A key for Atlanta United to defeat Toronto will be how it defends Michael Bradley in Wednesday’s MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The 32-year-old midfielder has three goals, three assists and isn't a strong defender, but Five Stripes manager Frank de Boer said Bradley is one of two Toronto players of influence. The other is Alejandro Pozuelo.
“We want to try to avoid that Bradley can contribute in the buildup from them, try to control the speed of the game, the tempo of the game,” de Boer said. “We have to try to avoid it. For me two key players are of course Pozuelo and Bradley. The rest are also very good players, but they are the creative mind of the team. If we let them go, we’re going to have a hard time for sure.”
Atlanta United is fortunate in that it just played and defeated Philadelphia, which features Haris Medunjanin, who is similar to Bradley.
Atlanta United exposed Medunjanin’s defensive weaknesses for Julian Gressel’s opening goal. Of Bradley’s three goals, two came when he was supposed to be marked by Medunjanin in the season-opening game.
“Very similar kind of players,” Atlanta United midfielder Emerson Hyndman said. “They can hit a long pass from nowhere and switch play. Obviously very comfortable on the ball. Having that experience with Philly will help. At the same time they may come in with a different game plan, whatever it is. It’s good that we’ve had experience with a player similar.”
Hyndman said part of the value of Bradley, who is one of the highest paid players in MLS, with a salary of $6.5 million, is his reliability. According to whoscored.com, Bradley averages less than one key pass per game (more than half are short passes), 1.9 tackles per game, is dribbled past 1.1 times per game and completes almost 90 percent of his passes per game.
“He keeps things moving, keeps things ticking, and I think a player like that, when you’re struggling in a game or the whole team's struggling, normally he's the one you want to calm the thing down or speed it up if you’re struggling in the attack,” Hyndman said.
“I think they look to him as that focal point in their team to kind of link everything together, and I think that’s what makes him dangerous and that’s why you need to stop a player like that.”