the Toronto FC legend who will be long remembered

Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Twice in my life, I have been heartbroken over a parasocial relationship.

The first time was 31 May 1998; I was 11 years old and Geri Halliwell announced that she had left the Spice Girls. I remember going to bed, refusing to eat dinner, crying my eyes out because I could not imagine a world without all five of the Spice Girls.

The second time was 17 October 2023; I was 36 years old and Michael Bradley announced his retirement from Toronto FC.

Now, in 25 years my coping methods have evolved. Despite being absolutely brokenhearted over the news, I managed to eat dinner that night. However, I also told my partner that I needed to be left alone for a while and I signed off social media saying I was getting too much “sadxiety” (sad anxiety) to read any more about Bradley.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have seen players retire from teams I love before. But an announcement hasn’t quite hit me like Bradley’s and for the last few days, I have been trying to figure out why.

And I think I finally got it.

For old-timers like me – those who lived in Toronto FC’s stands through the Mo Johnston-era of 2007 through 2010 and then the lost Payne years that followed (which I wrote about for the Guardian in 2013) – Michael Bradley became our beacon of hope. He was an authentic, organic success that made Toronto FC the team that we were promised in 2007 and we now long for in 2023.

Talent, passion, without the egos or T-shirt deals. Just a love for the club and the performance to match it.

Let me explain.

To understand the importance and uniqueness of Michael Bradley, you need to first understand Toronto FC. Introduced to MLS in 2007 (the aforementioned Mo Johnston-era), TFC was instantly popular in a sports-obsessed city, with a large immigration population.

While Toronto had football teams before, none were at the level of TFC. The club is owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), who also own the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL), Toronto Raptors (NBA), Toronto Argonauts (CFL), Toronto Marlies (AHL), Raptors 905 (NBA G League), as well as a handful of esports teams. MLSE saw the potential of TFC and invested in the club; they built it and the fans did come.

At least, for a while.

In the early seasons of TFC, tickets were on par with Leafs tickets in terms of demand. Games were sold out and the tiny Toronto neighborhood of Liberty Village became an adopted home for football fans.

But pretty soon the novelty wore off.

TFC weren’t winning, their star players were fading, and the relationship between fans and the club bigwigs quickly soured. Perhaps a familiar story to current fans.

Anyway, MLSE knew they needed to fix the club and in 2014, TFC were given big promises and big names, resulting in a bloody big deal.

It was 2014, the year of Jermaine Defoe. The club had signed a famous footballer, still in his prime, who wanted to play for one of the worst top-tier clubs in the world (statistically speaking). Defoe was coming to save Toronto and the club had the marketing campaign to prove it.

It was also the year of Michael Bradley.

However, he was just an afterthought in the Defoe press frenzy. Yes, Bradley signed on as a DP and yes, he was featured on marketing material, but he wasn’t a bloody big deal. He wasn’t even a bloody medium-sized deal. That same year, Toronto’s homegrown hero Dwayne DeRosario re-signed for Toronto and other MLS stalwarts, like Justin Morrow, were announced.

Heck, even Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César was loaned to TFC for a short period in 2014!

Bradley, all things considered, was a nice addition, but definitely not a bloody big deal.

Turns out, he would become the bloody biggest deal.

And I think that’s why this retirement announcement is so hard. Because no one ever thought it would get to the point where this would be so hard.

Michael Bradley of Toronto FC lifts the trophy after winning the 2017 MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

By all accounts, Michael Bradley shouldn’t have been a success in Toronto, let alone the legend that he is today. An American, coming to Toronto, by the way of Italy was not the selling point it is now. Bradley was starting to be viewed as a journeyman, bouncing from club to club, league to league. What interest, or loyalty, would he offer Toronto? And while a player from Roma was a positive in many fans’ eyes, the USA captain raised eyebrows for patriot supporters with a chip on their shoulder for their southern neighbors.

What Toronto wanted, and needed, was an instant impact in 2014. That meant flashy goals and highlight reel-worthy plays.

We didn’t get that.

Instead, we got the calm, calculated, and commandeering nature of Bradley, talent without the ego, impact without the flash. A true general: someone who cared more about the club, than his individual career.

And that’s why Bradley is so important to Toronto: as a player, as a captain, and as a teammate it was never about him. It was about the club. He played for the badge, not the clout. He cared about Toronto and Toronto cared about him.

With Toronto’s most recent season fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s sometimes hard to remember what an impact its captain has had on the club in the last nine years.

Under Bradley’s leadership, Toronto FC became MLS Cup winners, Supporters’ Shield winners, multiple Canadian Championship winners, and almost Concacaf Champions League winners (lost on penalties, one missed by Bradley himself, in 2018).

Under Bradley’s leadership, TFC regained the respect of a sports-obsessed city, spoiled for choice on teams in other sports. Toronto also became a team to beat (and dare I say fear) across the league and across the continent. They became winners, title holders, and models of MLS success.

Under Bradley’s leadership, TFC went from dysfunctional to flourishing. The trio of Bradley, fellow countryman Jozy Altidore, and fellow Serie A man Sebastian Giovinco, is considered one of the best sports trifectas in Toronto-sports history, potentially in MLS history.

Under Bradley’s leadership, his own career thrived, he played more than 300 games with Toronto across all competitions, is the longest-serving captain in TFC history, and was recently inducted as a Toronto FC Legend, voted in by the TFC support sections.

But also under Bradley’s leadership, TFC went from best to worst in what seemed like a blink of an eye.

As we reflect on his retirement, it’s easier to reminisce about his achievements. But we also have to look at his faults, and worse, his “what could have beens?”

And maybe that’s another reason why his retirement is so hard to accept: it feels like there was so much more potential for him at Toronto.

For example, what if he didn’t get injured and played a full 2023 season? Could he have turned the team around once again?

How would he have worked with his father, Bob Bradley, who was both signed and released by Toronto FC as head coach this season? Could he have bridged the locker room before the team fell apart?

And what about his impact on his teammates, especially the current Italian DP signings? Arguably Bradley’s best game this season, scoring two in a 4-0 win over Charlotte FC, involved both Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi with assists. Surely Bradley, who is fluent in Italian (along with English, Dutch, German and Spanish), would have had a positive impact on the underperforming Italians, had he been on the pitch with him. Was Bradley the missing piece for all that was lost in translation – literally and figuratively – this season?

And, of course, the most important question: where do we go next without our captain, without his leadership, and without a vision?

For Bradley himself, his future seems pretty clear. He recently joined Stabæk as an assistant coach, rejoining his father who is currently the head coach of the Norwegian side. If his leadership on the sidelines is even a fraction of his leadership on the pitch, Bradley will be coaching in no time at all. But only time will tell.

But, for now, it’s time to come to terms that Bradley is no longer a Red.

Bradley will forever be remembered by Toronto FC fans as leading us to the top echelon of the league and staying with us in the bowels of Hell. Despite how this season ended, we remember all that he did for our club, for our crest, and for us. He is our captain and forever a Red.

Thank you, Michael Bradley. And may we meet again soon.

You never know. I mean, even Geri eventually rejoined the Spice Girls.


Recommended For You

About the Author: soccernews