TORONTO – On Saturday night in Toronto FC’s locker room – the floor covered in an inch-thick slurry of sprayed champagne, beer, confetti, and other detritus — the captain tried to find the closest thing to a quiet moment.
About a half hour before, Michael Bradley, fresh off the team’s first-ever MLS Cup win – a 2-0 victory in a rematch over the Seattle Sounders — had gleefully joined his teammates in singing and champagne showers. But now, done with a press conference, he sipped soda rather than booze and leaned into his locker-room cubby, his back to lurking media, maybe tending to his phone, or maybe just taking it all in for a moment.
Finally, when he had collected himself, Bradley turned to face the scrum – and immediately shot down the narrative that had been fomenting since Toronto FC first pulled ahead of the Sounders.
Forget anything to do with his duty with the US men’s national team – if there was a “redemption” arc of sorts for Bradley regarding TFC’s Cup win, it had only to do with redemption for last year’s MLS Cup loss to the same team at home.
“It’s not fair for anybody connected with this team to talk about anything else, because for this team, for the last year, it has been like nothing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said of TFC.
“Unless you have lived the last year on the inside of this team,” he continued, “and know what it’s like to have to wake up the next morning after losing a final the way we did last year, to have to go through a preseason when you feel your chance at redemption feels 50 years away…. No disrespect – nobody on the outside can understand that.”
Indeed, arguably no one more than Bradley has, as a transplant, quite devoted himself so devotedly to making both the club and his city his home, with the goal of lifting them both up. Earlier this week, at the team’s Kia Training Ground outside of the city, I sat down with Bradley for a chat about his relationship with Toronto. Growing up in New Jersey, looking up to idols like Mark Messier and Kobe Bryant, clearly left an imprint about the way a devoted local sports icon can bring a city together.
“It doesn’t happen in one day” he said of a city embracing an athlete, his trademark, thoughtful cadence slow and measured, every word considered and no athlete-speak wasting air. “It happens in a lot of different ways. You have to win, you have to show your loyalty in both good and bad moments, you should show the commitment to embrace the club and the city.”
His arrival in Toronto in 2014, he said, offered a perfect opportunity for him to plant roots as both a soccer player, and as a resident.
“At this stage in my career. I wanted to I wanted to go somewhere where I had the opportunity to play a huge role in what was going on every single day, and I wanted to go somewhere where the potential to build something different and special and unique was was there,” he said.
“And I think, on the flip side,” he continued, “that after some of the disappointing and frustrating years that they had here — I think I don't want to speak for them but I think in some ways the fans were looking for for somebody to come here and kind of say, ‘This is where I want to be. This is my club I'm not going anywhere.’ And so and that was what I wanted to do.”
In fact, once he starts talking about the city of Toronto, it seems, he could go on forever.
“We all love it here,” he says of himself and his family. “It has the character of different places we’ve lived, and I think that’s part of the reason why from the beginning it’s felt so much like home. The people are incredible; they’re so warm and welcoming and go out of the way to make you feel part of things.”
In fact, he said, the bond between team, fans, and city only grew after the pain of losing the MLS Cup final in 2016.
“I’ve never seen anything like the response, and I’ve never seen anything like the way the city and fans embraced us,” he recalled. “My respect and appreciation and my admiration for our supporters grew more as a result of us losing than it could have in any other way.
“Fans, in so many moments, are so – as we all are – wrapped up in the result. Did we win? Did we lose? But the ability of our supporters last year, even in the most heartbreaking, painful moment possible, to make sure we all knew how proud they were of us, and how much it had meant to all of them to be a part of something like that – it was incredible.”
The feeling around town this week was that fans here loved him right back, with little concern (probably naturally) for any drama in international soccer. “Hero” was a word I heard several times in informal conversations. And when fans lined up, pre-match, near the corner where TFC players enter the tunnel from the locker room, Bradley drew the biggest cheers. “Hey Cap’!” Fans around me yelled. “Hey Cap’! Go on, Cap!’”
All of that’s translated his teammates say, to his stewardship in both the locker room and on the field.
“I think you could tell he took [last year’s MLS Cup loss] personally, and he felt a personal responsibility to the city, and he delivered that tonight. That says all you need to know about him,” said defender Jason Hernandez. “I played with Michael when he was 17 years old at the MetroStars, and to see the maturation and development of him to being the best captain I’ve ever played for is incredible.”
But there’s probably nobody closer to Bradley on the team than forward Jozy Altidore. Besides playing together for both club and country, of course, they’ve also been friends since their teen years at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. And in the locker room, Altidore gave his longtime friend plenty of props for his leadership through sometimes-troubled waters.
“It hasn’t always been easy – even with each other,” Altidore said. “But that's how you know you’re in something real with people; youe able to have real conversations and get on with it. We’re like that, and we’ve been like that since we’ve known each other. To help him, lead this group of guys to do something this special says a lot about the club and what we’re doing going forward.”
There’s a sense, among teammates and fans, that they’ve all been through plenty together, from the club’s recent nadirs, to last year’s MLS Cup heartbreak at home. And Bradley’s been proud to try to shoulder that burden for his club team, any other chatter be damned. A reporter in the locker room even pointed out his captain’s armband for the night – it bore Toronto’s city flag.
“There were some dark years along the way, but the people who stuck with it, who continued to believe, who continued to identify with the club – nights like this are for them,” he said in the locker room. “We want to play and represent the in a way that makes them proud, that makes them leave here and feel like they were part of something different and special."