Bob Bradley and Chivas USA are ready to cross borders in search of wins.
The man touted by some as a future U.S. national team coach watched the World Cup draw in Spanish (the World Cup will be held in Germany this June). Chivas USA hosted a viewing party and their new coach was present to observe Univision's coverage.
Unceremoniously tossed from the East Coast when Alexi Lalas relieved the former Metros skipper of his duties, Bradley found an unexpected welcome from the expansion team that finished 2005 dead last in the league.
"I was very excited with the vision and the passion of Chivas," Bradley said. "When I got to know Antonio Cue, Javier Leon and Whit Haskell and hear their thoughts on the first season and for the future, I knew it would be an exciting new challenge for me."
One reason the hiring of Bradley surprised many was because the management of Chivas USA seemed so focused on maintaining a connection to the parent Guadalajara organization -- mimicking not only the colors and shield but also the on-field formations.
Chivas has famously presented its players in an attacking strategy that utilizes three forwards. While his coaching credentials are impressive -- having led the expansion Chicago Fire to a title in its debut season -- Bradley has never been the type of coach to be locked into a single formation.
The management of Chivas USA apparently decided that some tributes were more important than others.
"They believe in the tradition of Chivas, but they also know that the Chivas USA version of the tradition must be a little bit different than Guadalajara," explained Bradley. "It must keep the heart and the heritage, but it must also fit everything that works here in Major League Soccer."
For now, Bradley has been given a free hand to guide the team.
"I've been told that we need to organize our team according to our talent," he said. "There's no set formation. The team must take advantage of all the players. I'm not a coach that's a big believer that it's about the system. When the mentality is right, when the players will work for each other unselfishly, that's how you can be successful."
He wasn't concerned that supporters might be bothered by the break with the trademark formation.
"The tradition of Chivas," he said, "is much more about teams that play with that type of heart and that type of passion so that the fans can be proud than it is about 3-4-3 or anything else."
Defender Ezra Hendrickson acknowledged that the focus on attacking had left team cohesiveness lacking when preventing opponents from scoring.
"Defensively -- and when I say defensively, I don't just mean the three or four guys in the back, I mean as a team -- we have to play better team defense," Hendrickson said. "We like to go forward. We want to play attractive soccer, but at the same time, you can't just push everyone forward and win."
Hendrickson, like many players, had expected Hans Westerhof to return and coach the team in 2006. The switch to Bradley was welcomed by the MLS veteran.
"It was somewhat of a surprise, because I think everybody thought Hans was going to come back for another year, but that wasn't the case," Hendrickson said. "As players, we try not to concern ourselves with decisions that are made in the office, but Bob is a very good coach. He's the winningest coach in this league, so that's going to help us a lot."
Westerhof landed on his feet, taking over the coaching duties at Chivas Guadalajara. That move might also have sealed the deal for Francisco Palencia to stay with Chivas USA, as well. Though owner Jorge Vergara had stated publicly that moving Palencia from Guadalajara to the MLS club was a "mistake," insiders said the star clashed with Westerhof at times. Palencia re-signed with Chivas USA, apparently preferring to give Bradley a chance rather than return to Guadalajara under Westerhof.
All the Chivas USA players were under the scrutiny of Bradley. The team released seven players, which left room for considerable roster changes.
"Everyone's fighting for their jobs," Hendrickson said. "Just in the time that he's been here, the intensity of the practice -- although that's normal with a new coach -- the intensity and the competitiveness in practice has increased tremendously. I think it's going to help us a lot. Everyone knows we're coming off a bad year. We're going to work hard in the preseason and hopefully have a better start."
Despite the team's poor record in 2005, Bradley maintained that Chivas USA was competitive.
"It was in many ways an inexperienced team -- not that familiar with MLS. Along the way there were some hard lessons. I think the team always showed some very good soccer. But understanding how to finish a game and be sure of three points -- knowing how to concentrate until the very end -- I think these are the little things that come from experience."
Tactics, a crucial element of managing game play, are probably going to be a focus of Bradley's teaching. Hendrickson certainly hopes so.
"As much as we want to go forward, we have to, once we lose the ball, drop back and help out defensively," Hendrickson said. "We're not asking forwards to make tackles or anything like that, but maybe break a pass or shade a little better to one side, so that makes it predictable for us in the back, as to which way you're going to push the ball. Things like that make a difference. Bob's a very good coach and his teams are good defensive teams -- so that's going to improve."
"We must work to get the right group of players and the right mentality, and the rest will take care of itself," Bradley asserted.
In search of the right stuff, Bradley carefully assessed Chivas USA players in scrimmage games.
"Bob's trying to see what he has, as far as talent goes," explained Hendrickson. "So we haven't been doing any specific functional training. We've just been playing. Bob wants to see what kind of talent, what kind of skills different players have and how much fight, how much competitiveness."
With the first pick in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft, Bradley has the chance to supplement the Chivas USA forces. While the coach did well developing such top young talents as DaMarcus Beasley, the postseason flameouts of the Metros were often attributed to the inability of the youthful players to hold up under pressure. Bradley may opt to trade the pick for a veteran instead.
"When you have talented young players, they need to learn from the right role models," Bradley said. "A balance between the young talent and the experienced veterans is very important, and that's what we'll try to put together."
The coach is combining talents from the two neighboring countries to come up with a winning formula. The recent signing of another proven element from the Mexican league, defender Claudio Suarez, showed Bradley's willingness to bolster the squad with south-of-the-border players. Brian Dunseth, an eight-year MLS player, was also added to the Chivas USA back line.
The other balance Bradley must strike is incorporating the Chivas identity in an MLS team.
He's comfortable with the challenge: "There's this starting point from what Chivas means -- and there are Chivas supporters everywhere that care about the club and the colors. There's a big responsibility to have a team that all of those supporters are excited about and proud of."
Bradley was also confident that he and management were simpatico about the objectives ahead.
"They learned a lot from the first season," he said. "They realized that maybe some small changes could make this whole thing more successful."
It was a pretty significant change to hire Bradley, but it also showed the commitment to do what was needed to win. The pressure was on, especially with the city of Los Angeles celebrating the double-winning year of its original soccer team. In 2005, the Galaxy won both the U.S. Open Cup and the MLS championship.
The fact that Bradley-coached teams have often been successful against Chivas USA's main rival, the Los Angeles Galaxy, was probably not lost on the management team who made him the job offer.
"The SuperClassico will become a great rivalry when we are able to play at the Galaxy's level," Bradley noted. "Any time two teams play in the same stadium, that's the starting point for something very special. They are the holders of MLS Cup right now. That's our challenge and our goal."
Besides gunning for the Galaxy, Bradley stated his specific aims for the team in simple terms: "To make the playoffs, to improve throughout the season and feel at the end that we are playing our best and can compete to win a championship."
"We're coming from a last-place position," Hendrickson observed. "Things can only get better. With the people coming in ... we could find ourselves in the middle of the pack in the league."
If Chivas USA is able to meld the Latin flair for the game and the passionate fan support with the classic "winning is everything" mentality of American sports -- they could be the team to watch next season.
Bradley is ready to do his part. He is learning Spanish and getting ready to teach attitude.
"The team must learn to win. We have to learn to take the good things that we do and make them count for wins and not just be satisfied that the soccer is good. A little bit more balance in the team, a little bit more understanding of how to win games -- it sounds basic, but the starting points are there. The next step is growing the confidence and the mentality of knowing how to win these games."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com