SEATTLE — Michael Bradley was alone at CenturyLink Field.
He was at the center of it all, in front of 69,274 screaming fans as well as the Seattle Sounders‘ bench and staff rushing onto the field to join the celebrations moments after the final whistle was blown. But Bradley stood alone, processing that he and Toronto FC had fallen just short of MLS Cup.
Bradley stood crestfallen, his unmissable silhouette a figure of dejection, just like the rest of his teammates, who were scattered around the pitch largely where they were when the game ended a minute or two prior.
Before long, after speaking with the referee crew, Bradley walked towards the TFC bench but passed it. He wasn’t going to sit down, nor embrace a teammate who had taken a load off. He reached the edge of the turf and leaned on a barrier by himself, but all of a sudden he wasn’t alone.
Bradley looked to the crowd and picked out his 7-year-old son in the distance. Father and son shared a poignant moment, as the TFC captain forced through a smile. He gave a thumbs-up and pointed. Then he blew a kiss to his boy and forced through another smile. The interaction might have been half a minute, but it seemed to transcend time.
In that moment he wasn’t Michael Bradley the TFC captain and leading man, the guy coming to grips with losing in a final. He was Michael Bradley the father, worried about nothing else than ensuring his son was okay. It helps put things in perspective.
“My son is 7 years old and, if it’s possible, he probably wanted us to win more than me,” Bradley told reporters in a somber locker room following the game Sunday. “That’s saying something. At that point I was just trying to make sure he understands this is all part of it and life goes on.”
He’s right: Life does go on. TFC are facing big decisions this offseason, none bigger than his future. After six hugely successful seasons in Toronto, will Bradley be back with the club in 2020?
When Toronto appointed Ali Curtis GM in January, he arrived to something of a fire drill.
Unexpectedly, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez would be departing the club. Curtis and his staff would have to find a way to replace two players who combined for 45 goals plus assists in 2018 – in what was considered a down year for Toronto. Jozy Altidore and Bradley were entering the final years of their contracts, too, further complicating things.
Curtis navigated the departures, and after an arduous process that teetered contentiously for weeks, signed Alejandro Pozuelo. The club handed Altidore a new contract extension, too. (That leaves two of next season’s Designated Player slots accounted for.) Omar Gonzalez joined over the summer, beefing up the backline. Quinten Westberg, signed last winter, won the starting goalkeeper job. More is expected from wingers Erickson Gallardo and Nicolas Benezet, who joined alongside Gonzalez in midseason.
It was a whirlwind, but the front office forged ahead. The club reached MLS Cup 2019 despite neither Altidore nor Gonzalez featuring a minute in the first three rounds of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Now, there are more big questions the club will have to answer this winter. First and foremost, Bradley’s future.
It was reported by The Athletic heading into the game that Bradley’s $6.5 million 2020 contract option – held by the team – would be automatically triggered if the Reds won MLS Cup. Given his salary, which was reportedly second-highest in MLS behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season per the MLS Players Association, it’s expected Toronto will seek to negotiate a new deal.
Bradley indicated to The Athletic in October that he’d be willing to return on a contract structured much differently, in part due to his love for the city, club and fans.
“Listen, the fans were unbelievable,” Bradley said Sunday. “That corner up there was nothing but red. We could hear them the whole time, from the moment we walked out before the game until after the final whistle. They were amazing. On behalf of everybody in [the locker room], we thank them for making the trip and their support. The relationship that this team has with our fans, the city, is special.”
But who knows what that contract will look like for club and player? There are many details to figure out. It remains to be seen what happens next for Bradley’s future. That’s where it starts this winter for TFC.
If Bradley returns, what kind of cap flexibility will the club have? Could it be a Targeted Allocation Money deal, which would much less than he has made since joining the club, but opening up a third DP slot for TFC? If so, in which positional area would a DP investment be best served on the roster?
“We have all the resources we need to be a championship type of club,” Curtis said in the days leading up to MLS Cup. “Mr. Larry Tanenbaum [chairman of TFC’s owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment] has supported this organization in an unbelievable way. Our players are talented. They show up with a lunchbox and a hard hat to go to work, which is very important.”
Behind Bradley, Curtis & Co. have more to adjudicate.
Benezet and Gallardo didn’t quite have an immediate impact on Toronto, who were public in their search to add wingers to their squad this season. The former was a key member of the team in the playoffs – scoring one gigantic goal against Atlanta – while the latter didn’t feature in any of the club’s final three regular-season games nor any of the playoff run.
Will the club provide Greg Vanney with another option out wide, or run it back with Benezet, Gallardo, Tsubasa Endoh and others?
Toronto had success with Pozuelo as a false No. 9 in part because it beefed up the midfield more, as Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado clogged the center of the pitch during their playoff run. With Altidore fit, TFC will have to find the best balance between their tremendous attacking duo and midfield stability.
The club will have planned for all these prompts, no doubt, and their summer will be an interesting one.
“We are where we are for a real reason,” Curtis said. “It’s good.”
It all starts with Bradley.
After he and his son shared their moment, the captain turned and made his way back across the field. He had to detour around the middle of the field, now featuring a stage jammed with celebrating Seattle players and their staff, around his despondent TFC teammates. Confetti was in the forecast.
Bradley approached the traveling support, the only red section at CenturyLink in a sea of rave green, yelling all game long even when it was clear Seattle would be winning MLS Cup.
He showed his appreciation for a fan base that has been behind him for years. A sanctuary of support to balance all the hostile environments he’s been in, all the crowds that boo. There, he clapped, then blew a kiss, just as he had with his boy.
In those two wonderful moments, both brief and fleeting instances surrounding the heartbreak of losing a cup final, Michael Bradley wasn’t alone anymore.