TORONTO — What happens when the season ends doesn’t matter right now for Michael Bradley; there is a match to be played.
Toronto FC will face Atlanta United on Wednesday night in the Eastern Conference Final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVAS) as the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs continue, same as Bradley's TFC career.
And while Bradley's contract is up following the season, he insisted his mind was only on the task at hand, even though this could potentially be his final Reds appearance.
“We talk a lot around here about the idea that you’ve got to be able to walk in these doors and leave whatever you’ve got going on on the outside there and be ready to give everything you have to the group," Bradley said. "When you have as many guys as possible who can do that on as many days as possible, that’s when you have a chance to really build something different.
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“This time of year, the understanding is that nothing else matters. Personal situations, contracts that are up, options that need to be exercised, all this stuff, none of that matters one bit. There’s four teams still playing and in ten days one team gets to stand on that stage and lift a trophy. We want to be that team. Everything else is just distraction.”
At the tail end of the contract that saw him arrive in 2014, Bradley stated at the beginning of the season that he would not be drawn regularly into discussing his future. The reason is simple.
“You can’t be captain, you can’t challenge guys to give everything they have to the group and then turn around and be the first guy worried about your own situation,” stressed Bradley. “If I did that, every single guy in that room would be looking at me going, ‘Who the hell are you? You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.’”
He also understands that, as a deep lying midfielder, his own legacy will be more about team success than the individual numbers posted by the likes of offensive teammates like Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Pozuelo or the recently-moved-on Sebastian Giovinco.
In Bradley's five seasons, Toronto have lifted an MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield, reached another MLS Cup and a Concacaf Champions League final; They've also lifted three Canadian Championships and two Eastern Conference crowns.
“The focus has always been the success of the team,” he said. “I’ve said since I got here that I was always going to be judged on whether we won or lost. The reality is the position I play, I’ll never be the guy to rack up a ton of goals or assists, it takes people who really know and understand the game to be able to watch and know what I do. And that’s fine. Ultimately, my time here was going to be judged on whether we won trophies, on the biggest days what the team was about, whether we won or lost.”
Still, his accomplishments so far are not enough. Nothing is.
“When you do it once, when you have a taste of it, you want more. That part becomes an obsession,” Bradley said. “People can talk about this, argue about that, but the thing that nobody can dispute are trophies.”
Atlanta may have home field and their tens of thousands of supporters at their back. Toronto have their own tools to lean on: pride and experience.
“We’ve always understood that there is such a pride in being able to lay everything you have on the field, to look at the guys around you and say, ‘Whatever else happens, whatever anybody on the outside is saying, for these 90 or 120 minutes, we’re going to spill our guts on the field,’” said Bradley. “We have a group that knows how to do that; that loves doing that. That part is special.
“We’ve been here before. We’ve played on big days, we’ve gone to Mexico for second legs where we had to get a result to move ourselves on, we’ve been through all different situations. There’s not a lot we haven’t seen. It doesn’t guarantee anything, doesn’t mean that everything is going to go perfectly, but we have a group that loves when the lights come on bright.”