DAVID SMITH - Tuesday, May 25, 2010
With only days remaining until his debut on the world's biggest stage, Michael Bradley feels the team's mentality and character will provide the US a solid backbone for a special performance in South Africa.
The team heads into their first of three tune-up friendlies on Tuesday evening against the Czech Republic approximately one week after coming together for their training camp in Princeton, New Jersey.
Rejoining with his US teammates over the past four years as well as seeing a handful of new faces being integrated into the mix has reaffirmed Bradley's confidence in the camaraderie which he sees as one of their most important and consistent strengths.
"The chemistry here has been great," he states of the close-knit group of 30 players in the camp. "Every time we come in together, the guys enjoy being around each other - spending time together at meals and in each others rooms even the running at the end of practice, it all brings us closer."
"When we come here, there's a real feeling that the national team is something special and something different than any of us have in our club teams," he continues. "We're excited to be here and we know there's something special coming around the corner."
As with the lead-up to World Cup four years ago in Germany, the team is balancing high expectations among fans and players based on recent international success - in this case the second-place finish at least summer's Confederation's Cup - with the perennial underdog status in a tournament which includes a number of heavyweight favorites such as Brazil, Spain, Germany and Holland.
The 22 year-old midfielder takes their experience from last summer's unexpected run in the South African warm-up as a lesson that expectations of a favorite can be rendered meaningless when a strong run and lady luck are standing on the other side of the ball.
"In big tournaments the team that wins is the team that's in good form at the right time," he asserts. "You get a little bit of luck here or there, and are able to put together some good results."
"We'll go in with the mentality that when we do the things that make us a good team, then on our day we have a chance to beat anybody."
One worrisome constant for the team over the course of the final months leading up to this summer's festivities has been a steady stream of injuries to both starters and expected contributors to the team.
While they have been fortunate to have most recovered in the nick of time to fully participate in the pre-tournament camp, Bradley prefers to see the team keep their focus on those intangible factors which lie within control of the players rather than allowing unexpected setbacks dictate their attitude.
"I think it is what you make of it," he reacts to the glut of news focused on his teammates' health. "There are things that you can't control, but the things that you can control are the attitude and the mentality of the team, how much each guy puts into it, and how much each guy is committed to putting aside themselves for the good of the team."
"We have a team full of guys who are ready to do that and ready to give everything to see if we can really be successful," he stated confidently.
Along with his growing role in the national team in the four years since the US' first-round exit in Germany, Bradley's club career in Europe has simultaneously blossomed, a factor he feels is crucial for the national team as a whole as they look towards future successes.
"It's been good to go to Europe and start to get experience playing in big games and big competitions," he confirms. "The more guys we can have on this team who are in Europe and playing 90 minutes every weekend, that will only help us."
The experience has led him to face many of the world's top players, particularly over the last two seasons with German Bundesliga team Borussia Mönchengladbach, which has served as an inevitable eye-opener as to his own abilities and determination to work towards being the best player possible.
"You realize that as hard as you work and as good as you might think you are, there's always somebody better, and somebody who works harder," he posits. "The constant battle to improve yourself as a player, to do more for your team and in the end, to be a part of a team that has done something special, those are the things you remember."
Bradley's outspoken and vocal style both on and off the field, as well as his intense resoluteness during games are qualities seen by many as those emblematic of a player natural of a leadership role.
At 22 years old he still stands as one of the more junior members of the team despite his 40-plus caps, but many of his older teammates have seen his potential as a leader and have taken a role in fostering these qualities with an eye for the future in mind.
"Obviously there's older guys [...] who have been around here and are looked to for leadership, and these guys encourage me to do more and to take a bigger role," he admits.
"That's something exciting for me and I appreciate that challenge, so just in my own way on and off the field, I'm trying to do what I can to help the team."
Bradley and his fellow teammates will line up on Tuesday evening against the Czech Republic in Hartford, Connecticut, before heading towards Philadelphia four days later to face Turkey in their final tune-up game stateside.
A June 5th friendly against Australia in Johannesburg will give the team one last chance to fine-tune before opening the tournament one week later against England.