Bob Bradley recovers from Swansea nightmare as LAFC take MLS by storm
Los Angeles already had the most successful franchise in Major League Soccer history. A team that have won more championships (five) and made more MLS Cup finals (nine) than any other. Between 2011 and 2014, three titles were delivered by an array of global superstars and a coach once dubbed the Sir Alex Ferguson of American soccer.
LAFC’s unashamed aim was always to usurp the Galaxy when they made their MLS debut last year. The way they saw it, Los Angeles didn’t even have a team, with the Galaxy playing their games out by the tennis courts and suburban communities of Carson. LAFC, on the other hand, play so close to downtown that the skyline is visible between the stands of the Banc of California Stadium.
In just two seasons, LAFC have done a lot to energise the city’s soccer community. Attendances have been strong – both LAFC and the Galaxy average around 22,000 a game – and the cultural impact made by the franchise is even stronger. None of this is as impressive as the team they have put together on the pitch, though.
With more than half of the regular season played, Bob Bradley’s team are the runaway leaders both at the top of the Western Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield standings. They have suffered two league defeats all year, scoring more goals (53) and conceding fewer (17) than any other team in MLS and boast the league’s top scorer and MVP-elect, Carlos Vela.
For a number of months, talk in MLS has been whether LAFC can be caught. The Philadelphia Union are enjoying an historic season of their own in the Eastern Conference, but they have 10 points fewer than LAFC and have played two more games. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has led an overhaul of the LA Galaxy since taking over at the start of the year, but they are 12 points behind their rivals at this stage of the season.
Nobody thought the impact of Atlanta United as a new MLS franchise could be surpassed. Attendance-wise, they still set the standard in North American soccer, drawing crowds that few thought a US club ever would. The 3252, the LAFC supporters group, do a good job of creating an almighty racket at home games, but it doesn’t quite compare to the spectacle routinely witnessed at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
On the pitch, though, Atlanta United’s achievements last season as a two-year-old franchise are being bettered. LAFC are a more balanced outfit – tight at the back, controlling in midfield and dynamic in attack. They have scored 14 goals in their last three league games.
Vela is the star of this team with Diego Rossi a more than effective supporting act. But LAFC’s biggest coup was luring Bradley. He is the best coach in North America right now. Readers on the other side of the Atlantic may associate Bradley with his ill-fated spell at Swansea City, but with the exception of that brief Premier League sojourn the 61-year-old has succeeded in every job he has held.
Atlanta United, by hiring Tata Martino, demonstrated the value of pairing star players with a star coach and Los Angeles FC have done the same with the appointment of Bradley. “I failed,” he wrote on The Players’ Tribune, shortly after Swansea fired him. “Failed to put my stamp on the team at Swansea. To give it a real identity. A real personality. I never managed to find the right balance between attack and defense. I couldn’t find the answers for this group to play with the commitment and passion that so many of my other teams possessed. We never found consistency or confidence.”
In his time at LAFC, however, Bradley has done all of those things and more. The team is a reflection of his excellence as an organiser and a motivator. At their current pace, LAFC’s 2019 season could eclipse the Chicago Fire’s expansion season MLS Cup triumph of 1998 as Bradley’s defining achievement in club soccer, underlining his status as USA’s best coach.
Of course, there is still plenty of time for LAFC’s season to unravel or lose momentum. Only twice in the past 10 years have the Supporters’ Shield winners, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, gone on to win MLS Cup. The New York Red Bulls, for instance, have won three Supporters’ Shields since 2013 and have failed in the playoffs each time. LAFC might already have something of a post-season complex having suffered a disappointing play-off defeat to Real Salt Lake in the knockout round last year.
It seems unlikely this LAFC team will suffer such a fate, though. Much like Atlanta United last season, they possess an unflinching self-assurance. And Bradley has managed to instill this in a franchise with just one full season behind it. Los Angeles has had winning soccer teams before, but LAFC, as they always promised they would be, are something new.