After 250 games for Toronto FC, the fire still burns bright in Michael Bradley

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TORONTO — The day after marking his 250th appearance in all competitions for Toronto FC, Michael Bradley was content to reflect on his eight seasons with the MLS club.

But the 34-year-old skipper also made it clear he's not going anywhere. Not yet, anyway.

"It's been an incredible period of my career, of my life, here," he told reporters in a virtual availability from the club's training ground Thursday. "But again I'm not ready to put a period there yet. Even in a difficult year like this, I still love to play, love to train, love to come in here every day, love to compete.

"And (I) am desperate for us to use this off-season in the right way and make sure that after two years where we've been hit hard from the COVID fallout in different ways, I want so desperately for us to use this off-season in the right way and really get things back on track so that the beginning of next year we're ready to really push things forward."

He isn't the only one looking to put a 6-17-9 season behind him or who believes the club is better than it has shown this year. Toronto, which visits Atlanta on Saturday, has two regular-season games remaining plus a Canadian Championship semifinal date with Pacific FC next Wednesday.

Bradley was 26 when he was introduced in January 2014, alongside England striker Jermain Defoe.

"I can tell you all I have never been more excited, more determined and more motivated for any challenge in my entire career," the former Roma midfielder told a news conference featuring chanting, singing fans looking down from the balcony of the hangar-sized Real Sports Bar & Grill, now known as Real Sports.

The MLS club had a double-decker bus parked outside the venue and mounted an ad campaign around Defoe's arrival, showing a variety of Britons spitting out their drinks in astonishment after hearing the news — "Jermain Defoe is coming to Toronto. It's a bloody big deal."

But while the former Tottenham forward proved to be the sizzle, lasting just one season, Bradley has been the steak since Day 1.

The former U.S. captain has appeared in 206 of Toronto's 259 regular-season games since joining the club. During that time, he has played 18,196 minutes — featuring in 78 percent of TFC's on-field action.

In 2017, when Toronto won the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and Canadian Championship, Bradley played every minute of the 35 regular-season and playoff games he appeared in.

He had been the club's Energizer Bunny, rarely idle. And when he did go under the knife — in January 2020 to repair damage suffered in the 2019 MLS Cup final loss to Seattle, much of his recovery time came during the league's pandemic-prompted hiatus.

Under Javier Perez, Bradley has seen more measured minutes this season. Perez has rested Bradley and substituted him, citing the need to field a fresh, energetic lineup "regardless of the player and how important that player is.''

"Michael is the captain of the team and the leader of the team. But we want Michael at 100 per cent. We don't want Michael 100 per cent of the time at 65 or 70 per cent," Perez said in early September.

While Bradley will never be mistaken for Usain Bolt, he can cover short distances quickly and has enough savvy to know where he should be — although both have been tested in recent outings covering at centre back. Bradley is also an accurate passer with good vision.

But he may cast the biggest shadow off the field where his drive and determination have helped build the character of a club he helped transform from doormat to champion. Toronto was coming off a 6-17-11 season, had never been to the post-season and had a 51-105-66 career record when he arrived.

It has gone 102-94-63 since with the club trophy case considerably fuller.

"I'm proud to wear these colours. I'm proud to call Toronto home," Bradley said. "I'm proud to have played a part in the history of this club. And I hope more than anything that there are still some special days to come."

Bradley is worth watching in warmups before games. He can usually be found exhorting the teammate next to him, looking to share what fuels him.

Best they listen. He is not a man you want to cross, as some reporters have found. While always in control, his eyes can burn a hole in you.

A product of the U.S. under-17 residency program, Bradley turned pro at 16 and was drafted 36th overall in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft by the MetroStars, then coached by his father Bob Bradley.

After one season in MLS, he went to Heerenveen in the Netherlands and then Germany's Borussia Moenchengladbach in 2008. After a brief loan spell with England's Aston Villa, he moved to Italy — first with Chievo Verona in 2011 and then Roma in 2012.

Then-MLSE boss Tim Leiweke splashed the cash to land Bradley and Defoe, with transfer fees of some US$10 million apiece, not to mention seven-figure salaries.

At the time, Bradley said he was drawn by the team's ambition, drive and determination to turn things around. "As a player, you want to be a part of something special like that."

Asked Thursday if anyone had tried to dissuade him from leaving the green pastures of European football to return to MLS with Toronto, Bradley replied: "No one close to me."

"I keep my circle pretty right in that regard," he added. "I'm not someone who feels the need ever to run things by a million people. The people close to me who I confide in, the people close to me whose opinions I value and respect, they all know me. They know how much thought went into making a decision like that. And they knew how excited I was, how motivated I was.

"Obviously on the outside, at the time and probably still to this day, there are people who think that I'm crazy or made the wrong decision. And that's fine too."

Toronto has proved to be lucrative stop.

Bradley signed a US$39-million, six-year contract to come to the club. In December 2019. he took a sizable hometown discount, agreeing to a three-year deal, plus a club option, that is paying him US$1.5 million this season.

"He's our engine,'' club president Bill Manning said at the time.

Bradley said money was not a driving force at this stage of his career. "Playing here, winning here, it means more,'' he said when the new deal was announced.

Taking a reduced salary using targeted allocation money opened up a designated player slot, now filled by Venezuelan winger Yeferson Soteldo.

Off the field, Bradley has been a model citizen.

Bradley and his family — he is married with two young children — also found a home in Toronto where he lives year-round.

"The club has a real relevance in the city and that part's special." he said.

No stranger to living in a soccer fishbowl, Bradley says interaction with fans here is done "always in such a kind, respectful way."

"A big part of why we all do this and a big part of what make this so special is for our fans and for the people in the city to feel something, to feel proud. To be able to see the connection that we make with people … you wouldn't want it any other way."

Perez, who worked with Bradley during his time as a coach with U.S. Soccer, points to his captain's commitment, dedication and leadership.

"Hopefully he can stay with us another 250 games," he said after Bradley's milestone night Wednesday in a 2-2 tie with Philadelphia.

Bradley, who joins Jonathan Osorio (289 games) and Justin Morrow (251) in the 25o-game TFC club, says he hasn't thought about hanging up his boots yet.

"You get to a certain point in your career and you take things very much one at a time — a game at a time, a week at a time, a season at a time. And so that's where I am. I love to play, I love what I do. It's not lost on me how lucky I am to do this for a living. And I love it. I love it every bit as much as I did when I first started.

"I'm enjoying every part of it still. I'm also not naive. I know the end is certainly closer than the beginning, that's for sure. But I feel good. I'm going to continue to push myself, to train the right way, work the right way, live the right way so that I can still be playing at a high level that helps the team."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct, 28, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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