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The game slows down for the greatest of athletic performers in almost an unexplainable way, the way it always slowed down for Michael Bradley.
He seemed to be in charge, like the best of quarterbacks in the pocket, like a Drew Brees or a Ricky Ray with inexplicable vision. Playing a different position, one that didn’t score a lot, yet he had a little of that Wayne Gretzky intuition that can never be taught.
You either have it or you don’t.
For 10 years with Toronto FC, the game slowed down around Bradley, who always seemed to be in control. You may not have known the other players on the pitch, their names, their numbers, but you always knew who he was and where he was, looking not necessarily fast enough or athletic enough to be great, but almost always in charge.
For 10 years, one championship, two championship defeats, some turmoil and some brilliance, Bradley shone on the landscape of this normally frustrated sporting city. Ten years is more than a lifetime to play with any single team in any sport.
Roberto Alomar, the greatest Blue Jay, played only five seasons in Toronto. Doug Gilmour, the beloved former Maple Leaf, played parts of six seasons with the Leafs. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry each lasted nine years with the Raptors. Wendel Clark’s first of three runs with the Leafs lasted nine years also. The recently honoured Jose Bautista played nine full seasons and one month with the Jays. Ray quarterbacked the Argos for seven seasons, winning two Grey Cups.
Not surprisingly, Pinball Clemons — the current GM of the Argos, the former head coach, the former club president, the former team ambassador — played 12 seasons in Toronto. His last game was 23 years ago.
This is it for Michael Bradley as a professional soccer player. The press release was sent out Tuesday afternoon announcing his retirement. There will be a press conference of some sort done on Thursday. Whatever attention he gets, now and in the future, is deserved.
There is no Hall of Fame exclusively for Toronto athletes. But, if there was, Bradley would be on his way there, along with the names mentioned above.
He was so much a part of the foundation of a franchise that wasn’t great when he got here as part of that ‘Bloody Big Deal.’ TFC became dominant, but his time ended, unfortunately, with three rather dreadful campaigns.
I remember a meeting held at the offices of MLSE after one of the horrible early seasons Bradley had in Toronto. The meeting was held to pitch media, newspaper by newspaper, television network by television network, on the notion that TFC wasn’t going to stand for losing anymore.
Bradley spoke passionately that sales pitch day, pulling his own Messier, all but promising a championship or at least promising winning soccer.
His words were not hollow or forced. They came from the heart. He wasn’t going to stand for losing anymore and, not long after that, TFC played for an MLS title, then won a title, and then lost a second one, all in a four-year span.
“I told you,” he said outside the dressing room as the champagne sprayed at BMO Field after the TFC win in 2017.
He wasn’t saying it to stick something back in your face. He was saying it in celebration because he believed it would happen, he knew it would happen, that his proclamation would come true.
”For me, the focus has always been the success of the team since I got here,” he told me in 2019 interview. “In a lot of ways, I was always going to be judged on whether we won or lost. The reality is, the position I play (midfielder), I’ll never be the guy to rack up a ton of goals and assists. It takes people who really know the game and understand the game to be able to watch and know what I do and that’s fine.
“But ultimately, when I got here, I always knew my time here was going to be judged on whether we won trophies and, on the biggest days, what the team was about.”
The past two years have been difficult. His body was getting older, his health to play professional sport was challenged.
His father, Bob, had come in to coach his team and his Uncle Jeff was in charge of media relations. It was all Bradley all over TFC and, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work.
Uncle Jeff left the job on his own. His dad got fired. Bradley almost ended up where he first began in Toronto, just 10 years older and, at 36 years old, with a body no longer cooperating with him. But that run in the middle, almost five seasons of being dominant, was unlike almost any Toronto sporting run in recent times.
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“The sports landscape in Toronto is unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s an unbelievable sports city,” said Bradley, who played nine years in Germany and Italy before transferring to the MLS. “We’re TFC and, yes, the Maple Leafs have their games and the Raptors have theirs — there’s a real sense of us — but a real sense of pride that we represent not just ourselves, but something much bigger. We’re incredibly lucky … what it means to represent Toronto and represent this city, that had be driven home time and time again.”
The relationship, right to the end, was mutually beneficial. Toronto made him better, he made Toronto better.
Ten years of Michael Bradley was a bloody big deal.