There is a $6.5-million elephant in the room as Toronto FC prepares for its third MLS Cup final against the Seattle Sounders.
Toronto’s captain and longest-standing designated player, Michael Bradley, could be without a contract after Sunday if the Reds don’t hoist the cup. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejkal reported on July 31 that TFC has a club option to pick up the 32-year-old defensive midfielder’s contract for 2020, at the same salary he made in 2019 — $6.5 million (U.S.), which was second in Major League Soccer to L.A. Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The option, they reported, will be triggered if Toronto wins Sunday’s final.
The club has not confirmed the report but TFC coach Greg Vanney seemingly alluded to it Wednesday.
“I’d like to think there’s going to be a solution and I’d think to that the solution is us winning and then we know he’s here,” Vanney said. “Hopefully we can get one more (win) this weekend and many more in the coming years.”
The idea of the Reds finishing the year as one of the last two teams standing may have seemed far-fetched at the end of July, when Toronto held a 9-9-5 record. But, as the team and its fans have learned since the Princeton, N.J., joined the Reds before the 2014 season, there’s no doubting a Bradley-led group.
“There’s not many guys that are out there that you can bring to a club and they are … able to change the culture of an entire club. That’s what Michael has been able to bring to this,” Vanney said. “He sets the standard for everybody down in that locker room as to what it should look like when you come to work every single day.”
It was Bradley who helped convince fellow American national Jozy Altidore to join the Reds ahead of the 2015 season, which ended with Toronto’s first foray into the playoffs. TFC has since reached three MLS Cup finals, lifting the trophy in 2017, and one CONCACAF Champions League final.
That kind of success was foreign to TFC five years ago. The transformation came with a willingness to work and an elite mentality, Altidore said. And no one embodies those two qualities like the laser-focused Bradley, who is know for his detail-oriented, tireless effort and a genuine desire to hold every aspect of the club to the highest expectation.
“Since the day I’ve come here, and every single day, we challenge each other to get better,” Altidore said. “Michael is in here, anybody can tell you, he’s in here every day looking to get better, looking to improve. And that spreads.”
Bradley will be playing in his 200th game for Toronto on Sunday, covering all competitions. He has said that he is “operating under the assumption” he will play many more games in a Toronto uniform, and it is not out of the question the midfielder could return even if the Reds are defeated by the Sounders on Sunday. The club could pick up Bradley’s option outright. If not, the veteran midfielder could be looking at a pay cut and perhaps losing his status as a designated player, possibilities he has said he is willing to consider.
But give Bradley a shot at a cup and he will do his best to lift it, whether there are millions of dollars on the line or not. Personal situations take a back seat, he said.
“The opportunity to play in a final doesn’t come around all the time,” Bradley said. “Not even close. You have guys who play their whole careers and never win anything so, to have the opportunity to play in the final, you want to enjoy every part of it. Enjoy the lead-in, enjoy the buildup, because one day there won’t be another one.”
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It is the biggest days, like Sunday’s final, when he is most proud of what the club has accomplished.
“You see a team that steps on the field and isn’t fazed by a thing,” Bradley said. “Fearless. Plays, competes, doesn’t matter who’s on the field, who’s not on the field on a given day. When those lights come on, we’ve been ready to go for it.”