TORONTO — Captain Michael Bradley celebrates his 100th game with Toronto FC on Saturday night, a run that not coincidentally marks the MLS franchise's turnaround from league doormat to league leader.
Marquee striker Jermain Defoe got most of the attention on Jan. 13, 2014, when he and Bradley were unveiled. Then MLSE boss Tim Leiweke waxed poetic about signing the stars, reaching for the words of Bobby Kennedy as he tried to capture the start of a soccer Camelot.
"Some people see things as they are and say ‘Why?' Others dream of what can be and they say ‘Why not.'"
"Today is why not," Leiweke added. "Why can't we be great?"
These days TFC is looking the part with Bradley leading the way.
Toronto famously parked a London double-decker bus outside that introductory news conference, with a Defoe-themed marketing campaign boasting the tag: "It's a bloody big deal."
In a way, the marketing department was right. They just had the wrong millionaire player driving the bus.
Defoe lasted a year, scoring goals when healthy but was never happy on this side of the Atlantic. Bradley made Toronto his home and TFC his team.
Toronto (6-17-11) finished ninth in the Eastern Conference in 2013, the season before Bradley arrived. The team improved to 11-15-8 (seventh) in 2014 and 15-15-4 (sixth) in 2015 when it finally made the playoffs.
TFC made the MLS Cup final last year (14-9-11, third) and now tops the league at 8-2-5.
After years of slashing ticket prices in a bid to retain season-ticket holders, the franchise now has no more to sell — season tickets were recently capped at 21,000.
Bradley, 29, has set the tone on and off the field, helping pull a moribund franchise out of the soccer mire.
"He's spilled his blood and guts onto the training field and onto the match field every time he goes out and plays," said coach Greg Vanney. "He's the leader in terms of on the field and how we as a club have been able to really kind of push things forward and change the trajectory of the club and where it was to where we're headed.
"So (his 100th game) should be one of those moments where he can take a minute and really take it in and think about it but be ready to move on quickly because the games are coming quick."
Bradley would approve of such pragmatism.
Vanney deserves credit for finding a role that fits his captain. It could be argued under former manager Ryan Nelsen, Bradley tried to do too much in too many places.
Under Vanney, he sits in front of the defence and gets the ball back before helping connect the dots with his teammates. Bradley does it well, combining elegance on his feet with surprising strength and a dash of savagery in taking the ball away from others.
He can do more — witness the majestic vision of his chipped goal against Mexico — but largely stays within his job description at TFC.
The Toronto captain can come across aloof some days, when he is not in the mood to share much with reporters or — sometimes with justification — does not think much of their questions. His eyes can bore into you like a laser.
Still, he always talks and has proven to be an eloquent and reasoned voice from U.S. politics to LGBT issues. He is not afraid to speak out.
Bradley proudly leads what Vanney has called the deepest team in MLS history. He may be the foreman but he knows the value of a talented, motivated workforce and is often the first to single out teammates for praise, be it a star striker or raw youngster.
And whereas one feels some athletes on Toronto teams only know the route from their condo to the stadium to the airport, Bradley has made a point of learning the city — which is his family's full-time home.
"These have been some of the best, most enjoyable, most rewarding years of my career," he said Friday. "To play for this club, to have made this city home and to be able to represent the club, to be captain, it all means a lot to me. And so to play 100 times for TFC is something that isn't lost on me for sure."
Saturday's game against D.C. United will be Bradley's 89th regular-season outing with TFC. He has played in seven playoff games and four Canadian Championship contests.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press