Bob Bradley's LAFC plot twist: There is no scripting greatness
That he is, indeed, returning to MLS after a decade in charge at a dizzying array of posts abroad and with the U.S. men’s national team, he says, misses the point. He never made this destination his aim; things just worked out this way.
Bradley, 59, is back because he finally found a club that shares his vision of what a club should be. Now he has to instill that vision as he builds Los Angeles FC's first roster. It's a massive project, especially with the sort of expectations LAFC has engendered.
The ideal timeline is that tomorrow we sign a 24-year-old version of Xavi. But I'm not sure that that's going to happen.
Atlanta United's splash into MLS this season, with superstar manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his collection of young, dynamic attacking talent, has set a towering bar for Bradley & Co. They have seven months to construct something special. Where do they start?
“The ideal timeline is that tomorrow we sign a 24-year-old version of Xavi,” Bradley said after LAFC formally introduced its new coach Friday morning. “But I'm not sure that that's going to happen. ... In a perfect world, we'd all like a big signing sooner and make a statement, but it's got to be the right guy. You can't rush and end up with something that doesn't pay off.”
The goal, as he sees it, is to create a team that reflects the values of its supporters and the identity of its city, whatever that means. Southern California's diversity -- its glitz, its glamour, its grit -- offers endless possibilities.
“When you think about values in a team, you think about how those players understand that every time they step on the field, there's a responsibility to those supporters ...,” Bradley said. “That kind of mentality, that type of identity, this is what drives the best clubs in the world.
“And then from there, there's a football part. When we have the ball, what do we look like? Are we fun to watch? Are we creative? How do we create chances? How do we score goals? And then when we lose the ball, are we a team that's committed to getting it back as quickly as possible and trying to control the game? … I'm constantly with a picture in my mind of what the best teams are all about and trying to create a team that can go in that direction.”
He wants a team that's “fun to watch,” one that moves the ball quickly and imposes itself on the opponent. Pretty much what everyone wants for their teams. “The whiteboard” is blank, he says -- actually, there are two names, former Chivas USA midfielder Carlos Alvarez and 18-year-old Nigerian striker Monday Etim, both playing this year with USL affiliate Orange County SC -- and he understands that “all of the great things that lay the [club's] groundwork [have] to connect with who's on the field and how that group comes together, and, when the whistle blows, the kind of football, the kind of passion, the kind of commitment.”
“So you don't [build your roster] out of a script or out of a manual ...,” he said. “My mind races with ideas. Obviously, there are great players around the world that probably are set in with their current clubs, but there are still plenty of players that I think will be very excited with what we're trying to do.”
Bradley, perhaps more so than anyone else who has run an MLS team, knows how to build from scratch. He was Bruce Arena's top assistant as D.C. United constructed its inaugural-season title winner on the fly. Two years later, he built another first-year champion in Chicago. In 2006, he took the reins of a Chivas USA side that had endured the most abysmal of debut campaigns and, in his only year in charge before accepting U.S. Soccer's offer, turned the club into a winner. He had Norway's little Stabaek competing for the top-tier title immediately after promotion. This is what he does.
Designated Players, Targeted Allocation Money, and the influx of sharp, young talent have changed MLS immensely over the past decade, but Bradley doesn’t think the task is any more formidable.
A big name is a must in this market, but there's broad definition of what that means. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez would have been perfect in this metropolis of Mexico fans, but he recently moved to West Ham United.
“I understand it's L.A. and I understand the star power idea, but I remind L.A. that when Jerry West had the foresight to draft a very young Kobe Bryant [for the NBA's Lakers], what happened was uniquely special,” Bradley said. “And that is that a star developed right in front of their eyes.”
The arrival of young and in-their-prime standouts whose names resonate only with the soccer cognoscenti, like Sebastian Giovinco or Miguel Almiron, is changing the idea of what defines a name player. Bradley says LAFC's “net for finding talent has to be spread all over the place.”
“It's easy at any one moment to talk about '[these are] the areas that we have to focus,' in the moment, given the early success of Atlanta United,” he said. “Obviously, there's a lot of talk about some of the different countries in South America -- Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela -- and yet that's not entirely new, either. And having spent time in Africa, having spent time in Europe, there's young talent in a lot of places. Finding the right player at the right time isn't easy, but that's the mission.”
What that'll lead to is uncertain. Bradley will find out only as the process proceeds.
“There's this old story in Norway,” he said. “You're in the far north part of Norway, and a Viking's there, and on his desk is a wood carving of a Viking ship, and it's incredible,” he said. “You look at it and you say, 'How did you do that?' And he goes, 'I got a piece of wood, and I cut away everything that didn't look like a Viking ship.'
“There's an element of that when you make a team. You have a picture of what it looks like, and every day you kind of go to work with little things that take you more in the direction. There's no formula.”