TORONTO – Ch-ch-changes.
Injuries and a quick succession of matches – including one gruelling run that saw Toronto FC play five games in a 16-day period – has forced coach Greg Vanney to use a variety of formations and line-ups, and no less than 19 players during the first 12 contests of the Major League Soccer campaign.
The turnover hasn’t slowed down Toronto, with a franchise-best, six-game winning streak and a spot atop the MLS standings owing a great deal to the Reds’ incredible depth. Amidst all the changes, though, there has been one constant. While other players have been given time off, captain Michael Bradley has played every minute (1,080 in total) of every game this season. To put that stat in context, Nick Hagglund ranks a distant second in minutes played for Toronto at 989 minutes.
Every goal scored. Every goal conceded. Every tackle. Every pass. Every shot. Every save. Every yellow card. Everything. Bradley has been there for all of it, and he’s expected to play another full 90 minutes when Toronto visits the New York Red Bulls on Friday night.
Bradley’s constant presence in the line-up has taken a toll, both physical and mental, but the veteran midfielder isn’t complaining. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you go through a period like that [when] it’s just games and games and games, that’s fun. The opportunity to step out onto the field and compete time and time again, that’s why we do this. There’s nothing better than that,” Bradley said ahead of Friday’s visit to Red Bull Arena.
“Obviously, the travel [and] the physical toll of playing 90 minutes, sure that starts to add up. But you do all the little things right to make sure that you take care of yourself, and you’re recovered, and you’re ready to play again.”
One of the reasons Bradley hasn’t earned a break is because Vanney didn’t want to disrupt the continuity of the team.
“We try to keep guys who are in a rhythm out on the field without changing too much. Michael is obviously one of our fit and durable guys. Also, the position sometimes is unique in that [he’s] the sole defensive midfielder,” Vanney explained.
TFC’s coach also pointed out that Bradley and forward Jozy Altidore will miss several matches this summer while away with the United States at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, so they’re more inclined to push themselves to play every game they can for Toronto.
“The most frustrating part for me of playing in [MLS] is having to miss games. The summers of Gold Cups or Copa Americas or world cups, while they’re great events and while I love playing for my national team and I’ll continue to do that for as long as I can, it’s always bittersweet because as you’re doing that you’re missing important games here,” Bradley said.
“I’m lucky in some ways. I have an easy way to just switch gears, and so where ever I am in any given moment, I’m all in, and ready and willing to spill everything I have to try to help the team be successful.”
Since losing on April 15 in Columbus, Toronto (7-1-4) has reeled off consecutive with wins over Chicago, Houston, Orlando, Seattle, Columbus and Minnesota, outscoring the opposition 13-5 along the way. The Reds are off to their best start to an MLS campaign in franchise history, and a win on Friday would equal the seven straight wins by Chicago (in 1998) and Kansas City (in 2012). Los Angeles holds the league’s longest single-season winning streak (excluding overtime and shootout wins), having recorded eight consecutive victories in 1996 and 1998.
Despite the Reds’ strong start, TFC’s captain maintains that he and his teammates are not happy with what they’ve accomplished.
“After every game the message has been that we have to keep going. We shouldn’t be ready settle for anything. We shouldn’t be happy with winning a few games in April. We have to keep going. There’s more there for us,” Bradley stated.
“Our mentality is that we haven't done anything yet. Nobody passes out any awards in May, and the challenge for us is simple – it’s to keep going and going and going, and keep proving ourselves every game.”
For an outsider, that might sound like Bradley is a joyless soul; that he can’t even take a moment to stop and smell the roses, and enjoy the success that’s come from this six-game winning streak.
That’s not the case, he insists. However…
“There’s big pride. There’s energy. There’s excitement. There’s an enthusiasm inside the group that only comes when you win. We enjoy every part of that,” Bradley stated.
“But there’s a big difference between enjoying it in the right ways and using it to motivate you for more, and thinking that you’re better than you are. We’ve emphasized this idea that we are where we are because we have shown humility, and we have shown the ability to always want more, to always want to continue working. The second that that goes away then we’re going to be a big trouble. The challenge is to make sure that never goes way.”