When Michael Bradley stepped off the plane in Toronto after the United States’ heartbreaking loss to Belgium at the World Cup, he made his intentions immediately clear.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I want to train,“’ said Toronto coach Ryan Nelsen.
The 26-year-old midfielder is expected to play Saturday night when Toronto hosts D.C. United, returning to his Major League Soccer squad with mixed feelings about the Americans’ World Cup run — sad that it ended when it did but proud of his team’s performance.
“There’s disappointment for sure because we felt like things had come together in a good way for us, and we felt like there was more there for us,” Bradley said after Friday’s practice at BMO Field. “That’s sports ... you realize in those moments again how fine the margin is between going home and going on.
“I think for every guy on our team there is a huge sense of pride for the way we went about it when the spotlight came on the brightest. For every guy who was there, the commitment, the determination, the willingness to leave everything on the field in every moment was incredible.”
He rejoins a Toronto team that has been climbing the Eastern Conference standings. TFC is fourth (6-4-3), but with four games in hand over leaders Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United.
Striker Jermain Defoe, who was left off England’s roster for the World Cup, said Bradley could easily have requested a week or two off to rest and decompress.
“He decided to come in and he wanted to play. That’s brilliant. He had a fantastic World Cup and he’s just ready to go,” Defoe said. “Great character to say to the manager, ‘I’m up for selection, I want to play, I don’t need to go away and have a rest.“’
The Americans finished second in Group G, then dropped a 2-1 decision to Belgium in extra time in their dramatic round-of-16 game.
“It’s always a draining experience in the World Cup, especially when you get eliminated,” Nelsen said. “There’s this incredible sense of finality to it, and it can have repercussions. I’d be worried if it was any other player other than Michael.”
Bradley said the feedback from the Belgium game has been unanimous in that it was a great game to watch.
“The drama at the end, all the emotion that went into it ... when you’re little, those are the games you dream of playing in,” Bradley said. “Unfortunately at the end somebody has to be on the losing side but when you get a taste of playing in those kinds of games, you want more.”
Bradley was overwhelmed by the support the team received in Brazil. Before their opening game against Ghana in the coastal town of Natal, the local paper reported 30,000 Americans had arrived in town.
“You’re thinking, maybe we’ll have a chance to have a home crowd,” Bradley said. “We walked onto the field and the national anthem starts and the entire stadium was singing. That’s a special feeling, to be playing in a World Cup representing your country, thousands of miles away from home but having the entire stadium full of Americans.
“The atmosphere, the people and the support pushed us on in such a big way.”
The success of the Americans, and the amount of attention paid to the team in North America, was seen as a big thumbs-up to MLS. Commissioner Don Garber posted on Twitter moments after the Americans’ elimination: “We proved to the world we are a soccer nation!”
Six starters on the U.S. team, including star striker Clint Dempsey, play in the MLS, plus several other countries boast MLS players — TFC ‘keeper Julio Cesar is Brazil’s starting ‘keeper, Australian international Tim Cahill plays for the New York Red Bulls, to name two.
“We’re all realistic, we all know the MLS is not THE best league in the world yet, but it’s on the right path, it’s growing, it’s continuing to improve, the quality gets better and better,” Bradley said. “And when you get to the World Cup and see the number of players who come out of this league and have done well, and had a big impact on what’s gone on there, you can’t help but have respect for what goes on here on a weekly basis.”
The league recently attracted a couple more big stars. Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer David Villa is headed to New York City FC, while Kaka, a Brazilian and former star for Real Madrid and AC Milan, recently signed with Orlando. They’re both expansion teams that will make their league debuts next season.
Defoe called the recently Kaka news a “massive signing. Such a massive name.”
“Someone who has achieved so much in the game, great footballer, still has a lot to offer,” he said. “The names just keep coming and coming and it’s only going to help the league. And obviously for me, I sit back and think I’m so glad that I’ve come over here, and just to be a part of it all is really good.”
Bradley, who tried to make time to watch Toronto’s games online when he was in Brazil, is excited to rejoin a team that looks poised for its first playoff appearance in franchise history. Toronto marked the end of the MLS break for the World Cup by tying the Red Bulls 2-2 on the road on Wednesday night, dictating much of the play before relinquishing the lead when the Red Bulls scored in the third minute of injury time.
“Credit to all the players, and obviously the manager and staff ... we’re just improving each day, taking small steps but really improving as a team,” Defoe said.
Defoe scored the lone goal of the game when TFC beat D.C. United 1-0 in their second game of the season.
“We’ve played them already this season but we know they’ve improved since then and we feel we’ve improved also,” said captain Steven Caldwell. “So it should be a really good game, hopefully an attacking game. We feel for us we’ve really improved in that area, we’re looking very dangerous when we go forward, we just have to make sure we’ve got that nice balance and we’re tight at the back.”
Toronto plays its next three games at home. After Saturday, they host Houston on July 12, then the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 16.