How LAFC built a team from the ground up as MLS debut nears
LOS ANGELES -- Talk to Bob Bradley long enough and eventually you'll be led down a conversational path that ends up at Bruce Springsteen.
We're talking about a man who has seen "The Boss" well over 50 times and who, upon leaving Norwegian side Stabaek, filmed a short farewell message to fans that referenced "The Ties That Bind."
On this particular day, Bradley is sitting in the basement of the Student Activities Center on the campus of UCLA, the temporary training home of expansion side LAFC. Amid tables strewn with team hats and T-shirts, Bradley is attempting to describe what it's like to put a squad together from scratch ahead of the team's first season.
He insists he's not very good at explaining how he coaches or builds teams, so he defaults to Springsteen and a video clip of a concert in Leipzig, Germany. Springsteen has asked the audience for requests, songs that "we haven't played since we were, I dunno, 16, and maybe ever," and has settled on the Chuck Berry tune "You Never Can Tell." He and guitarist Stevie Van Zandt start talking about which key to use, with Van Zandt acting like a rock-and-roll pitcher, shaking off Springsteen's suggestions. They finally agree, at which point Springsteen coaches the horn players with their parts. And then off they go.
"I sent it around to the staff one day," Bradley told ESPN FC. "They think I'm crazy. I said, 'You come up with an idea, and then in his case you engage the band a little bit, then at a certain point he got the fans going, and then he went for it.' That's kind of what we're doing."
This time last year, LAFC were the ultimate blank canvas. Bradley was still four months away from being hired. The team's first signing, Mexico international Carlos Vela, was five months away. That left executive vice president for soccer operations John Thorrington, who had been in the job for little more than a year, to get his arms around the challenge of building a team from nothing. This involved more than just recruiting players: there was a staff to build in terms of coaches, scouting, sports medicine and the team's academy.
"The canvas is less blank now," Thorrington told ESPN FC following a recent training session. "It was so much to wrap my head around that I had to compartmentalize everything. Then just have a daily check-in of that dashboard to say: Where are we?"
But putting the squad together is the most visible manifestation of the work he and Bradley are doing. Instead of finding a handful of players, like most teams do in the offseason, 28 are needed. And it invites an inevitable question: What comes first, the style or the players? For Thorrington, it is the former.
"Our model was 100 percent defining what we wanted to be about, and then going and getting the players rather than getting a group of players and then fashioning some style and principles and what have you, which is why we started with the coach," he said. "It would have been much harder in my mind to start with the players and then try to form a collage out of it, rather than having an idea of what the puzzle looks like and bringing the players on."
Even if the canvas was blank at one point, the manager has long since been colored by experience, and LAFC's situation is one with which Bradley is familiar. In 1998 he led the Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double in their inaugural campaign. In 2006, he took a Chivas USA side that was wretched in its expansion season and turned it into a playoff team. With Stabaek, a selling club if there ever was one, he was routinely forced to rebuild his squad, yet still managed to finish third one season and qualify the modest club for the Europa League.
"What comes first is a picture of what you think good football is, and what you want a team to be all about it," said Bradley. "Every time you add a player, that picture can change slightly, but that picture of good football involves a lot of different things.
"It involves being good with the ball, it involves having ideas, it involves stepping up and trying to control games, being fun to watch, being dynamic, mobile, exciting, you name it. There's a lot of teams that have a lot of those qualities, but that doesn't mean they all play exactly the same. So you adjust that picture little by little as you bring in players."
That description might strike some as vague and too high-level, but there has been precision to how LAFC has gone out and acquired players. Thorrington called it a "player decision-making filter" that included what positions it would spend designated player and targeted allocation money on, where it would go foreign as opposed to domestic. There was an effort to make sure there were multiple targets at each position, so if several fell through the stylistic goals could remain in place. With depth being an issue for expansion teams, versatility was prized as well.
"The most exciting part about this is that it's a blank slate, but the most challenging part about this was that it's a blank slate," Thorrington said.
Convincing players to become a part of an expansion team would appear at first glance to be a huge challenge, as such sides tend to struggle in their inaugural season. It's a test that isn't for everyone, and some conversations no doubt ended quickly. But Thorrington insists that sifting through the number of interested players has been the bigger task, as opposed to not having enough, though like any recruiting process, it requires some salesmanship.
"There are certain people that the first conversation, they have a certain perception of MLS," he said. "I have been there to visually see a difference when we talk about our stadium and our ownership group and our coach and some of the players that we already have. There is a visceral change, an eye-opening moment for some people that maybe we weren't necessarily thinking about MLS."
Vela was the first capture, and Thorrington spoke of how it was a long process in terms of securing his signature. But what eventually emerged was a project that came along at the perfect moment in Vela's career after more than a decade in Europe.
"I've had more difficult negotiations than that one," Thorrington said about acquiring Vela.
For Vela's part, he's enthused by the season ahead, in spite of the inherent difficulties associated with expansion teams.
"We are building a lot of great things, and I'm very excited to be here, I'm excited to work hard to be one of the best players in the league," he said following a 4-4 preseason draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he scored twice. "This is my goal, to be one of the best, and I have to work hard. Of course, it's difficult because we start from nothing. We have to build how we can play, how we want to play, and we are in a good way."
Other pieces soon fell into place, with Bradley showing an acute sense of when talented players coming off subpar or injury-hit seasons might be open to a move. It's what helped him land the likes of Walker Zimmerman, Laurent Ciman and Omar Gaber.
Benny Feilhaber, who knows Bradley well from his time with the U.S. national team, jumped at the opportunity to return to Los Angeles, where he played collegiately at UCLA. Young DP Diego Rossi was turned up by the team's South American scout, Victor De Los Santos, who had known Rossi since the player was 12 years old.
Of course, assembling talent is one thing, turning those pieces into a team is quite another. Establishing that cohesion and chemistry is the single biggest challenge facing expansion teams, and that includes adapting to life off the field. But molding a team and forging relationships are the aspects of coaching that Bradley enjoys the most. When asked about getting the most out of Vela, Bradley thinks back to his time with the Fire, when his relationship with midfielder Peter Nowak helped lay the foundation for the team's success.
"Nowak and I, we used to say we're blood brothers," Bradley said. "This idea that we're in it together, I'll bleed for you and you bleed for me and we'll see what we can do. I've done that with a lot of guys along the way. Sometimes with Peter it was easy. With other guys, whether it was Chris Armas, Jesse [Marsch], it was in different ways. That part of trying to connect with important guys and make sure that we bring the best out of each other, that's important."
There is also a question of style, and the small details of what will work and what won't for this group. That has been the point of emphasis on the training ground over the past six weeks.
"We've had some moments where it looks a little like football," Bradley said. "That's good. I'm not discouraged by that. But it's not Man City yet."
Indeed. LAFC's first game is now just days away, and to put it in Springsteen terms, the team looks a bit closer to "Born to Run" than to "Darkness on the Edge of Town." The midfield still needs some shoring up, even with the recent acquisition of Eduard Atuesta, though it is hoped that longtime target Andre Horta will eventually be signed.
"I feel really good about it," said Thorrington about the team's squad. "Time will tell. Success isn't measured by how good we feel about our process, or even results, but the performance that we're going to see throughout this season."
Like Springsteen in Leipzig, that will depend on astute planning, a bit of improvisation and execution. If LAFC can excel at all three, it will result in some beautiful music on the field this season.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.