Michael Bradley is the United States’ best player. He is also going to be 30 years old by the next World Cup. And somehow, that’s not the problem. The problem is that nearly a decade since he earned his first cap, the U.S. has no idea how to use Bradley, or where to play him.
Against Switzerland, Bradley was moved out of his natural, deep-sitting midfield position into a more advanced role. He was the U.S.’s highest midfielder, just like he was at the World Cup, where Bradley played below his usual standards. That supposedly proved that Bradley, long thought the team’s most creative player, was not a No. 10. On Tuesday, however, he was back there and did a good job connecting the midfield to the attack before struggling in the final third.
It shouldn’t be so problematic to find a home for your best player. But it has been for the Americans, and not because of anything Bradley’s done. At times, he’s been absolutely spectacular for the U.S., and he’s done it in a variety of roles. The problem for him is that he’s been too good in too many spots, even when asked to do too much. That gives coach the flexibility to put him in a number of places, and sometimes unfortunately, he’s asked to extend himself while covering for others.
The best example of this may be in attacking midfield. Clint Dempsey is probably the team’s best option, but that doesn’t maximize his talents. Mix Diskerud got a chance there, but that hasn’t worked. Alejandro Bedoya is better on the wing. None of the newer options Jurgen Klinsmann has brought into the squad have stepped into that position. The Americans really have no good, or even decent options at a position that Klinsmann finds essential.
What the Americans do have is an abundance of capable central midfielders. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have been there. So have Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales and Sacha Kljestan. Hell, even the youngsters Wil Trapp and Perry Kitchen could get the job done. That’s not to say that all of those players are world beaters, because they’re not, but they’re suitable options. That’s more than you could say for the Americans’ choices in an attacking role.
So where should Bradley play? Deeper, where he is better, or further up the pitch where the team has no other option? There isn’t a good answer, and therein lies the problem.
It’s not a question of where Bradley’s best position is. It’s about trying to figure out where he fits the team best, and when he is atop the depth chart at two different positions, Klinsmann is in a no-win situation. Either way, Bradley is not going to be playing a position where he is the Americans’ best option, so do you put him where he is most comfortable or where the alternative options are a giant tire fire?
And that is how you end up with your unquestioned best player being position-less. Not because he’s not great, or because the manager is incompetent, but because there are holes. Bradley can only fill one.