TORONTO – He was first off the pitch. After two-plus hours of playing like a hero, after playing the kind of hard game that has always earned the endearment of Toronto fans, in any sport, Michael Bradley couldn’t stick around.
The game was over, the dream season with it. Decided by penalties. A record crowd of 36,045 rendered momentarily silent. And as the contingent from the Seattle Sounders stormed the pitch in ecstasy, as Bradley’s teammates collapsed to their knees, crushed, the TFC captain simply turned heel and walked off, his right hand covering his face — wiping it, rubbing it, covering it?
It was the picture of utter dejection and then he was gone, disappearing down the tunnel without a look back at the mayhem left behind.
"In a perfect world you would congratulate them," he said while slumped in his stall at BMO Field, trying to put into words the pain of an opportunity missed. "But that’s not how it goes, you know? Had we won, it’s not the first thing on your mind. Congratulations to them.
"[But] we were so, so, so determined and wanted so badly to finish this season off in front of our fans in this stadium holding up that Cup. To know how close we were to doing that and ultimately miss out?
"That’s not an easy one to swallow."
Bradley was one of only three players to play the entire frigid night at BMO Field without any kind of protection from the weather. No long sleeves. No mitts. No compromises.
He was brilliant. His only blemish a missed penalty kick that didn’t end up figuring in the outcome. His breath turned to vapour under the lights, giving him the look of some kind of fire-eating dragon patrolling midfield. It seemed like he was everywhere. It seemed like he was going to earn himself a place in Toronto’s new sports pantheon, alongside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Josh Donaldson and Auston Matthews. Alongside stars from other places that have made Toronto home, providing a new generation a different brand of memories.
But Bradley was positioned to go one better. Bradley — the American who has adopted Toronto and vice-versa — was on the cusp of becoming the most valuable player in the first championship-deciding game played in this city in 23 years.
But his best wasn’t enough. The Reds’ best wasn’t enough, despite engineering a defensive effort that held the Sounders without a shot on goal for two hours — a first for an MLS Cup match. Despite knocking down bodies, pouncing on loose balls and calmly walking them out of trouble in front of Toronto ‘keeper Clint Irvin more than once. Despite trying to thread ball after ball to the feet of stymied strikers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, Toronto couldn’t get one past Sounders netminder Stefan Frei. And in the crapshoot called penalties they got one less past Frei than Seattle did past Irwin, and that was it.
Toronto’s magnificent playoff ride had come to crashing halt.
The crowd at BMO did what they do. They roared and they cheered and they sang. They sang some more after it was all over. As close as they were to experiencing a championship, the memories of a decade worth of disasters are fresh enough that even if the ride didn’t end they way they wanted they could still appreciate having a ticket.
For a decade they’ve held the faith. Came out to town hall meetings when things seemed to be falling apart; came out in force for those moments when it looked like things were finally coming together.
They were in need of a champion, someone who believed as much as them. Who wanted it like they did. Forget the Bloody Big Deal, they wanted someone who would bleed.
That champion was Bradley, the U.S. World Cup star who was on the podium when Jermain Defoe was introduced as the star attraction in the Bloody Big Deal. Bradley got second billing, but he was built to last.
"To me Michael Bradley is everything we want our company to be," then-MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke said during his first season in Toronto.
Bradley then went out and played through the end of his first game in Toronto with a jagged gash in his head that required 13 staples to close.
It was love at first bandage.
Time has proven Leiweke right, but Bradley still has something to prove. As the disappointment of what could have been fades, that’s the most comforting thing for the faithful, the one’s that stayed true even as their soccer team peed down it’s own leg and theirs for so many years.
Saturday night was a grand payoff, but in Bradley’s mind, the job has just started.
"Every guy here is going to have to take the time to let [the loss] hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you," he said. "… But at some point when you can start to process it all, individually and collectively, we can use it as more fuel for what we’re trying to do.
"We can use it make us even more determined and make sure the group is able to use this in a way that means that not only are we coming back to this point but when we do get back to this point that we’re prepared for it and we’re ready to take the next step."
Michael Bradley was first off the pitch after one of the greatest and saddest moments for soccer in Toronto. He needed to get off the field and into the shower. He needed to let it all start to sink in. And then he started to think about next year.
He was first off the pitch but his mind is already made up: he’ll be back and he’ll be bringing Toronto FC along with him.