TORONTO – Michael Bradley didn’t bat an eye when he was asked to play out of position for one of the biggest games in Toronto FC history.
Last Monday, veteran defender Drew Moor pulled up lame on the pitch at Estadio Akron as the team prepared for the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Chivas de Guadalajara. Moor suffered a quad tear, a crushing blow for him and a TFC side that was already mired in an injury crisis.
Chris Mavinga, Moor’s regular partner in central defence, was already out with a lower body injury. Eriq Zavaleta was dealing with a minor quad muscle issue, and Nick Hagglund was sidelined with a long-term hamstring injury. Jason Hernandez was available, but he only recently rejoined the team and wasn’t match fit.
So, what did TFC coach Greg Vanney do? He slid right fullback Gregory van der Wiel into the middle of defence for last Wednesday’s game. No big deal, as the former Dutch international had previously played as a centre back. But who would partner him? More of a defensive midfielder by trade who operates in the middle of the park, Bradley was tapped by Vanney to play next to van der Wiel as a centre back.
“I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I said, ‘You know this means you’re going to have to drop back, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I get it. I see it the same way.’ It was a very quick discussion, a very easy discussion. Then, it was all about preparing for that,” Vanney revealed.
— Drew Moor (@drewmoor) April 26, 2018
Bradley filled in at centre back for a short spell in the second leg of the CONCACAF semifinals against Club America, but by and large, TFC’s captain had never played before in central defence. Bradley crammed for his new assignment, studying game film and sitting down with assistant coach Dan Calichman, a former MLS defender of some repute during his playing career, in preparation for the game against Chivas.
“When we started looking to Drew’s injury, and what our solutions were, we needed to attack so we needed to be good with the ball, we needed some athleticism because this was going to be a wide open game and Michael’s capacity to cover ground is well documented,” Vanney explained.
“He became a quick study in the relationships with the guys around him, and looking at what is it that the Chivas forwards are looking to do, what are they trying to do as a team. He studied video, and sat down with Dan and our guys to tighten up any details to make sure he was as prepared as he could possibly be.”
Bradley hardly looked out of place as centre back against Chivas, earning plaudits for his steady defensive play and for his chemistry with van der Wiel. Three days later, Bradley again slotted next to van der Wiel in the back line, and once again put in a solid shift against the Chicago Fire in MLS play.
“I think he’s been fantastic [at centre back]. Michael is the ultimate preparer for situations. Over the last couple of years since he’s focused his attention on the defensive midfield side, you’ve seen him gain his sharpness on the defensive side: understanding reads, understanding the relationship with the guys that he had behind him when he was a defensive midfielder, and how all of those things work,” Vanney said.
Under normal circumstances, Bradley parks himself in central midfield, just in front of the defence, acting as a defensive shield. Playing that role, in part, helped TFC’s captain make a trouble-free transition to playing as a centre back.
“As a midfielder, you understand the importance of the depth of the back line and making sure you’re not too deep as back line, so that you can close up that midfield space, which helps the players in front of you to get pressure on the ball, which then takes some stress off you as a defender,” Vanney explained.
“He’s done a fantastic job of moving the line, to keep the line tighter, so that the midfielders in front of him can help to get pressure on the ball, which makes the decisions as centre back easier. … He’s owned the responsibility in a big way going back there.
To be sure, Vanney is anxiously waiting for Mavinga to be fit again so the Frenchman can return to the line-up. But if there’s a silver lining to TFC’s current injury dilemma it’s that Vanney has discovered another viable option at centre back in Bradley.
“It gives us another option. We can use it strategically, we can use it in a pinch. He’s actually enjoyed the challenge in some ways. When you get to certain points in your career, there’s times when something new and different that is a challenge locks you in a little bit more [mentally], if that’s even possible with Michael,” Vanney said.
There’s also a tactical upside to deploying TFC’s captain in the centre of defence.
“What’s interesting is what you’ve seen is that [a lot of times] when we play teams is they try to man-mark Michael. They try to put a guy on Michael and chase him around. It’s very difficult to man-mark a centre back; that really opens you up if you’re going to chase a centre back around. So, in dropping him into that position, it’s made it difficult for teams to figure out how they want to initiate pressure [on the ball],” Vanney explained.
“It frees him up sometimes [to distribute the ball] and for the starting of attacks, which can be beneficial for us.”