Prior to the opening game of the MLS season, Toronto FC held a meeting to ensure everyone was on the same page.
“We wanted to clear the air from the past couple of years, understand that this is a new group going forward and we have certain responsibilities to each other, to hold each other accountable and to try to push each other to be the best,” said midfielder Will Johnson.
“Because if there’s no competition, if there’s no accountability, then you don’t have a whole lot. You just have a bunch of guys coming in and working. Most of the teams that are not still playing in November fall in the other end of the spectrum.”
Toronto is still playing, making franchise history with each post-season victory. While the team boasts a deep leadership group, captain Michael Bradley is front and centre.
‘Hold up to every challenge’
On Sunday, the 29-year-old Bradley looks to help TFC finish off New York City FC in the return leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal. Toronto goes into the game at Yankee Stadium holding a 2-0 lead.
“This is what we talked about being about from the first day of pre-season this year — a team that on the toughest days could stand up. And, on the toughest days, could hold up to every challenge,” said Bradley.
Bradley, who says he has felt “very good” about this team for some time now, deflects praise about his play to his teammates. But he has shown in recent weeks that the playoffs are like mother’s milk to him.
“It’s a fun time of year,” he said. “You play all year to get to this point where the games are big — not everybody is left playing at this point — and they’re only going to get bigger.”
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko says Bradley has the ability to evaluate the moment, size up the challenge and do what is called for.
“That’s when I think Michael shines the best,” said Bezbatchenko.
Captain in waiting
There were growing pains. TFC stumbled to an 11-15-8 record in 2014 to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference. The fact that that was an improvement — Toronto was ninth in 2013 and 10th in 2012 — shows just how low the franchise had fallen.
Bradley was clearly the captain in waiting, a transition the club fumbled as incumbent skipper Steven Caldwell twisted in the wind until the change was finally made in February 2015.
It has proved to be a marriage well made, however. Toronto deepened its roster, unloading Defoe in a deal that saw Jozy Altidore come the other way, and hit the jackpot in signing Sebastian Giovinco.
In addition to his on-field talents, Bradley has worked on creating a winning culture — no small feat for a franchise that was once the league doormat.
“Michael, more than any player on our roster today, has put more into this project,” said Johnson, who has known Bradley since childhood and is one of the captain’s closest friends.
Bradley leads by example. Toronto coach Greg Vanney says Bradley’s professionalism in ensuring he is always ready physically and mentally is exemplary.
“He has a very high standard both of himself and of everybody else,” Vanney added.
And in recent years, Bradley has got much better in helping others excel, according to the coach.
TFC is feeling good about itself, says Vanney, with Bradley and Giovinco leading the way. He also points to Altidore in helping the group’s confidence.
Having learned Italian during his time overseas, Bradley has his own pipeline to Giovinco.
“Michael’s role as a captain is the perfect role,” the Atomic Ant said through an interpreter. “He’s a captain in the team as well [as] in life and as an overall person.”
The translation may be open to interpretation. The Italian forward appeared to be saying his captain is a natural leader.
In a city with a proud tradition of hockey captains — although no one wears the ‘C’ for the Maple Leafs at present — Bradley said he knew what it meant when he became skipper.
‘Engine’ of the team
“I had already figured out that being captain or a big player on a team in this city carries extra weight and responsibility. And I’ve loved every second of that,” he said.
“Not to say that every second of my time here has been exactly what I or the fans would have hoped but I’ve enjoyed every second of playing in this city, playing for this city and being captain.”
In his early days in Toronto, Bradley suffered from trying to do too much in too many places.
But under Vanney, Bradley’s on-field role has largely been as a deep-lying midfielder who breaks up attacks and shields the backline. Listed at six foot two and 185 pounds, Bradley is deceptively strong and has a turn of speed that can help him break up plays.
“He’s been unbelievable the last two games … He’s the engine of this team right now,” said veteran defender Drew Moor.