Mexico’s midfield is packed with quality and experience, from the superb Andres Guardado to ageless metronome (and longtime public enemy No. 1 to US national team fans) Rafa Marquez. El Tri have arrived in central Ohio with real hopes of winning the engine-room battle in Friday’s World Cup qualifier at MAPFRE Stadium (7:45 pm ET; FS1 & Univision).
As has been the case for nearly a decade, Michael Bradley will anchor the USMNT’s midfield resistance.
The 29-year-old has enjoyed a career season at Toronto FC as the Reds mount a legitimate MLS Cup quest, prospering in a return to a deep midfield role after various experiments as a No. 10 or advanced creator in recent years. This week, Bradley remains as pivotal as ever to the Yanks as he prepares to serve as skipper in this quadrennial showdown for the first time.
“Michael is the captain. He is tremendously important,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Thursday. “It is also tremendously important that he adjusts to whatever role is needed, because our pieces with the players next to him are different pieces than [coach] Greg Vanney has in Toronto, or whatever club he would have played [at] before.
“He’s very open-minded, he’s always curious to learn, and to adapt his own game, basically, to whatever is needed. So his leadership is huge tomorrow, there’s no doubt about it.”
Bradley has scored several big goals against El Tri and speaks evocatively of the rivalry’s meaning and intensity, having closely watched it growing up in his family’s soccer-centric household.
“US-Mexico is the biggest game that we play. It’s the most special, there’s the most passion and emotion,” Bradley said on Wednesday. “Playing here in Columbus, there’s an aura, a mystique. You have a group of guys who at this point grew up with this game.
“I can remember early on playing in these Mexico games, it was a dream come true, because when I was little, if somebody had told me I was going to get the chance to play in one US-Mexico game, I’d have bitten their hand off. And now to have the opportunity to be captain, to lead our team out in games like this, it’s very, very special.”
Though both sides were predictably cagey about lineups and formations on Thursday, it appears likely that Bradley will partner with Jermaine Jones in one manner or another in the center of the park against Mexico.
In the past, that pair hasn’t always functioned entirely smoothly in a tactical sense. But the passage of time – and their own personal evolutions as players – seems to have crafted a clearer understanding.
“Yeah, he got older!” joked Jones when asked to analyze how Bradley found his form in the No. 6 spot. “He likes to sit a little bit more back, and I think we both have that good chemistry that we know each other for a long time now. And he knows that I am the guy that want to run all over the place everywhere. But it fits real good. He makes a good job, he’s a good captain and especially for the young ones, he shows that he’s really important.”
A 4-4-2 has been the default formation for the US of late. But if Klinsmann elects to pack the midfield with a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape, Sacha Kljestan is the leading candidate to join Bradley and Jones. He, too, paid rich tribute to the captain on Thursday.
“I think Michael has really settled in as one of the best No. 6’s we’ve seen in the US,” said the New York Red Bulls playmaker. “It’s been, I think, especially good for him that he plays there every game for Toronto now and has proven to be a very important player for them in making their run – throughout their entire season, he’s been great.
“I’ve played a lot further forward since I’ve come back to MLS, so our ability to work together, work off of each other, and also for me to join the attack in knowing and having the confidence that he’s shoring things up behind me has been very good.”