Michael Bradley - Toronto FC - October 19, 2019
USA Today Sports Images

How Michael Bradley Transformed Toronto FC from basement-dwellers to serial MLS Cup contenders

TUKWILA, Wash. – When Toronto FC came calling in 2016, Chris Mavinga was based in Russia and had a fairly limited base of knowledge to work with when it came to TFC and Major League Soccer.

But he knew about the Reds’ captain.

“He’s one of the [reasons] that I came here,” Mavinga told MLSsoccer.com as TFC trained at Starfire Sports Complex on Friday. “Because I knew Michael Bradley. Before I came here I saw he was easy to play with, because he’s a big player … I knew of his reputation, I knew him as a player. You know when you come here, you know [Jozy] Altidore, Michael Bradley, it was [Sebastian] Giovinco before.

“In Europe we all knew about these players, and when I signed here I was thinking, ‘yes, I can play with those guys.’ It was very exciting, and this happened and I’m still excited to play with [Bradley], because he’s a very good player and good person.”

Mavinga’s warm praise is par for the course when you ask Bradley’s colleagues about his influence and leadership. Since his arrival in 2014, Toronto have risen from perennial MLS basement dwellers to serial contenders, and no one at the club – players, staffers or executives – underrates Bradley’s integral role in that transformation.

“He’s been such a big part of the culture-setting and the championships and the everyday training, playing, everything that happens here on a daily basis,” head coach Greg Vanney said this week as the squad prepare to take part in their third MLS Cup final in the past four years (Sunday, 3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN), which will also mark Bradley’s 200th appearance in a TFC kit.

“He sets the standard for everybody down in that locker room as to what it should look like when you come to work every single day. He works tirelessly every single day. Never a day off, we have to wrestle him down to get him to rest at all. He works hard, he's detail-oriented, he cares about every aspect of the club in trying to keep things at as high a level as possible.”

Precious little around TFC escapes the cerebral holding midfielder’s studied attention, from the work on the training ground to the locker-room vibes – and famously, even the club’s travel arrangements and the state of the playing surfaces at BMO Field and the BMO Training Ground. And while his tenure at TFC has coincided with some of the most tempestuous chapters of his international career with the United States, the sum of his day-to-day labor in Toronto has wrought an organizational transformation with few equals in MLS history: A Supporters’ Shield, an MLS Cup title, three Canadian Championship wins, the combined excellence of the 2017 treble and last year’s stirring run to the final of the Concacaf Champions League.

“It's been incredible. It's been everything I hoped for,” Bradley said on Wednesday when asked to take stock of his Canadian adventure. “When I came here I talked about the idea that I was so excited and so motivated for the opportunity, for the challenge of trying to help take a club that had so much potential in an incredible city, an incredible sports city, and make it different, make it special, unique – a team, a club that people can be proud of.

“Over the last five or six years we’ve had some incredible days, some unbelievable highs – a few lows sprinkled in there, but what would life be if there weren’t a few lows tossed in as well? But the biggest pride for me is what the team has been about on the biggest days. You see a team that steps on the field and isn’t fazed by a thing. Fearless. Plays. Competes. No matter who’s on the field, who’s not on the field on a given day, when those lights come on, we’ve been ready to go for it.”

If there’s a slightly valedictory tone to those words, it’s because of the sobering possibility that Bradley could well be in his final days as a Red. As has now been widely reported, he’s in the final guaranteed year of a Designated Player contract that ranks among the flushest in the league. And while a TFC win on Sunday would trigger an automatic one-year extension, everyone around the club has had to at least contemplate a scenario in which a prime anchor of their half-decade’s worth of success moves on this winter.

“I think Michael Bradley is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” said Mavinga. “We know, we all know it is a possibility that this is the last season for Michael, but I can’t imagine – even today I was speaking with my roommate, saying I can’t imagine Michael going after this season, because he’s made a lot of things for this club.”

Last month Bradley told The Athletic that he’d “absolutely” take a TAM or otherwise restructured deal to stay with Toronto beyond this season, adding that “I didn’t come here for the money and I won’t stay or leave for the money,” and he’s steadfastly declined to discuss the details of his current deal.

“I have not talked about my contract for 199 games,” he said with a flicker of a smile on Friday, “and we’re not going to start now.”

That’s part and parcel of the throwback mentality that’s helped endear Bradley to his peers, and keeps him central to what Toronto FC means to those on the inside.

“Mike has this thing, he’s more my generation and he leads like an older-generation type of guy,” goalkeeper Quentin Westberg said on Thursday. “There aren’t many of these guys, and that’s why we need to realize and for everyone to understand he’s got a huge impact on the team on and off the field. He’s truly some guy you don’t find right around the corner. He’s a great man, first, and a great soccer player also. He embraces the responsibility really well.”

If Sunday’s final needed any more hype, the tie-in to Bradley’s fate provides it, and perhaps that extra bit of motivation for the visitors at CenturyLink Field. Asked about his captain’s future, Vanney alluded to the aforementioned contract clause with something akin to a nod and a wink.

“I’d like to think that there’s going to be a solution,” said the coach, “and I’d like to think that the solution is us winning and then we know he’s here.”