Sports Nut

American Goat

The problem with blaming Michael Bradley for the U.S. draw against Portugal.

Michael Bradley

Michael Bradley, pictured here doing something that probably cost the United States the game against Portugal.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Minutes after the United States’ come-from-ahead draw against Portugal, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap asked midfielder Michael Bradley the same question that millions of people were shouting, or muttering to themselves, or posting in expletive-and-exclamation-point-laden screeds on message boards devoted to soccer and/or animal husbandry: What happened at the end of the game?

Bradley unspooled his response over 65 seconds, or about eight times as long as it took for the ball to travel from his feet to the other end of the field and into the American net. I heard Bradley’s instant autopsy of Portugal’s bald-eagle-murdering, apple-pie-befouling, game-tying header as one half of an ongoing conversation. On one side of that dialogue are athletes, who are constantly asked to explain the thought process behind their unconscious actions. On the other are sports fans and sports journalists who, in the aftermath of this week’s Game of the Century, are looking to translate the final score into an individual accounting of credit and blame.

At first, Bradley chuckled, as if to acknowledge that Schaap had asked the right question, one that was impossible for him or anyone else to answer.

“Obviously, the end of the game, we’re trying to move ourselves out and make the game as difficult for them [as we can],” he said.

Bradley is taking us back to the end of the second half—the fifth minute of extra time. The game is almost over. The ball is in the Portuguese half of the field, and it’s heading straight for the American midfielder.

“The ball popped up, and [I] was able to make a few quick steps and get there,” he said.

As you can see in this moment-by moment breakdown by Business Insider’s Cork Gaines, Bradley is all alone … for about half a second. In a blink, four Portuguese players converge.

“It was tight,” Bradley said. “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a good enough play and keep it for us or get a foul. And so obviously at that point then, the ball turns over, and it’s up to us to deal with the situation.”

Bradley acknowledged that he should have done better—that he didn’t make a good enough play. His first touch was poor, allowing the ball to bound into a precarious position. He was then pushed off the ball by an aggressive Portuguese defender, and the break was on. As Bradley said, it was then up to the whole U.S. team to stop the counterattack. They didn’t. The Americans had pushed too far forward, leaving themselves vulnerable in the back. In full retreat, the U.S. defense could do little to stop a perfectly placed cross. Header. Goal. Tie game.

“Certainly, the way it ends, you rack your mind thinking, ‘Can you do this better, can you do that better?’ ” Bradley continued, rocking his head back and forth, stopping every few seconds to think of the right word to convey his thoughts. “But the reality is still that, over the course of a game, there’s a million of these kind of plays, and you can’t let these plays—they go on in the course of a game, and so there’s nothing else to it.”

If you get on me for that one play, Bradley is saying, then you have to blame me for every other little slip-up that could’ve led to a Portuguese goal. Sports punditry, though, is fueled by ex post facto logic: Identify the game’s most important play, and then work backward to deduce who screwed up in the seconds before it happened. Sometimes that’s fair: Geoff Cameron’s shanked clearance certainly led to Portugal’s first goal. But often, the pursuit of condemnation obscures the brilliance a few feet away. We lose sight of Ray Allen’s great shot because we’re too busy clucking at Gregg Popovich. How could that fool possibly leave Tim Duncan on the bench?

What’s the point, really, of singling out Geoff Cameron or Michael Bradley—Gregg Popovich? For journalists and commenters, harsh criticism of Bradley represents a willingness to offer the unvarnished truth, matter-of-fact observations that we all need to hear. In reality, the sports blame game does the exact opposite. It’s a quest for a conversation-stopping answer when there are no easy answers to be found.

When you say that Bradley was the goat, or that he was at fault for that final goal, then you don’t acknowledge that, in stifling heat and humidity, he covered a greater distance (7.6 miles) than any other player on either team. In the absence of Jozy Altidore, Bradley has been asked to do everything (defend, create, attack) an individual player can do on a soccer field. Against Portugal, just as he’d done in the Ghana match, he attempted and completed more passes than any other American player. These aren’t excuses. They’re facts that you have to consider if you want to make an honest accounting of a player’s on-field contributions. In the last minute, Bradley lost the ball a long way from his own goal. He also did a lot of other things.

One of those things happened to be missing a clear opportunity in front of goal, a strike from close range that he slammed off a defender’s knee. It was a terrible miss, one that a player of his caliber will almost always bury into the net.

Aside from these two obvious missteps, Bradley played much better against Portugal than against Ghana, finding open teammates and controlling the tempo from the midfield.

So, Bradley was bad against Ghana and good against Portugal, except in those few instances when he visibly screwed up. This is the fundamental disconnect of sports commentary, and of sports in general: The scoreboard is definitive and irrefutable, and it often doesn’t reflect what happened on the field. As Bradley’s longtime teammate Landon Donovan said on ESPN after the Portugal game, “[The U.S.] should have lost against Ghana, and they absolutely should have won today.” But they didn’t. How can you explain that? The answer is that stuff happens, stuff that doesn’t make sense. Things that should happen don’t. In the 95th minute of an excruciatingly tense and competitive game, a player does the one thing he shouldn’t do.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a single Portuguese player. Éder knocked Bradley off the ball. A fellow named Cristiano Ronaldo made a brilliant cross. Silvestre Varela headed the ball in. If the roles were reversed, and the U.S. had scored the late equalizer, we’d be lavishing these men with praise. I’m sure of it, because the same thing happened in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. In extra time in the quarterfinals, the United States’ Christie Rampone knocked Brazil’s Cristiane off the ball on the far end of the field. The U.S. worked it forward to Megan Rapinoe, who hit a brilliant cross to Abby Wambach. Header. Goal. Tie game. Now, let’s reverse the image. There are no heroes here. This was all Cristiane’s fault. Right?

In a game with 11 players on each side and countless variables beyond those 22 humans, the persistent search for an individual scapegoat is a marker of incuriosity. Even in those cases when it’s easy to assign blame—Geoff Cameron, come on down!—what does that accomplish? I suppose it allows you to scrawl the appropriate number on the U.S. national team jersey that you’re burning in effigy. But nobody with a reasonable amount of impulse control is suggesting that Cameron or Bradley should be benched. In this case, the blame game is an empty exercise: Congratulations, you’ve correctly identified the player who made a mistake.

After Michael Bradley told Schaap what happened in the final seconds, the ESPN reporter asked, “Do you blame yourself in any way for what happened?” The midfielder contorted his face into a frown, then chuckled lightly again. “Oh, I put my heart and soul into every game, every time I step on the field. It’s a cruel game sometimes, you know, and so again—I’m proud of that and proud of what I’m about every time I play. And there’s certainly no regrets in my book.”

Bradley hadn’t really answered the question, but he spoke the truth. Sports aren’t fair. I tried my best. I lost the ball. I’ll get on the bus, go to sleep, wake up tomorrow, and try again. And that game won’t be fair, either.

Read all of Slate’s World Cup 2014 coverage.