By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 7, 2015) US Soccer Players – The captain’s armband means different things in different cultures across world soccer. For some, the title is simply a designation for the team’s most experienced player. Others – especially England – infuse it with varying amounts of psychological power and gravitas.
That British influence, combined with the prominent role the captaincy plays in other American sports, makes it special for US soccer. In a game constantly in growth mode for more than two decades, the USMNT skipper is a natural reference point for mainstream media and newcomers as well as hard-core supporters. The USMNT’s long-running underdog mindset lends itself to the leadership of an inspiring persona or two at the head of the class, even if it’s just a ceremonial recognition of what that player simply does by nature.
Here, captaincy connotes not merely the front of the pack. It’s the face the team shows to the world, especially when pressure and paranoia limits the flow of information to the public ahead of big events like Saturday’s pressure-packed, lavishly hyped CONCACAF Cup game vs Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
So it’s impressive – a bit dazzling, really – to watch Michael Bradley stand in front of the cameras and microphones and ace his Monday media remarks at USMNT training. Speaking in a situation that holds so little desire or reward for so many of his colleagues, Bradley delivered words the press can actually use, and with an appropriate balance of caution and thoughtfulness.
Speaking with measured cadences keenly reminiscent of his father Bob, the team’s newest captain nimbly addressed one of the most sensitive topics in American soccer when asked about the expectation that this weekend’s crowd will be dominantly pro-Mexico despite taking place on US soil:
“It makes it a unique challenge for us. But it’s something that we embrace, the idea that we’ll step on the field on Saturday and in all likelihood there will be a few more Mexicans there than there will be Americans. Our fans support us in a great way, always, no matter who we play against, no matter where we are, they always find us. So on our end there’s no worry there.”
Then, with the dexterity of a Sunday morning talk show host, Bradley boiled down the thinking soccer fan’s angle on the stateside editions of this complex rivalry.
“Certainly when you talk about the United States in a bigger way, one of the beautiful things about our country is the ability for people from all over the world to come here and live and work and in some ways make new lives for themselves,” said the midfielder. “And that’s something that I’m personally very proud of. So when it means in a footballing sense that every now and then we play with a few less fans, then we deal with it.”
We’re talking about a political minefield of an issue here, one routinely sidestepped by players who prefer to make headlines for their actions on the field than their statements off it. And the 28-year-old disarmed it in 80 words, offering up a striking summation both practical and heartfelt.
Worried about the USMNT’s recent difficulties in terms of results ahead of their biggest match since the World Cup? Bradley covered that matter, too.
“Nobody is worried about anything that’s gone on up until now,” he said. “When you play in big games, when you play in games where everything is on the line, games against your biggest rival, form goes out the window. Everything that has happened in the months leading up to it, what you’ve achieved, what’s been written, what’s been said, means nothing. When that whistle blows it’s about 90 minutes, maybe 120, and which team on the day is able to make more plays. Which team is about to deal with the pressure the best.”
Bradley has always been focused and cerebral beyond his years, thanks in large part to an early immersion in the game via his dad’s coaching career. Yet he has come a long way from the early stages of his USMNT career, when baseless accusations of nepotism and general criticism of Bob’s USMNT tenure contributed to a few uneasy interactions with the media.
Nearly a decade down the road, Bradley is now the veteran diplomat, able to speak frankly but never out of turn. He may not take delight in that aspect of his job, but he recognizes its importance and treats it with suitable professionalism, much like the many different tactical assignments he’s had under Jurgen Klinsmann.
With some 700 media members reportedly credentialed for this game, there are always going to be elementary questions from generalists. He handled that as well, with just enough tart straightforwardness to dissolve any whiff of cliché.
“There’s pressure on everybody,” he said. “We don’t spend too much time worrying about what goes on on the outside. It’s a huge game, the way that everything has been built up. Mexico winning the Gold Cup this summer, us winning the Gold Cup two years ago, it all comes together in a great way – in a great way for players, because these are the types of days that you want to play on. And certainly for the fans, because I think this is something that everybody’s been waiting for.”
As he made clear in the aftermath of the head-turning Sporting News article in 2013, Bradley abides by the traditional omerta of locker-room sanctity. It hasn’t prompted him to hide from the klieg lights. Some of his colleagues struggle to overcome their hesitance in this area, while others, like his fellow midfielder Jermaine Jones, make a concerted effort to hone their outreach skills.
For Bradley, wisdom and experience has brought a vital voice to maturity. Long may it continue.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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