael Bradley. The US does not need you to be zen."
It's not to say Bradley has done anything wrong.
He is the player he is, and it's worked well for him. He's done a ton for our country as he is. More so, I have no doubt that he cares. If there's anyone who will spend the rest of his life thinking about a soggy night in Port of Spain, it's Michael Bradley. That fact is both heartbreaking and depressingly satisfying.
The entire reason Michael Bradley has grown to become a successful professional, able to captain his nation's team, is because he cares. He's spent more hours playing soccer, thinking about soccer, and feeling the emotional weight of soccer than everyone who is reading this put together.
What's happening to Bradley on his MLS travels says more about us than it does about him.
He evolved in his role with the USMNT, becoming a level-headed leader attempting to help the nation stay the World Cup course, but that very metamorphosis seems to have also turned him into a target of boos from the very people aboard the ship he tried to captain.
He's given us so much, but perhaps he's failed to meet the most needy "sports fanatic" parts inside of us, the part that doesn't make sense but screams when it's bare. The part that needs passion when all else fails.
Perhaps we’ve punished a man not for anything he’s done, but for what we’ve wanted: that face in the BMO Field tunnel, the anger, the expression my heart's needed to see from Bradley.
I’m a sucker for the romantic, so I’d like to think there’s a way to make us whole. It seems likely to be found somewhere between Zen and a crowded tunnel in Toronto.