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Jack: Bradley opens up about World Cup experience

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Kristian Jack, TSN.ca
7/11/2014 6:35:33 PM
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His 2014 World Cup lasted 50 days.

That's how long Michael Bradley was away from Toronto FC while with the United States team.

For millions around the globe, the midfielder's World Cup was simply four games of ninety minutes plus 30 minutes of extra time against Belgium. 390 minutes. Six and a half hours.

Bradley sees it very differently. The games, of course, are the true high points from the experience, but six and a half hours out of fifty days meant that Bradley and his teammates spent less than one per cent of their World Cup experience by playing in a match.

In a sit-down interview with TSN.ca this week, Bradley nods his head when he is told that 2010 World Cup winning coach Vicente Del Bosque talked about how important is was to not have one single issue between his 23 players during their run to becoming World Champions in South Africa.

A conversation about the mental side of the game is one the 26-year-old American is very comfortable with. He chooses his words carefully but delivers them in a calming manner, with authority.

“World Cups are very interesting in the way they test you. As a player and a team. For all the hype, the build-up, everything that goes on beforehand, the wait of four years, then the draw six months before, the stage is set for so long, but then the club season ends, players leave their MLS squads, and every team has a two-, three-week window to really prepare.”

Bradley, who emphasizes the word really, is clear in his belief about how important that time is.

He continues: “Regardless of how club seasons went, or are going, regardless of how qualifying went, whether you were the first team in or through a playoff, everyone gets that same, small window to prepare the best possible way.

“As a team we talked beforehand about understanding what it was all going to be about. It is a big country so travel plays a huge role, the heat, humidity, even just it being in Brazil. As special as it is, you knew not everything would run properly. We prepared for travel delays, we knew things in hotels wouldn't be perfect so we talked about making sure we understood that, making sure we embraced that challenge.

“I think we saw some big teams go home early because they weren't able to deal with a combination of these factors. A team like Italy, for example, they lose against Costa Rica and Uruguay and, at the end of it, still have a lot to say about the heat."

Bradley, a man who will always smile when talking about his Serie A experiences in Verona and Rome, loves Italy and called his son Luca, but it is clear he has no time for excuses at this level.

As he reflects on his World Cup experiences the discussion keeps going back to mental toughness and preparation. Such characteristics bring him to his coach, Jurgen Klinsmann.

“Jurgen brings an energy, an enthusiasm that is infectious. That's so important as you go through a period like this, when you are together for six, seven, eight weeks.

“Inevitably, certain guys hit the wall at a certain point. Some guys are away from their families for a long time, the monotony of the days, it's always the case that guys need a push. I thought in those ways Jurgen did an incredible job.”

Son of former USA coach Bob Bradley, it is not hard to see why Michael thinks like a coach and clearly he played a huge role in helping Klinsmann dictate such an atmosphere inside the camp. He doesn't talk much about himself, instead, once again, preferring to share the value in the mental side of the squad during each challenge it faced.

“The first game comes quick, and depending how that first game goes you can be in a good spot or right away you have to deal with adversity or pressure after it didn't go the way you wanted. Each checkpoint along the way, depending on how the result goes, can really change the mood. So it is so important that you have a team that is strong, that has been tested together. If you show up to the World Cup and all you have is excitement but everything else is superficial and there isn't a real leader or personality on the team, or a real sense of commitment and togetherness, then the reality is that first sign of trouble is going to be a real test.”

Bradley's intelligence and awareness on the field is all to see but spend any time with him off it and you could argue both attributes are even more glaring away from the pitch.

Such things have led to his club coaches saying how he keeps them on his toes. It was clear, however, that he was impressed with Klinsmann's leadership qualities.

“He found a balance between being positive, encouraging and giving the team confidence but still letting us know that there is still more for us.

“He'd say, for example, ‘look we got out of the group but there is more we can do better'. Obviously, it didn't work out that way but the way that things were taken care of within the team, the atmosphere, the commitment, the mentality of the team, was very good and I think that came out throughout the tournament.

“For the most part, the teams that do well in World Cups are the ones that are able to have a group that is committed in winning, to stick with each other through it all, until the end.”

This brings us to Germany, a team Bradley played in Brazil and a team he watched when he returned home. Despite getting knocked out, he admits he loves the game and has watched every match. He will be home on Sunday to take in the final.

“Germany is a very good team, a group of guys who have been together for a very long time, and reap the benefits of having the core of their team play 60, 70 games together at Bayern Munich. I also think when a guy like Pep Guardiola goes to Bayern with some of the ideas and concepts he brings then you start to see it in the national team.”

As they get ready for a World Cup final, Bradley isn't surprised at all they have got this far but knew they weren't anywhere near the team they are today, when USA faced Germany back on June 26.

“In terms of pure possession, circulating the ball, the angles, movement, how one guy comes into space and the next guy moves out, so they can keep the ball … I thought they were very good. But, they weren't always finding the right ways to transition that into the final third to be a little more dangerous, to shoot, create a chance. Obviously they had a lot of the ball, their rhythm with the ball, the ease that all their players have in taking the ball in tight spots and playing with it is so good. However, looking back, on the day, it wasn't like they were just creating chance after chance like they did at such a high level against Brazil.”

Germany's ability to be more clinical and precise in the final third has certainly improved dramatically since then. Bradley, who can play deeper inside a double pivot as well as in more of an advanced role inside a central midfield three, is perfectly placed to talk about where modern day football is going and the emphasis on counter-attacks and transitions.

“Players are so athletic now, the demands on a physical level are so high. So, as teams continue to get better, stronger, fitter, faster it means that some of the best teams are at their most dangerous when the other team has the ball. They are organized, difficult to break down, but in the right moments they know how to press, and when they win the ball back they know how and where to go and go quickly, using their mobility and dynamic abilities to create goalscoring opportunities."

Bradley's experience officially ended when he landed home with his wife Amanda and son Luca into Toronto on July 3, but he won't forget how it all ended against Belgium in a pulsating extra time in Salvador and the sudden finality of what comes next.

“It's a weird thing, for almost two months you are in this mindset of World Cup and everything that means. Set mealtimes, training, treatment, meetings, games, recovery, all of these essential things and that is how it is right until the end and then that final whistle blows.

“You are out and it is amazing how quickly everything changes, guys are on flights the very next morning and everyone is off going their own separate ways. It's disappointing and that can take a little while to go away.”

His competitive spirit means such an emotion will take time to leave him but that didn't prevent him from a moment of reflection.

“In the big moments, on the pitch, even when things weren't going our way, we still had a resolve and determination that came out in a big way and every player, coach and person on that staff should be proud of that.”

It is not hard to see why the mental side of the game is so important for Michael Bradley.

Michael Bradley and Andre Ayew (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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