Bob Bradley finds coaching fun, and it's helping LAFC stay focused on MLS Cup goal

LOS ANGELES -- Bob Bradley does not give short answers. A response to a question about the quick success of his Los Angeles Football Club moves from the present, to his initial hiring in 2017, to a playoff loss last season before anchoring itself back in the present. His answer to whether he likes living in L.A. touches on family, being recognized by waitstaff in New Jersey, then traverses an ocean to Egypt where he coached the national team.

The answers are not long-winded; not exactly. They can meander, but they always return to a larger point. He's a man with a specific worldview, and he wants the person asking the questions to understand things from his perspective, through eyes that have seen a lot of football (rarely, if ever, "soccer") and a lot of life. If that requires 30 seconds or a minute or longer, fine. He's engaging enough and thoughtful enough to command attention.

In Bradley's world, things need to be explained and understood. Doing without knowing why is just as bad as not doing at all. Knowing why gives someone -- a person or a player -- the ability to react to situations or respond in a predictable way. Answers run long because getting to why takes time.

But every now and then, things are simple. Over the course of more than an hour chatting in the sun after a recent LAFC training session, one question elicited a quick response: Is coaching fun?

"Yes. I love it."

"Fun" is not an adjective the casual fan would associate with Bradley. During his five-year stint as United States men's national team coach, from 2006-11, he developed a reputation in the media and from fans as someone who managed a team that played conservatively, absorbing pressure and choosing to play on the counter-attack. The Americans found success -- a Gold Cup win in 2007, a second-place showing at the 2009 Confederations Cup, a round of 16 finish at the 2010 World Cup -- and criticism, too.

Bradley isn't one to relitigate the past or spend time arguing that the playing style of that red, white and blue outfit was more proactive than we remember, but in retrospect, the results he managed with the talent he had look better and better.

This pattern continued at future stops. Wherever he has gone, Bradley has won more than the on-paper ability of his players would suggest: with the Egypt national team, which he got to the last round of World Cup qualification; at Stabaek, where he reached the Europa League qualifying stage; at a Le Havre side that was a tiebreaker away from gaining promotion to Ligue 1.

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The one blemish, of course, was Swansea City. He was hired in October 2016, becoming the first American to coach a squad in the English Premier League. Up-and-down results saw Swansea get five points from six games. He refused to compromise his principles, feeling the only way forward for Swansea was to try to play, to create, to score.

Against Tottenham on Dec. 3, they played even for 39 minutes before Dele Alli earned, and Harry Kane converted, a soft penalty. Then Son Heung-min scored a laser in first-half stoppage time. Bradley had a choice.

"There's either the way of batten down the hatches and just try to keep the score at two, or you say, you know, 'Come on, men, let's try and get back in this game.' And I felt that for that group, if there was ever going to be a chance to get anywhere, I had to challenge them. So I said it."

At halftime, he brought on forward Fernando Llorente, who was recovering from injury. "We're going to try to step up, and we're going to really try to play for the next goal," Bradley said.

Tottenham caught Swansea on a counter: two goals became three, then four, then five. After the game, the chairman asked who decided to bring on Llorente. Bradley owned the decision, offended the chairman would consider the possibility that anyone else was making the calls. Less than a month later, Bradley was fired, but said he wouldn't change how he tried to challenge his players to respond.

(That's not to say that the acrimonious departure doesn't still sting a bit. Told I was from Swansea, Massachusetts, Bradley said, laughing, "There's a Swansea, Massachusetts? F---, I'm not going there. No f---ing way.")

And now, LAFC. Heading into Major League Soccer's All-Star break, the black and gold sit 10 points ahead in the Supporters' Shield race and 11 points clear on top of the Western Conference. They're the odds-on favorite to win MLS Cup in just their second year. Carlos Vela, a man Bradley challenged to "be as good as Messi," is the best player in the league by a wide margin. There's a page on the team site called Chasing History, which is exactly what the squad is doing.

LAFC is the purest form of "Bradley Ball" yet. There are other decision-makers, sure, but Bradley is the visionary. That's why he came, and what attracted him to the job: building something from scratch, starting with an idea and turning it into a reality.

"Before I got hired I had good discussions with [general manager] John Thorrington and [co-owner] Tom Penn," he said. "And then, eventually with some of the other owners. I said, 'Look, here are my ideas, here are my experiences. A real club, a real connection between the first team and everything underneath. A connection with the supporters, with the city. And, here's the kind of football I think we want to play. If that works for you, fine. If it doesn't, fine."

"So, from the beginning, for every player. I said, 'Look, can you have an open mind? Can we get you to see the game in maybe little different ways than you have up till now? Can we make it better? Can we all be part of something that every day, this is what's going to happen?'"

He has built a monster and relatively efficiently, too.

Yes, Vela is making $4.5 million a year, but Diego Rossi makes just $1 million with Eduard Atuesta sitting at $475,000. Mark-Anthony Kaye is one of the best deals in the league at a very specific $166,248. Bradley turned Tyler Miller and Latif Blessing, two expansion draftees and players who were, by definition, cast-off parts on other teams, into key cogs in LAFC's mighty machine.

There were misses, such as Portuguese midfielder and designated player André Horta, who was shipped to SC Braga in June and should soon be replaced, but the goals far outweigh the flubbed chances. LAFC is a good MLS team on paper; they are a great one on the field. The difference is the coach and the culture he has created.

"I say to the players that in order to have a good team, you have to show up every day and you have to show who you are," Bradley said. "You have to bring your personality. To have a good team, to be a good player, you have to have personality. It's got to come out. That is key to everything. If people come and are afraid to let anybody know who they are, or they're still hiding behind something, then we have no chance.

"I think I'm pretty damn good at getting everybody to understand that's what's going to happen every day."


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Of course, this mantra requires Bradley to show his personality, too. He has always had one -- you'd see it during occasional unscripted moments when he was coaching the U.S. team, though never in formal settings like news conferences or on camera -- but he has grown more comfortable showing it to the outside world. Part of this is experience, especially in Egypt where there was nowhere to hide and where two separate documentary projects tracked his movements. Part of it is not really caring what other people think: either they buy in or they don't. Part of it is a desire for a give and take about football and about life.

Although it's codified, Bradley's worldview isn't calcified. He's always searching for new information, using a secret Twitter feed to keep track of world events and "the idiot in the White House" while keeping tabs on developments in the soccer world.

"At the moment, what I really enjoy the most is finding situations where I can challenge the people around me with my ideas," he said. "And they'll challenge me, and we can try and turn it into something."

Bradley wants real dialogue. Back and forth. Ideas posited, dissected, experimented. He doesn't care about the minute-to-minute media cycles: the nicknames, the players who talk smack, the clickbait and other extraneous garbage that makes the internet go. This attitude can come across as being above it all or being a jerk. And maybe it is. He'd concede as much. But that's how the outside world sees him, and he's at peace with himself. On the inside, you see that they are merely unwanted distractions from the project, an intense, lifelong and, it must be said, quite successful endeavor to build systems that produce quality teams and that maximize talent.

Bradley's genius is the ability to care immensely and passionately or to not care at all, and to separate what goes where.

He has an office at LAFC's training facility, a beautiful space that overlooks the pitch. It sits unused, desk empty, nothing on the walls, the computer monitor unplugged. Bradley is never there, preferring the conference room where he and the staff meet in the morning. It's not just the coaching staff, either: it's the video guy, the analytics guy, some of the team executives.

"Because, for me in order to have everybody understanding what it is that we're trying to do, they've got to hear the kind of discussions, they've got to see the clips that we look at," he said. "They've got to hear me talk about defending the ball, or footwork, or passing inside.

"If I said that and they weren't in there, they'd never know what any of that means. All of that becomes important because we have to have as many people who understand that [as possible] when we try to scout players or create profiles of what kind of guys would fit into the way we play."

Near the end of practice, LAFC ran a full-field, 11-on-11 drill. When the ball goes out of bounds, Bradley, dressed in a black long-sleeve shirt and shorts on a hot day, motioned for one of his assistant coaches to restart play in a different area, a design meant to keep the players thinking and reacting.

"Whatever has just happened, doesn't matter," he said. "And now the next situation occurs, and then you have to immediately react to the ball, to that situation. It doesn't matter in that moment if you have four in the back or three in the back, if you're a center-back or a right-back. If you're the closest guy to the ball, then do you react and defend the ball in a way that others can join you? Can we take care of that situation?"

As the exercise continued, Bradley grew more effusive in his praise of his players, plenty of "yes-yes-yes" as the ball pinged around the pitch.

Afterward, I asked him if that praise was intentional, some sort of Jedi mind trick to leave LAFC feeling positive about the session. He seemed rather shocked by the premise of the question. There were no tricks, just good football. They had been doing what he wanted, what he asked.

"I think there's a good understanding of how we want to play," he said. "And, how training needs to get pushed in the right way, every day. Moments where there's coaching, and you're on top of little details. And, there are moments when you see it come together, and you see guys that are into it. Then you make sure they know."

There was Bradley in the middle of it all, learning, watching, coaching, winning. Happy. Having fun.