SAO PAULO – Michael Bradley wasn't very good against Ghana, something that was apparent in real time to anyone who knows the midfielder's typical game. He wasn't precise. He struggled with pressure. His passes were off. He didn't impact play enough.
Postgame film study only confirmed the obvious and highlighted the issue: The U.S. was probably lucky to win 2-1 in Natal with arguably its most important player struggling. At the very least, no one wants to try it again, namely Sunday against Portugal (6 p.m. ET).
That includes Michael Bradley himself.
"I'm certainly honest enough and hard enough on myself to know it wasn't my sharpest night," Bradley said.
Victory in their World Cup opener concealed all sorts of shortcomings for the Americans. That isn't unusual. There are no perfect games and the U.S. isn't the kind of team that is going to deliver many – if any – that come close. This is a team that must grind.
Still, in order to do that the U.S. needs Bradley, perhaps more than any player, to be at his peak.
One of the chief issues against Ghana was how the U.S. sat back and tried to nurse an early 1-0 lead, losing possession and only occasionally producing a meaningful counter attack. It eventually lost the lead only to seize it back courtesy of a Graham Zusi's corner kick and John Brooks' header in the 86th minute.
Thrilling, fun game. But not a blueprint for continued success.
It's the play in the midfield that will go the farthest to delivering the transition from defense to the pressing attack that coach Jurgen Klinsmann desperately wants.
"In any big game, the battle that goes on in midfield is so important," Bradley said. "It goes such a long way to determine who wins the game."
That means Bradley. He simply has to be better. On Friday, prior to the team's last practice here before heading to the heat of Manaus up in the Amazon rainforest, he wasn't backing down from the issue.
"Unfortunately they are not all going to be [my best games]," Bradley said of his struggles. "On those days it's still about finding every possible way to help your team and I think as a team we realized at a certain point it wasn't going to be a night for making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer. It was about running and tackling and making the game hard on Ghana."
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This is a different Michael Bradley from four years ago. Back then, the product of Palatine, Ill., was reserved in front of the media and still finding his way. He was just 22 and his father Bob was the U.S. team's coach. His potential was evident. His comfort was not so easy to spot.
Now he's an unquestioned team leader, not just one of the best players. He's spent the ensuing years playing professionally in Germany, England and Italy, most notably for powerhouse Roma, before coming back to Major League Soccer this year with Toronto FC. He got married and has a young daughter. He's in the prime of his career.
Whatever it is, he was calm, rational and philosophic about his play.
He cited the natural mistake – but a mistake nonetheless – of sitting back a bit after Clint Dempsey's goal just 30 seconds into the game. The Americans in general, and Bradley himself, just never got into the groove of how they anticipated playing.
"I think we more than anything just struggled to get out of that mold of defending and protecting," Bradley said. "We did such a good job into that, so much energy into that, that at the right moments we weren't sharp enough.
"We weren't able to find the right pass, we weren't able to give the game a little bit of pause and put the game back onto our terms," he continued.
That likely won't fly against Portugal. While so much of the pregame talk has been focused on brilliant forward Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the standard ways to slow, or even stop, the star forward is to win the battles in the middle of the field and deny him the ball. Or even better, turn it the other way for an attack that is far from him.
That will mean a great deal of Bradley vs. Joao Moutinho, Portugal's excellent midfielder.
Bradley is well aware of all of this. He can only figure it is best that he got a subpar game out of the way and the U.S. won anyway. There really isn't much more he could say. He stepped up, acknowledged it and didn't bother with some empty promise of playing better. He just said he'd try. He just said he'd do, once again, everything possible to win, even if again he isn't at his best.
"You obviously can't pick and choose but, still, you never want to play your best game first," he said. "You want to feel like as the tournament is moving on and the tournament is progressing the team and every guy is continuing to grow and get better and get stronger."
Michael Bradley needs to be better, needs to be stronger. Everyone around U.S. Soccer knows it, including the guy growing into stardom yet honest and confident enough to acknowledge he still isn't quite there yet.
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