Michael Bradley responds to Jurgen Klinsmann's criticism, vows to not ever 'change who I am'

Michael Bradley responds to Jurgen Klinsmann's criticism, vows to not ever 'change who I am'

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Michael Bradley closed his eyes and shook his head when asked about the stinging comments United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made about him on Monday. To Klinsmann's usual bluntness, Bradley responded with his usual intensity.

"I have broad shoulders and thick skin," Bradley told Yahoo Sports after the U.S.'s 1-1 draw with Honduras at FAU Stadium on Tuesday. "I'm not ever going to change who I am."

Klinsmann expressed concern over star players like Bradley and Clint Dempsey transferring from elite European leagues to Major League Soccer. Bradley suddenly can't stop Toronto FC from freefalling after suffering through a lackluster World Cup, and his national team coach isn't overjoyed.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Klinsmann told reporters Monday. "I made it clear with Clint's move back and Michael's move back that it's going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It's just reality. It's just being honest."

He honed in specifically on Bradley, saying, "he has to prove he hasn't lost a bit."

"I think he's been faced with a very, very difficult year, going from a Champions League club [AS Roma in Italy's Serie A] to a team, Toronto, that seems like they're not even going to qualify for the playoffs," Klinsmann said. "It's a huge disappointment."

Bradley, one of the few faces of U.S. Soccer, isn't loud or effusive – stoic is more like it – but his answer to Klinsmann's comments was uttered with precision and some understated force.

"I'm proud of everything I do," he said, "to become better on the team I'm on."

Bradley, 27, has become a staple in the center of the American midfield, where he can impact play from box to box. At best, he's both a defensive stopper and a facilitator of the U.S. attack. At worst, he's a bit of a drag. He was both on Tuesday, assisting the Americans' only goal by teeing up Man of the Match Jozy Altidore's strike in the first half. There were other times, though, when the ball came to him and he wasn't able to push the play.

"He had good moments [and] he had missed passes," Klinsmann said diplomatically. "Totally fine. It was good to have him back."

Totally fine really isn't enough. Expectations for the U.S. have gone up both within the team and around the world. Klinsmann wants the team to make the World Cup semifinals in 2018, but getting dominated by eventual world champion Germany and Belgium in Brazil doesn't bode well for that hope. Tim Howard can't make an historic number of saves in every match.

Klinsmann's concern is that playing in a lesser league – no matter how popular domestically – won't lift U.S. players to the level of the world's best national teams. That may sting some of his players, both personally and professionally.

Asked about Klinsmann's line of thinking, Graham Zusi winced slightly.

"The MLS is growing at a very fast rate," the Sporting Kansas City star said. "The competition is extremely high. It's continuing to grow at an exponential rate. You see players like Clint and Michael; it's preparing guys extremely well."

San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski mostly agreed.

"We're not quite there," he said, "but the MLS players can compete with anyone."

What's somewhat befuddling about Klinsmann is this: Is he tweaking his players to push them? Or is he actually disapproving?

The coach made headlines in the lead-up to the World Cup by telling The New York Times the U.S. couldn't win the tournament. Some members of the national media had a fit when that sentiment came across, and Klinsmann was cast as the caustic outsider without appreciation for how Americans think. His players, however, didn't seem to care. They bought in and the team reached the round of 16 in Brazil.

Now a similar situation has emerged. Klinsmann, with his roster dotted with players borrowed from German backgrounds, doesn't seem to think much of the American pro soccer league. Is that a sign that he's ready to replace the old guard with more of his own guys? Or is he simply trying to nudge veterans like Bradley who aren't playing well?

"He's just trying to get the most out of guys, and push them," Wondolowski said.

Whatever the case, there is some real urgency with Bradley. He's in his prime and he should be a star of the U.S. team alongside Howard, Dempsey and Altidore. Instead, he's been underwhelming and continues to make an impact only sporadically.

And while every minute counts in preparation for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Bradley might not be playing any playoff minutes with his mediocre MLS squad in Toronto. The world's other players are racing ahead, and the U.S. – already way behind in its soccer evolution – needs to be even faster.

Altidore hasn't been sublime, either, but his flashes of brilliance for the USMNT have soothed any doubts about his ability. On Tuesday, Altidore made the game stop around him in delivering a powerful strike for a 1-0 American lead in the 10th minute. Bradley rarely puts his imprint on a match anymore.

One of Klinsmann's postgame remarks about Jermaine Jones spoke to that in an indirect way. "We're trying to push it up the field," he said. "He [Jones] has the courage to push it. He has clean passes – one of his trademarks."

Jones played center back for the first time on Tuesday, and it won't be his last time there. "We wouldn't do it if there wasn't a long-term thought to it," Klinsmann said.

That holds true for the coach's comments about Michael Bradley and the MLS as well. He wouldn't say any of it if he didn't have concerns about the next four years and beyond. Klinsmann, like the players he imagines, has "the courage to push it." But he will not wait for Bradley to come along later.