Candlestick Park is first stop on road to the World Cup for U.S. 

click to enlarge Michael Bradley and the U.S. soccer team take on Azerbaijan in a World Cup tuneup Tuesday at Candlestick Park. - ANDRES LEIGHTON/2013 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Andres Leighton/2013 AP file photo
  • Michael Bradley and the U.S. soccer team take on Azerbaijan in a World Cup tuneup Tuesday at Candlestick Park.

You might forgive Mexico coach Miguel Herrera if his praise for a certain player slipped into hyperbole.

Speaking with reporters in April after Mexico's 2-2 exhibition draw with the U.S. national team, Herrera was asked about U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who in the first half had scored a goal, chipped in an assist and run riot on Herrera's defense.

"Bradley looked like he was the best player in the world," Herrera said.

Whether Bradley is of that exact register is up for debate, but the Toronto F.C. man can make a strong case as the most important player on the U.S. team, which begins its journey to the World Cup in earnest on Tuesday night with an exhibition against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park.

On Thursday, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann shocked the soccer world when he announced the 23-man roster he'll bring to Brazil. Bradley was included. Landon Donovan, a 32-year-old forward and veteran of three World Cups who is widely regarded as one of the all-time great American soccer players, was not.

"Time will tell if this is the right move," said Klinsmann, who has fielded relentless Donovan-related questions in the past several days. "But I'm convinced this is the right decision."

With the social media-fueled chaos swirling around him, Bradley remained serene.

"One of our strengths has always been to shut the door [to the outside talk] and on the inside have a group that's together, committed and ready to step onto the field," Bradley said.

That fits into the dynamic of this U.S. team. Unlike the last World Cup, when then-coach Bob Bradley (Michael's father) brought an aging, veteran-laden team to South Africa, Klinsmann has picked seven players who are 24 or younger. Many in the group are going to their first World Cup. Even some of the elder statesmen, like 31-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, are making their World Cup debut.

Michael Bradley participated in training ahead of the '06 tournament, and will be playing in his second World Cup.

He first captained the U.S. at age 23, and is one of the unquestioned leaders of the current group. It's hard to believe he won't turn 27 until the last day of July.

Though he's often been pegged as a defensive midfielder, Bradley has always shrugged that moniker aside. The best players, he'll tell you, can both attack and defend. Thanks to recent lineup tinkering from Klinsmann, Bradley enjoys more room to roam on offense.

Never known for blaring speed, Bradley instead dismantles defenses with intelligence -- he graduated high school at 16 and can speak several languages -- and tremendous technical ability. He's been called "The General" for his austere tactical command.

Now, he is charged with helping marshal a young group into a contender. When Bradley cracked the U.S. national team, it was Donovan who made him feel welcome.

"I was able to pick up so many things from him," Bradley said. "But the game doesn't stop for anybody. That's no disrespect, but it's just how it works.

"We've got a good mix of youth and experience. Now, we'll use the excitement of the younger guys to push this group on."

U.S. vs. Azerbaijan

WHEN: Today, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Candlestick Park

TV: ESPN2

INFO: www.ussoccer.com

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Matthew Snyder

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