Michael Bradley is the U.S. national team's most important player. He's proven this time and time again with his stellar and often under-appreciated play in midfield, but only in his absence have more people realized this.
When Bradley took one more shot at the end of warm-ups before Friday's match in Costa Rica, he rolled his ankle. As you can see in the picture below, it wasn't pretty. But the impact it had on the game proved to be even uglier for the U.S.
Bradley had to be pulled from the starting XI and Geoff Cameron was thrown on in his place. Even with Clint Dempsey and Landon "This is the Best I've Ever Played" Donovan starting together for the first time in over a year, Costa Rica still won 3-1 — slapping the U.S. with two goals in the first nine minutes and snapping that team record 12-match winning streak.
Bradley's absence was felt hard and everyone from novice fans to his teammates knew it. From Sports Illustrated:
"[Losing Bradley] isn't an excuse, but it hurts," said Landon Donovan. "This team is in large part built around Michael, and in my opinion he and Clint [Dempsey] have been the two most influential players over the last few years. That hurts. You lose a leader, you lose a good player, you lose a lot of stability, but that doesn't account for how we started and how we played. We still had to do a better job."
With Bradley on crutches, he has already been ruled out of Tuesday's grudge match against Mexico on Tuesday. The official line is only that he has a sprained ankle.
As Cameron proved against Costa Rica, replacing Bradley isn't something that can be done on five minutes' notice. But with a few days to adjust before facing an opponent that followed up their loss on Friday night by sacking their manager, it shouldn't be considered an automatic disaster. Probably.
Still, the U.S. might want to consider putting Bradley in a velvet, climate controlled bubble to preserve him between now and next summer's World Cup.