Close your eyes.
Picture Toronto FC lining up in the tunnel before a match, ready to walk out onto the field.
Picture the lineups as the anthems are played, the coin toss, that one last handshake and photograph before the game begins. At BMO Field, after the final whistle, picture the players walking towards the south end to applaud the fans in thanks for their support.
Picture the wins and trophies, picture the losses and disappointments, picture all the kits, red, white, grey, black, in all those various combinations. Even that one with the bit of blue.
For all the players that have featured for the club and left their mark since 2007, who is the first that comes to mind?
For the last 10 years, from the 2014 season on, whether it was in the MLS regular season, the Canadian Championship, the Concacaf Champions League, the MLS Cup Playoffs, MLS Cup Finals, any competition, 9.999 times out of 10, Michael Bradley was there, front and centre.
Saturday, his 308th appearance, will be his final game for TFC.
Bradley announced on Tuesday that he would retire from professional football at the end of the season.
“How does it feel? I don't even really know quite honestly,” said Bradley as he opened his final press conference at the BMO Training Ground on Friday. “It's all the emotions. Really proud. Really excited. Really looking forward to enjoying one more game at BMO, one more game as a player, but, of course, it's bittersweet – there are no two ways around that. This has been my life for as long as I can remember and to know that in a lot of ways it's going to change that part is emotional for sure. It's been a week of a lot of different emotions, but I've enjoyed every second even of that part.”
“I batted around so many different things,” he continued. “Are you 100% sure with the decision? Are you 100% sure that this is the right thing to do? Once you put yourself through that wringer and have clarity on that, then the next question was when do I announce it? Do I announce it? Do I just play on Saturday and put something out on Monday and have that be that. There's been a lot. In all of it, one of the best things has been hearing from some of the people closest to me.”
“Guys that I played with, teammates, coaches, people who have worked behind the scenes at different clubs, the national team, guys that I grew up playing with. I’m not someone who has a million friends, but I have a close circle of really, really good ones. It’s life, everybody gets wrapped up and busy, we don’t always take the time to connect with each other, to reach out, to check in. There are certain moments when you get that,” Bradley smiled. “Some of the messages I received, some of the phone calls, some of the FaceTimes, that part has been amazing.”
Coming into the season, Bradley didn’t know that this would be the last.
“At the beginning of the season it wasn't even on my radar. It wasn't something that I was thinking about in any big way,” he explained. “I wasn’t naive, I knew that given my age and where I was in my career that I wasn't playing for 10 more years, but I felt really good, I was as motivated as ever, and I thought that we were on a good track in terms of getting things back going around here. And as the year played out, with my injury and with my dad getting fired, little by little, it just started to feel like there was going to be a real chance that this was the right time.”
“I love this club, I love this city. I have never stopped for one single second in 10 years trying to do everything I could to help us be successful, no matter the circumstances,” Bradley continued. “But you get to a point and you look at the things going on around you, you look at yourself, you look at your family, you try to take all of that into account. For the last few months, I was 99.9% sure that I was going to retire at the end of the year, but when you get to the end it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and that is way easier said than done. And on top of it then that coincided with John [Herdman] coming in.”
As possible futures come into view, even Michael Bradley has moments of doubt.
“He and I had a few really good conversations. He has been extremely respectful with me, honest, open, candid – and not just him, his staff – and so I've enjoyed that part of it. Even something as small as being back in the midfield during training, all of a sudden now you start to think to yourself, ‘Am I really ready to retire? Am I really ready to have this be the end?’” he allowed himself to wonder. “And so you start to try to think through things. The first thing that you think of is, ‘Well, I still love to play,’ and ‘I still feel really good.’ What you quickly then figure out is that I'm going to love to play forever and if that's the deciding factor, the love of the game, then I'll be trying to play when I can't walk anymore, so that doesn't work.”
“That can factor in, but that's not going to work in terms of the ultimate deciding factor here. And as a competitor, as someone who is so proud of who we are and what we've done, yeah, to end after a season like this... maybe in a perfect world, that's not the way it would go,” Bradley continued. “But then you start thinking about the other side and I'm really excited for the next chapter of my life and my career. I know what I want to do. I'm excited by that. I’m as motivated as can be to try to coach and to try to become the best possible coach that I can be, to coach at the highest level I can.”
“I know just because you've played doesn't guarantee anything, you have to start to work at it. You have to be ready to start from the bottom again, you have to be ready to put in the time, you have to be ready to do everything it takes to now throw yourself into something like that,” he laid out. “I thought about that. I thought about after 10 years, the idea that, as much as my family and I absolutely love Toronto, and it has been home and in a lot of ways it always will be, as a family, we need new experiences. My kids need to see something else, my kids need to be challenged in new ways – I need to be challenged in new ways again.”
“I've been walking in this building every single day for 10 years, and I love it, but at the same time on a human level, up until the time I came here, that was such a part of who I was. Two, three years somewhere and then always trying to move on to the next place, always trying to challenge myself, take myself to a new level,” Bradley recalled. “I found something here that I had never had before in my life and I loved every part of it, but I feel like now, in my life, my career, for my family, it's a really good time to start a new chapter.”
Though not wholly unexpected, the confirmation hit North American soccer like a wave. Whether halfway across the continent or closer to home.
“I was a little surprised,” said Drew Moor, former TFC defender now back with the Colorado Rapids as Analyst, Club Ambassador, and Rapids’ Academy Elite Development Coach. “Mike and I kept in touch since I left Toronto, we text each other about life, about family, about soccer.”
“He's somebody that I could have seen playing until he was well into his 40s because of just how much he loves it and how good he still is,” he continued. “I found out after training a couple of days ago when we got back in the locker room and guys were talking about it.”
Another former teammate, Ashtone Morgan was “kind of emotional.”
“I just did mine and finding out about Michael's.... He’s been a true pioneer for this club” he continued. “A lot of our times on the pitch, our travels and our experiences, I was getting a flood of memories in the hallway and I got hot.”
“He's been such an impactful person for this club and for the city,” Morgan added. “It's been infectious since the time I first met him. I loved all the moments I had with him.”
Saturday will be the final match of a long and storied club and international career that began when he signed a professional contract with Project-40, the precursor to Generation Adidas, as a 16-year-old and was selected in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft.
From the New York/New Jersey MetroStars to SC Heerenveen in Holland, Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany with a brief loan in England at Aston Villa. Then time in Italy, first with AC ChievoVerona and then AS Roma. Bradley was a trailblazer.
“It's so hard to fit into just 20 or 30 seconds what Mike has meant to, certainly TFC, but the US National Team as a whole and Major League Soccer,” said Moor “There's so many memories I have of watching the national team, of watching players abroad, of watching MLS, of watching TFC, and his face is in so many of those memories. My parents and my siblings loved watching Michael Bradley. I loved watching Michael Bradley.”
“It speaks to his work ethic and what he meant to the sport as a whole,” he continued. “Certainly his father, Bob, is a trailblazer in the coaching capacity, but Mike going to a club like Roma. He represented some clubs in Holland as well and some other countries, but to see an American starting and playing in huge matches, 90 minutes game in and game out for Roma was so impressive. And to then come back and be the face of TFC for the 10 years that he's been there has been a joy to watch.”
To the world he was Michael Bradley, TFC and US Men’s National Team Captain. To his teammates, he was Mike.
“I don't think I've ever called him ‘Michael.’ It's always ‘Mike’ to me,” laughed Morgan. “He's my teammate. He's one of my brothers. I sacrificed and I bled with this guy. I'm Ash; he's Mike.”
From his first day with the club, speaking at the Real Sports Bar and Grill, that intensity and focus was evident. You could see it in his eyes.
He got Toronto and Toronto got him.
“Toronto is a gritty city. Mike embraced that, he had that in him,” highlighted Morgan. “When he first came you could feel the difference of the intensity he brought every day. I was always so impressed, still impressed, how every day he comes to training. Always driving the energy, always has energy, always creating the professional environment every day.”
“I give him credit because some days when I didn't think I had it in me, I would just look at him beside me and he's still going,” he continued. “Those moments when some of us thought we could take a day off, he was always there to pick us up and maintain that level. For one person to start that off for this entire building, this entire club, to create that infectious thing of when we all show up, we're all going to maintain that level and maintain what it takes to be a part of this special club. He was the guy.”
He held the standard and made everyone around him better.
“Mike is somebody that just never switches off. He's always on, he's so focused. I used to joke that I never saw this guy fall asleep, ever. I just thought he plugs in at night like a laptop computer or something, just to recharge,” joked Moor. “If there's a game on, he's watching it and talking about it. If there was a transfer, he knows about it already. If there are rumours about a coach being hired or fired, he knows about it already.”
“There was one team flight where he was in the row across the aisle from me and I just happened to look over and he was starting to nod off. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is it. He's falling; he actually does, he falls asleep,’” he confirmed. “I was always so impressed with his focus, his energy and his passion, and what he puts into his craft, both on and off the field. He made me want to be a better student of the game. Certainly a better player on the field, but a better soccer person off the field. Everything that he got, he deserved because of his commitment and his work rate.”
He is the captain. He was.
Morgan’s favourite moment was the big one.
“Our treble season. When we finally raised the MLS Cup, the smile that I got to witness on this guy's face, I'll never forget it,” he explained. “He's a serious guy, he does crack a smile sometimes – despite what everybody says, but to see him raise that trophy for us, with us, for himself.”
“All the energy and sacrifice this guy has poured into this club, you could see how happy, all the emotions he had in that moment,” Morgan pinpointed. “To see that side of him, and for everybody to witness that side of him, was so so special.”
Recalling the Championship parade, winding through downtown atop double-decker buses with Bradley at the front, soaking it all in, one could tell what it meant to the man.
Moor offered one suggestion for his friend heading into this final match.
“Mike doesn't need advice from me, I know that for sure,” he laughed. “I would say enjoy this last game, enjoy the last couple moments, and really enjoy this next couple months.”
“Any time I got to go eat lunch or grab coffee with Mike and asked him about his family, his face lit up. He's all soccer all the time, but the man loves his family,” Moor continued. “And if I would ask about Amanda or Luca or Quinn or his dad or his siblings, his mom, his face would light up. So spend some time with your family, enjoy them. I know he does that, but enjoy a little bit of downtime because when you get back into whatever you end up doing, it's going to be a lot of work just like it was as a player.”
Through the 45 minutes of press conference, Bradley’s calm only flickered when talking about his family.
“I have an incredible family now and I grew up in an incredible family. The experiences that I had growing up, being around the game, sharing it with my dad, going on trips, being on fields, being in locker rooms, I was really fortunate to be able to see firsthand what it meant to work, what it meant to work hard, what it meant to be a pro, what it meant to be a good teammate, what it meant to compete, how to train, how to take care of yourself, how to treat people. I was really lucky,” he listed, asked about Bob Bradley’s influence on his career. “The experiences that I had with my dad growing up are a big part of who I am, but it's not just my dad.”
“I sent my mom a message the other night, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her and her sacrifice,” Bradley continued, with a slight pause. “She drove me all over the place at God knows what time to make sure that I could train with this team, play with that team. There were times when we were living in Chicago, Chicago is similar to here, cold winters, and so indoor field space is at a premium. I played for the Sockers, which was on the north side. Chicago Magic was the big rival, there would be games and training at Magic’s place, which was on the south side, and it could be Friday or Saturday night at like 11 o'clock or midnight, because that was the time.”
“I'd be inside playing and my mom would be in the car and my sisters would be in the back sleeping and she never batted an eye,” he smiled. “She would let me play and she'd take me home and she'd feed us and get us to bed and she'd wake up and do it all over again. The sacrifices that my family made for me, I'll always be grateful.”
10 years is a long time. 10 years in a soccer career even more so.
It’s a life of chance. You win some, you lose some. Even with the best of intentions one never knows just how a decision will turn out.
Bradley rolled the dice when he came to Toronto. And 10 years later, he was asked about that decision.
“Has it exceeded my expectations?” he repeated. “Without a shadow of a doubt.”
“I can remember when I first got here, people looking at me like I was crazy, asking if I was crazy. And then you had others who just thought that I was packing it in early and taking a big paycheck,” Bradley recalled. “I said to people at that time that wasn't true. I said to people at the time that I was hell bent on trying to come here and do everything I could to take what I thought could be such a special club and help turn it into something.”
“I can still remember speaking on the phone late one night in Rome to Tim Leiweke to Tim Bezbatchenko, I can remember listening to them and then sitting on the computer and going back to watch games from the year before, trying to educate myself even more to understand what Toronto is all about? What can this club be? And I went for it,” he continued. “There hasn't been one part of it that's been easy, but it has given me some of the proudest, most rewarding moments of my life and my career.”
“Some of the success that we had. I was just saying to somebody, we had things going at a really high level for a good few years there. On one hand, we're probably a few trophies short for how good we were, for the way that we played, for what we had built,” said Bradley. “People ask, what's your best memory? Or they presume – and in some ways they're right – 2017. Wow. Incredible. We won everything and for sure lifting that trophy at BMO on that night, that'll stay with me for the rest of my life.”
“But along the way, there are, especially as time goes on, you realize how lucky you were to be a part of something so special. I think about the way we played in the final in 2016 against Seattle,” he recalled. “With all due respect to Seattle – and I've gotten really nice messages from Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris and Brad Evans and Garth Lagerway, I have all the respect in the world for them, and they deserve everything that they've gotten – but the way we played that night, in a final, they could barely get across midfield.”
“Yeah, we didn't win, but to be on that field that night when the lights came on, the way we played, the way we competed, the atmosphere in the stadium, the way we were then able to use that to fuel us and drive us for the next year,” Bradley listed. “I don't think back on 2016 as this terrible, terrible day. Sure, would I have rather won? Would I have rather lifted the trophy that night? Absolutely. But it was a part of the journey. It was a part of who we were.”
There were a lot of those nights during Bradley’s time, including that epic Concacaf Champions League run in 2018.
“I think back to the second leg in Guadalajara – we lost the first leg 2-1 here. At that point, middle of April, we had played the final on December 9 the year before, had had a few weeks off, and right at the beginning of January we had started preseason again because we wanted to go for the Champions League with everything we had. By the time we got to the final we were running on fumes,” Bradley remembered. “We got down to Guadalajara a week early, there was a group of guys in Houston, we were spread thin, and as we’re there training one or two more guys get injured. You're looking around and honestly there's a point where you're thinking how are we even going to have a team to put on the field?”
“Not only do we put a team on the field, but we went into that stadium and beat a good Chivas team 2-1 in their stadium, when nobody else would have given us a chance in the world, and in the end we lose on penalties. Do I wish for my sake; do I wish for the club's sake, for our fans sake that we had been able to win that night? Yes, I do,” he levelled. “But it doesn't take away the memory of it, the experience of it. When I see [now TFC General Manager] Jason [Hernandez] walking around these halls, when I see Ash back around here, when Justin Morrow and I talk, when Drew Moor sends me a message. We all know.”
“And to feel that, to have that, to share that,” he closed. “I remember a group of fans that were up high in that stadium that night, I remember the letter that they wrote us afterwards. So did it exceed my expectations? Yeah.”
Press conference nearly over, a special guest entered from the wings: Victor Vázquez who asked the final two questions.
“The two most important questions,” began Vázquez. “One, are you going to miss me? Because I'm going to miss you a lot, Mike – what you did for this club, what you did for me when I came here with my family. And what are you going to miss the most?”
“You know I’ll miss you,” was Bradley’s answer to the first. “We had a special bond, a special connection from the day you first got here. When I think about people in my career, players that I've enjoyed playing with the most, who I could step on the field with and just feel like I understood every part of what you were doing and it was so easy, you go to the top of that list, so thank you.”
“And I'm going to miss the part of being with a group of guys and trying to find the right ways to challenge each other, to put our arms around each other to try to do something that we've all set out to do,” said Bradley of the second. “I'm going to miss the routine, the routine of what it means to get yourself ready to play. I'm going to miss all of that, but it's also why I know I have no choice but to stay really really close to the game, as close as I can.”
Afterwards Bradley went around the room, shaking hands and offering ‘thank yous’ to everyone in attendance.
Saturday will be one last chance to return the gesture.
It’s only fitting to let Bradley have the last word: “I love the game. I love every part of it.”
“I love to train, I love to play, I love the grind,” he continued, responding to a question about how he handled the ups and downs of a career. “Sure there are good moments and there are bad moments, there are moments where things come together in the way that you want, other moments where you feel like you're having to scratch and claw just to keep your head above water, but I love it all.”
“I never took one second for granted,” he closed. “I enjoyed every single part of it, of coming in every morning, of seeing the people at the different clubs where I played, I enjoyed the time with my teammates, I enjoyed when coaches I played for engaged me. I loved every part of it, so it never felt like work.”