Bob Bradley made the Los Angeles FC founders' vision of playing the beautiful game beautifully a reality, putting on the field a dynamic, dominant side that at its best set standards as Major League Soccer's game rapidly evolved over the past half-decade or so.
LAFC has been virtually unstoppable when things are clicking as they should, pinning opponents in their halves and -- fueled by Carlos Vela's brilliance in and around the box -- feasting on repeated attacking waves. Art and commerce, hand-in-hand.
That's the legacy Bradley, 63, leaves as he departs after guiding the downtown club through its first four seasons. So is this: LAFC hasn't much to show for all the beauty in its game, for all the goals concocted by Vela and Co., for all those lopsided wins from March through October. Just the one Supporters' Shield claimed two years ago, and that didn't end so well.
LAFC has been underachievers all along, even during that historic 2019 campaign, when it set league records -- some still standing -- for points (72, from a 21-4-9 campaign) and goal difference (plus 48) while tying the marks for goals (85) and distance above the runner-up (16 points). (New England this year surpassed the first and last of these.) None of it mattered at the finish, the Seattle Sounders' 3-1 triumph at Banc of California Stadium closing the books one game short of the MLS Cup final.
Since then, the nifty run to last year's Concacaf Champions League final aside, LAFC has mostly disappointed. The Angelenos have hovered around .500 the past two seasons, have continued to be bested in its El Trafico derby with the LA Galaxy, and this year's failure to make the playoffs, punctuated by a 5-2 loss at Colorado in the finale, dished the severest blow, no matter that Real Salt Lake's late winner in Kansas City would have eliminated them regardless.
And that was that for Bradley, whose contract was up. The club on Thursday announced a “mutual” agreement to part ways. He posted a 58-34-32 record in regular-season games -- LAFC was 68-40-33 in all competitions -- but was 1-3 in the playoffs, the lone victory a 5-3 home romp over the Galaxy in 2019. He's the third-winningest coach in league annals, with 182 victories, and won his third MLS Coach of the Year honor two years ago.
Bradley was something of a coup for LAFC as it prepared for its inaugural 2018 season. The former U.S. national team coach, who guided the the Yanks into the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, hadn't coached in MLS since departing Chivas USA -- after turning the LAFC predecessor's fortunes around following its horrific 2005 debut -- to take the U.S. job after Bruce Arena's dismissal following the 2006 World Cup. He was canned after dropping the 2011 Gold Cup final against Mexico and then took charge of Egypt's national team and of clubs in Norway and France before lasting just 11 games in the English Premier League with Swansea City.
He had LAFC prospering right away, building a fast, fluid team around Vela -- acquired from Real Sociedad to be the club's first Designated Player -- who played the pivotal role, with 14 goals and 13 assists in a 16-9-9 campaign that was good for third place in the Western Conference. A dominant performance in the playoff opener with Real Salt Lake wasn't rewarded in a 3-2 loss.
2019 was a joyride until the postseason, and the rollicking crowd at the Banc -- sorry, Sounders and Timbers -- provided perhaps the best atmosphere in MLS. LAFC seemed to gang up on foes, pressuring turnovers in its middle and defensive third and attacking like lightning through some mixture of Vela and Diego Rossi with Brian Rodriguez, Latif Blessing, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Adama Diomande. With Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye providing a midfield foundation, LAFC spread opposing defenses, unlocking space with its speed and ball movement and feasting on Vela's ability to cut in from the right flank to score or create a goal with his glorious left foot.
Vela netted 34 goals and assisted 15 more (with two more goals in the playoffs and another two in the U.S. Open Cup) in the greatest single season MLS has witnessed, but injuries the past two seasons have taken a toll. He's played just 1,689 minutes over 27 games the past two seasons, with nine goals with seven assists. He scored five this year, hitting the goal frame just as often.
That's a big part of the context surrounding the failures of the past two seasons, and it was exacerbated this year with the losses to injury of backline leader Eddie Segura at midseason and Atuesta down the stretch, Kaye's midseason trade to Colorado and 2020 Golden Boot winner Rossi's early September departure on loan to Turkish giant Fenerbahçe. LAFC was 9-8-5 last year, squeaking into the playoffs to get beat at Seattle, then went 12-13-9 in 2021 -- and that with a six-game unbeaten run before the loss in Colorado -- worth ninth place in the West and 19th overall.
“It's hard to compete every single game when you miss most of your important players ...,” Vela said after the finale. “I feel disappointed because I [wasn't] with them most of the games when they need me, and [that] is something that makes me feel bad, because I feel I'm an important player in this club and in my head is always working [to] help this team, make good things for the team. When I can't do that, I feel frustration. I feel bad about that.
“It's a hard season. It's not the season like we expect, but nothing more to say, nothing more to do. Just be ready for the next challenge and do well.”
The record is reflective of LAFC's imprecision on both sides of the ball, not of its play. It was the better side in most of its games, often playing with the verve and style of two years prior, but the goals didn't come as easy -- even with Cristian “Chicho” Arango putting away 14 in 17 games after arriving at the start of August -- and late defensive lapses were deadly. Eighteen points were lost in the last half-hour of games, 11 from the 70th minute on and seven from the 86th into stoppage.
“Such an improbable year,” Bradley said in his final media session with LAFC, following the Colorado defeat. “In so many games, we were still the team pushing the game, creating the chances. We've said so many times that we didn't execute well enough, take advantage of the chances we create. We hurt ourselves with mistakes ... and that inconsistency is most disappointing.”
Bradley pinpoints the decline to the 2-0 loss to the Galaxy on Aug. 22, 2020, the first game after the MLS Is Back tournament ended the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus. LAFC is 19-21-11 from that moment.
“This year is just incredibly difficult to put a finger on,” he said. “Because, again, in terms of trying to play the football we always played, we did every game. And a lot of games, man, we still were capable of doing some really good things, but the consistency, the ability to score goals on the big chances, the ability to control games a little more, not make some of the mistakes [wasn't there].
“There's a number of games [we lost] late, I think of [Felipe] Mora's header [in stoppage of a 2-1 loss at Portland in July, [Hassani] Dotson's [stoppage-time] equalizer [in a 2-2 draw a week later] against Minnesota. I thought we played a really good game against NYCFC [in late May], and then we gave up a [90th-minute] goal on a ball that came through the first zone, and I think [Ismael] Tajouri-Shradi was by himself at the back post. So there's too many of these kind of moments. Where even if we play well, we didn't take advantage of the good football and then we paid the price for mistakes. ...
“The standards that we set for ourselves this year, we did not meet those standards.”
That's how it ends, and it complicates Bradley's legacy at LAFC, but he's likely to be remembered for the beauty when things were flowing (and often when they weren't), for the majesty of that 2019 season, and for building a marvelous foundation for whatever comes next.