Grange: This wasn’t a lost season for TFC

Michael Bradley (right) in action for Toronto FC. (Chris Young/CP)

Michael Bradley isn’t calling it a lost season for TFC. In his mind, they’re just getting started.

THE HIGHLIGHT of the season came way too early. It was on March 24, in the 64th minute of the second game of what was supposed to be a special year for the moribund Toronto FC, the soccer team only a masochist—or a satirist—could love.

A 50-50 ball hung in the air at BMO Field, and up went Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley, as did D.C. United’s Davy Arnaud. The two heads and the ball all arrived at the same time. Bradley missed the ball, his shaved pate instead knocking into his opponent’s forehead. Arnaud cartwheeled to the turf, while Bradley, who ended up with a free-flowing gash in his head that required 13 staples to close, landed on his feet and stayed in the game. Toronto FC won 1–0.

Just like that, TFC’s ballyhooed off-season makeover—“A Bloody Big Deal” said the ads—had its photo op. But then it all went sideways. In the meat of their season—from mid-July through mid-October—they won just three games and in the process missed the playoffs for an eighth straight season.

Head coach Ryan Nelsen was fired in August, and when Greg Vanney took over, he became the ninth manager in the team’s seven-year history. Jermain Defoe—the club’s headline act—was injured, and made it clear behind the scenes that he regretted leaving the Premier League for the MLS. No one expects him back. There was chaos, there was confusion, there were expectations unmet—the usual, in other words.

In the aftermath, no one could be happier about it than Michael Bradley, his head long healed, his resolve still raw. “To be honest, you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” he says. “If it had come easy, if everything had gone our way and we got every break and went 34-0 and won the MLS Cup… it would have been a house of cards. You come in this year, you sign a few guys, there’s all this hype, and that’s all we had to do? It’s that easy?”

There is nothing about Bradley that suggests he is at ease with easy. There’s his stare: hard. His head: hard. The tireless way he plays the game: hard. There are also the long, uncomfortable pauses in conversation as he searches for the words to say exactly what he means. He is the opposite of casual.

Anyone with concerns about Bradley, signed for six years and $36 million to help put right a franchise, can relax. Bradley has got this. Committed to Toronto? Committed to Toronto FC? There’s no question. He and his wife will remain in the city for most of the off-season, even as they prepare for the arrival of their first child.

People play elite sports for all kinds of reasons. To hear Bradley tell it, the real thrill is in the brick-by-brick manufacture of something lasting and rare. Cups and highlights? Those are nice by-products. Give Bradley the slog. The coach’s son who spent his formative years on the fields of Princeton University is drawn to the challenge of building a team, perhaps the hardest thing to do in professional sports. He wants to win in Toronto. He wants to celebrate in Toronto. But he very much wants to do it his way—the hard way.

His best experiences in soccer, he says, came in the buildup to the 2010 World Cup with the U.S. national team, a squad that seemed to reach its greatest heights after scraping through its lowest lows. In Bradley’s mind, it’s the lows that made the highs possible. “When you’ve been through something like that, you want more,” he says. “The longer you play, the more you realize it’s more common for it not to be like that. But when you get it right—when you have the right group and the right staff and everyone is in something together—you know how special it is.”

That’s the plan, and you get the sense that with Bradley committed to that vision, the rest of us can write it down. In blood.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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