Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Bradley Experiment: Can Il Generale Save Toronto FC?

This article originally appeared in The Shin Guardian

Toronto FC’s 2007 entrée into MLS began with a bang, as sold out and rowdy crowds established their supporters as inarguably the best MLS had seen up to that point.  Success on the field that first season was harder to come by, as the club limped to six wins and found itself at the bottom of the table.  Seven playoff-less years later and not much has changed.  It should be noted that, in a league where the majority of teams make the playoffs, this run of futility is actually quite remarkable (the odds are approximately 0.38% or 1 in 261).   

Despite having a payroll above the league average, Toronto enter 2014 with six wins their last 48 games and 17 in their last 102.  That’s an average of less than six wins a year in the last three seasons.  Over that period of time the club has been the worst in MLS, which is somewhat of an accomplishment given Chivas USA’s results over the same period.  By the end of 2013, growing fan ennui and dissatisfaction had reduced the once-paragon of MLS support, BMO Field, to a lifeless and half-filled shell of its former self. Then Tim Leiweke happened.

A primary architect behind David Beckham’s move to the LA Galaxy (subject of Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment), the newly installed President and CEO of Maple Leafs Entertainment made a splash by signing Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley in a dramatic coup.  Those signings, combined with the arrival of Dwayne De Rosario, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and striker Gilberto, have placed Toronto in a “win-now” mode where playoff qualification is the bare minimum.  Defoe is undoubtedly the more recognizable name globally, but it is the acquisition of Bradley that garnered the most surprise.  At 26 years old, and squarely in his prime, the American international is tasked with writing a new narrative in Toronto FC’s history.  Further cementing Bradley’s importance to the club, there are early indications that he will be the club’s captain entering their 2014 campaign.  Winning the press conference is one thing, but what on-field attributes does Michael Bradley bring to Toronto? Perhaps more important, what will he need to do in order to lead the club to its first playoff appearance?

The Problem

Toronto struggled in almost every facet of the game in 2013.  But they were particularly weak when in possession of the ball.  They scored the second fewest goals in the league, attempted the second fewest shots, had the second fewest passes per possession (2.5, a full pass per possession less than RSL’s 3.5), and attempted the most long balls as a percent of total passes (17%).  Playing direct soccer is not a bad thing, but playing direct and ineffectual soccer will not win you many games.  If Toronto had just managed to be an average MLS offense last season, they would have been in the playoff hunt.  Toronto needs improvement in all three facets of offense: maintain better possession, create more opportunities, and finish those opportunities.

The Solution

Michael Bradley is not a goal scorer. Yes, once upon a time he scored 16 league goals for Heerenveen in the Eredivisie, but he has just three league goals in his last 76 Serie A matches for Chievo and Roma.  Finishing chances will be up to Defoe and Gilberto—that’s why they were brought in.

Michael Bradley is not a goal creator.  Bradley is not a number 10 whose role it is to sit behind the strikers and ping defense-shredding passes.  Of course he can and will hit those, but for the most part he has not been asked to play that role for club or country.

Michael Bradley is an elite distributor and an excellent ball-winner.  In the 2012-2013 season Bradley had the third highest pass completion percent (89.4%) of any Serie A midfielder.  In his brief 2013-2014 Roma campaign he was at 91.9%, good enough for third highest in all of Serie A.  Of course, on its face, a high completion percent does not mean very much as the vast majority of these passes are simple short passes.  Nevertheless, even within that tactical context, he was one of the best in a top European league. 

The chart below shows some of the most pertinent statistics from the past five years of his club career, as well as his performance with the US national team.  You will notice that his Shots per 90 and Key Passes (shot assists) per 90 have stayed relatively constant at approximately 1 each.  Of particular interest is the relationship between passing percentage and his defensive actions (Tackles + Interceptions / 90).  On better teams (Roma and USMNT) he has a much higher passing percentage but fewer defensive actions.  On Chievo and ‘Gladbach, by contrast, he was tasked with doing more defensive work while struggling with ball circulation (presumably when in possession he was under more duress on those teams).  Bradley has proven to be an adaptable player.

The key for him is to find a way to be elite at both ball distribution and ball-winning for Toronto.   

Another key statistic to watch is Bradley’s pass usage rate.  As I define it, pass usage rate is a player’s number of passes a match divided by his team’s number of passes.  This statistic measures how involved a player is in their team’s distribution. 

You can see from this table just how important Bradley is to the USMNT and how his role has decreased in the past year at Roma.  Interestingly, if you compare his USMNT usage rate to every player in the EPL this year (286 players), it is higher than any player in the EPL.  No player in the EPL is as involved in his team’s pass distribution as Bradley is to the USMNT.

In essence, the Michael Bradley we have seen over the past few years for the US is the Michael Bradley Toronto needs.  Much like a point guard initiating the offense, Bradley needs to demand the ball and set the tempo, getting the ball to the feet of Toronto’s playmakers. 

Many US fans, and even Jurgen Klinsmann, have been critical of Bradley’s move to Toronto.  They argue that by moving to a league of lower standard he is not challenging himself, thereby limiting his ability to raise his game.  In many ways, however, the opposite is true.  What could be more challenging than being tasked with changing the perception of an entire franchise and, by extension, the sporting fortunes of an entire city? At Roma, Bradley’s challenge was simple: practice well, play well, get playing time, receive the ball, pass it to De Rossi, maintain shape. At Toronto, the challenge is more expansive: play well every game, be a leader, inspire your team, win games.  In a sense, holding some personal responsibility for winning or losing games is a bit crazy for a soccer player:  your average influence on a game’s outcome is literally less than 5% (1 of 22).  But that is the challenge Bradley has taken on – a primarily qualitative endeavor that must yield quantifiable results.

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