End of an era as Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley announces plans to retire
FILE - Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley in action during the first half of an MLS soccer match against D.C. United, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Washington. Toronto FC announced Tuesday, Oct. 17. 2023, that Bradley, a former U.S. captain, will retire from soccer at age 36 after Toronto's season finale this weekend. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams, File)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, October 17, 2023 5:03PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, October 17, 2023 5:03PM EDT
TORONTO - Four years ago, with Michael Bradley's contract expiring at the end of the season, Toronto FC supporters made their feeling known by hoisting a giant banner honouring him in the south stand of BMO Field.
Underneath the tifo, which showed Bradley applauding the fans, a smaller banner read “Your City. Your Legacy. Our Captain Forever.”
Bradley, who would sign a new deal some three months later, had kept his contract negotiations under wraps to avoid distractions.
The 36-year-old midfielder went to the same playbook in announcing Tuesday he is retiring after TFC's season finale Saturday against visiting Orlando City.
No fanfare. Just a simple Instagram post, showing Bradley as a boy kicking a soccer ball. “A dream come true. Thank you, for everything. MB.” read the caption.
A release from the club soon followed.
“For the last 10 years I have spilled my blood, sweat and tears trying to help this club be the best it could be,” Bradley said in the statement. “There were some incredible days - moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life - and some bad ones too. But I never stopped giving everything I had.
“Thank you to all my teammates, coaches, and everyone inside the club. Thank you to the fans for the unforgettable nights at BMO Field. This city and this club will always be home.”
Bradley has operated under the radar most of the season and was rarely available to discuss his future as the club, currently languishing at the bottom of the MLS standings at 4-19-10. He underwent surgery on his hamstring in May and did not return to action until August. In the meantime his father, Bob Bradley, was fired as head coach and sporting director.
In his 10 seasons in Toronto, Michael Bradley was the club's undisputed leader and alpha dog.
“He sets the standard for everybody down in that locker-room as to what it should look like when you come to work every single day,” then-Toronto coach Greg Vanney said in November 2019 on the eve of Bradley's 200th game for Toronto.
Bradley was the first out on the pitch before every game, to inspect the turf. During warm-ups, he was soccer's equivalent to Tony Robbins, clapping his hands and talking to his teammates.
His departure is likely the first of many as new coach John Herdman picks among the roster wreckage of the once-proud franchise.
Herdman praised Bradley last week, but also signalled change could be coming.
“He knows the respect I have for him,' Herdman said. ”He knows that I think heroes have always got to return and there's an opportunity to return next year for Mike. What he has innately as a human being is a leadership quality and quantity that you just can't buy â€¦ But I think for Michael, he's got to really feel that this is where he wants to be. He's got to feel the purpose. He's got to feel that Toronto FC and that return to rebuild the club is what he wants to invest his life in.
“And if it's not there at 100 per cent, we both know it can't work. And we've been honest.”
Bradley's decision came Tuesday.
Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, the club's longest-serving player, merits consideration as the next TFC captain. Osorio is as honest as the day is long and equally committed to the club as Bradley.
Plus he is a known quantity for Herdman from their Canada days together.
Bradley joined Toronto in January 2014 as a designated player, along with Jermain Defoe.
The U.S. captain was second fiddle to the England striker - TFC parked a double-decker bus with the Toronto FC logo and the words “It's a Bloody Big Deal” outside their joint news conference at real Sports Bar and Grill.
But it was Defoe who left after one season while Bradley became a fixture. He recently made his 300th appearance for Toronto across all competitions.
“Over the past decade with Toronto FC, Michael Bradley has become a club legend,” Toronto president Bill Manning said in a statement. “As captain in over 300 games, Michael has raised many trophies along the way and has represented this club in the best possible way. His accomplishments with TFC will live on forever and all of us at the club thank him for the memories.”
Added GM Jason Hernandez, who played alongside Bradley: “As a member of Toronto FC, Michael served as the captain and driving force of the most prolific period of success in our club's history.”
Bradley scored 19 goals in 308 appearances in all competitions for the club. But goals were not his forte. Winning was.
Toronto, which had won just 51 regular-season games in the seven seasons before Bradley arrived, won 96 in his first seven campaigns which included trips to the MLS Cup final in 2016, '17 and '19.
Bradley led Toronto to one MLS Cup, one Supporters' Shield and four Canadian Championships, helping the club to an unprecedented treble in 2017 (MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship).
In 2018, TFC made it to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, losing to Guadalajara in a penalty shootout.
But the last three seasons have seen the club take a nosedive.
This season aside, Bradley was ever-present leading Toronto out. He played 24 or more league games in eight of his 10 seasons with the club.
His focus was legendary. And he missed nothing.
Cross Bradley, and he would pull you aside to set you straight. It was done politely, albeit with a pair of eyes burning into you like a laser.
Bradley has played a variety of roles in Toronto colours, used as a box-to-box midfielder in the early days before focusing on shielding the Toronto backline. While no speedster, he read the game well and had a good turn of speed over a short distance, allowing him to disrupt attacks.
In recent years, the risk/reward ratio of his play tilted somewhat but still remained in his favour. And he could also deliver a pass on a dime, often setting the table for counterattacks.
It was a measure of Toronto's defensive deficiencies this season that Bradley was moved into the backline in recent weeks.
Born in Princeton, N.J., Bradley signed a Project-40 (now Generation Adidas) contract with MLS at the age of 16 and was taken 36th overall in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft by the MetroStars.
He spent two seasons in MLS before moving to Europe, first with SC Heerenveen in the Netherlands and then Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, Aston Villa in England, Chievo and AS Roma in Italy.
But he found a home in Toronto
“My position is I love the club, love the team and love the city,” Bradley said back in 2019. “And I've never felt more at home anywhere in my life than here, in every sense - in a sporting sense, in a family sense. That part, that's an incredible feeling.”
Bradley lived in Toronto year-round with his wife and two kids. On any given weekend, they could seen in their midtown neighbourhood, doing what families do.
He was well compensated for his efforts, earning some US$45 million over his time in Toronto.
The first six years as a designated player, he collected $6.5 annually. But for the last four seasons, he gave up his DP status and accepted a lesser salary - $1.5 million a year for three seasons and then $614,285 this year - allowing the club to sign another marquee name while recognizing also perhaps that no one cheats Father Time.
Bradley won 151 caps for the U.S. between 2006 and 2019, registering 17 goals and 23 assists. He featured in every U.S. match at the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups.
Bradley was named U.S. Young Male Athlete of the Year (2007), U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year (2015), won the CONCACAF Gold Cup Golden Ball (2017), and earned two CONCACAF Men's Best XI (2015, 2018) and Gold Cup Best XI (2017, 2019) selections.