From approximately the 2006 World Cup until Landon Donovan's winter soccer sabbatical, a debate raged in U.S. soccer fan circles about who can lay claim to the title of ‘best American soccer player'. Donovan and Clint Dempsey were the only two legitimate candidates until Donovan decided to take time off and Dempsey lost his first team place at Tottenham Hotspur.
The debate is now a much more wide-open one, and it's one that Michael Bradley belongs in.
At his best, Bradley is perhaps a more influential player than Dempsey or Donovan has ever been, simply because Bradley is a central midfielder. Donovan and Dempsey were -- and should remain -- important to the team because they provide technical quality, creativity and an ability to score from nothing that other American players don't possess, but it's impossible for them to have the same comprehensive impact on a game as a top-notch two-way central midfielder (which is what Bradley is at the top of his game).
On Tuesday, the United States will not have Donovan when they face Panama. They also won't have his replacement, Graham Zusi, or even Bradley's midfield partner Jermaine Jones. The USMNT's replacements for the aforementioned are adequate, but not exceptional.
Eddie Johnson and Sacha Kljestan have limitations that will require multiple players on the team to step up -- none moreso than Bradley, however. For the United States to pull off a comfortable and emphatic victory, Bradley needs to turn in one of his best performances in a USMNT shirt.
The path that Bradley followed to obtain his current role in the team was an odd one. He was primarily an attacking midfielder at Heerenveen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, though he eventually transitioned into a deeper role with the latter club. His father and former coach, Bob Bradley, regularly played him as a box-to-box or defensive midfielder, causing a number of fans to call for Michael to be moved into a more attacking role.
Other fans didn't rate Bradley much at all and thought that the only reason he started over the likes of Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Jose Torres and Benny Feilhaber (yes, you're reading those names correctly) was pure nepotism. This became a more popular school of thought when Bradley failed to get on the pitch at Aston Villa, then was told he had no place in the ‘Gladbach team upon his return to Germany.
A strange thing happened after he moved to Chievo Verona, the perpetually mid-to-low-table Serie A side which plays some of the most defensive football in the country. Bradley established himself as a competent defensive player, a possession-recycling glue guy and a creative outlet all at once. Chievo are a negative side, but they're still very Italian. They don't have a playmaker, but they don't simply kick long balls up to their forwards and hope for the best like most defensive English and German sides do. Their central midfielders are expected to be competent in all areas - if not spectacular at anything - and Bradley fit the bill perfectly.
AS Roma found themselves in need of a player like Bradley this past summer and brought him in to be the glue in their midfield. While Daniele De Rossi sat back, Alessandro Florenzi surged forward and Erik Lamela drifted from his right wing spot to find space to receive the ball from his teammates and create scoring chances, Bradley facilitated transitions going both ways and helped Roma retain possession. His role was one in which a player is likely performing it best if they're not noticed at all. When the United States has their best side available, Bradley can perform a similar function.
The United States' 4-2-3-1 isn't the same as Roma's 4-3-3 and the players around Bradley might not be quite as talented, but their ultimate functions are similar. Zusi is a poor man's Lamela and Jones is expected to be both more aggressive going forward while being more tenacious in the tackle than Bradley. Dempsey is similar to Florenzi, just farther up the pitch. Bradley is still the glue between the other parts, though -- a task that's much trickier than it looks.
Bradley's role in the team will not change significantly in the absence of Zusi and Jones, but he's going to have to do a lot more than simply facilitate what his midfield partner and the players ahead of him do best.
Regardless of who replaces Zusi, there's going to be some kind of drop-off. Eddie Johnson doesn't have anywhere near the technical quality of Zusi and there's nothing wrong with that because Johnson and Zusi are entirely different players. Brad Davis is an adequate Zusi replacement, but he's much less dynamic and less likely to create something spectacular unless it comes from a dead ball.
In the midfield, Klinsmann's options to replace Jones are probably worse than his options to replace Zusi. Kljestan is nothing like Jones and much more like a poor man's Bradley. Geoff Cameron has the athleticism and tenacity of Jones, but it's been a very long time since he's played in midfield (aside from his quick cameo on Friday). Brad Evans could move into the middle, but Klinsmann is probably hesitant to move him after two surprisingly solid performances at right back. Moving Evans into midfield creates an entirely different problem without necessarily fixing the current one as Seattle Sounders supporters have spent an inordinate amount of time lamenting the limitations of Evans in the center of midfield.
Whoever Klinsmann starts at either position is going to have deficiencies -- and Bradley is going to have to make up for them more than anyone else on the pitch. He doesn't need to do anything spectacular defensively or creatively when the U.S. have their best XI available, but he'll have to be more than just the glue between his midfield partner and the American attackers against Panama. For the USMNT to record a resounding win -- not just a narrow one, which they can probably do at home without their best players -- they'll need Bradley to take over the midfield from all aspects, shouldering more of the creative and defensive burden than he normally does.
Bradley's proven on multiple occasions that he's able to take over a game for the United States. He was the best player on the pitch for either side in the first 60 minutes of the recent Germany friendly, was fantastic at the Azteca against Mexico and turned in dominant performances at home against Jamaica and Guatemala in the previous phase of World Cup qualifying.
However, Bradley was also merely average against Jamaica on Friday. Whether it was the weather, the athleticism of Jamaica's midfielders or some combination of the two that threw Bradley slightly off his game, he certainly wasn't at his best. Without Jones and Zusi in the team, he'll need to show a lot more than he did against the Reggae Boyz.
Against Panama, the United States' team needs Bradley to be spectacular. Panama are going to take away space in the midfield and their central defenders are hard to beat. Blas Perez's absence is a hindrance to the Panamanian counter attack, but they're still going to counter quickly and often through the center. Not only does Bradley need to help his team keep possession while staying in position to prevent easy counters, but he'll need to do a bit of breaking down the Panamanian defense and taking the ball off of attackers as well.
Without a spectacular performance from Bradley, the USMNT is going to have a tough time with Panama. He's up to the task of dominating a game, though, and his team should win comfortably if he's the best version of himself on Tuesday night.