The what-ifs connecting Bob Bradley and Toronto FC have been around since his son, Michael, left Europe for Canada nearly eight years ago. Bob was just starting his European adventure at the time, and Greg Vanney, about to kick off a philosophical revolution that would take the Reds to rare heights, would be in charge before the coming season was done.
Until Vanney departed a year ago, ultimately taking his revolution to the LA Galaxy (where his pro career began 25 years earlier), and Toronto nose-dived to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (no, wait, that's right: FC Cincinnati's in the league), and Los Angeles FC missed the playoffs for the first time, it wasn't particularly feasible.
Voila! Everything falls into place, and the Bradley reunion -- let's not forget Bob's brother Jeff, TFC's longtime communications director -- is on. That kind of lure is powerful, and this is modern professional sports. Peter Vermeses are rare, and we'll never, no way, see the likes of another Connie Mack. (Look him up.) Head coaching jobs are not lifetime appointments.
That's not to say LAFC would not have liked to continue with Bradley. His team was terrific this year in every way except results. Better than its foes far more often than not but with little to show for that, especially as injuries cracked its spine: Carlos Vela for a good part of the season, then Eddie Segura, then Eduard Atuesta. They'd have played into the postseason if style points counted.
There was talk back in August, before the 3-3 home draw with the Galaxy, that Bradley was about to be relieved of his duties. Not so, insiders said. He's Bob Freaking Bradley, and he deserves the opportunity to take this campaign to its conclusion. His contract would be up at season's end, so you act then, if at all.
LAFC isn't talking about any of that, of course. Contract negotiations, in responsible organizations, aren't for public consumption. John Thorrington (pictured above), LAFC's co-president and general manager, said only that “as our season came to an end, we had conversations with Bob, and following those talks, we mutually agreed [his departure] was the right next move for both of us.”
One party might have agreed more than the other, but that's basically, it appears, what happened. Four days after LAFC's announcement that it and Bradley are parting, Toronto “mutually” separates from Ali Curtis, the general manager and senior vice president of soccer operations, as he “pursues a new opportunity.” A day later, interim coach Javier Perez is gone. The next day, Bradley is the new head coach and sporting director. When was all this put into motion? Nobody's saying.
The move makes sense in so many ways, even if Bradley had more to achieve at LAFC. He's always embraced challenges, always enjoyed building from little or nothing.
Right from the start, when he left after two years (and two MLS Cup titles) as Bruce Arena's chief assistant at D.C. United to win an MLS Cup with the first-year Chicago Fire. He turned around in one year an abysmal Chivas USA team that, right after he took off to start the U.S. national team's post-Arena era, finished first in the the Western Conference (and might have won the title if not Ante Razov's and Maykel Galindo's injuries). He stoked new ground for Americans as Egypt's head coach (during the revolution!), then in Norway and France and England (OK, Wales), and then built LAFC into the most fiercely entertaining -- and most successful, for the bulk of one season -- MLS team of its era.
Toronto FC needs something of a “rebuild,” even if it's shying from that term, and Bradley is getting more responsibility than he had at LAFC. He's going to shape the club's future. What's not to like?
And it's about family.
And perhaps its time for LAFC to retool, too, with a new voice, a new approach. Build upon the foundation Bradley, Thorrington and Co., have constructed over four seasons. It's better to make the switch before the curve heads south, right?
That's where LAFC is, like it or not, and how the Vela saga plays out will speak to direction. When Vela has been healthy and in form -- all of the first two seasons, little of the last two -- LAFC has been as close to unbeatable as is doable in a league with so much parity. When he hasn't, they've played some beautiful soccer and hovered around .500. Either way, the playoffs brought disappointment, more so when out of reach.
LAFC has an option year on Vela's contract and, Thorrington says, has been in discussions with the one true face of the franchise and his representatives. Either way it plays out makes sense: Vela, on form, makes things happen, makes those around him better, makes it all seem so exciting. And he wins. Yeah, sure, but he'll be 33 in March, hasn't been the same player since that glorious 2019 campaign, and now -- especially with new on-field leadership coming -- might be the best time to confront the future. (The club's already doing so, letting Diego Rossi leave midseason, on loan, in his European quest.)
Where will that lead DTLA's team? Depends on who follows Bradley. Thorrington, asked whether the team's identity as a dynamic side will live on or that it's time to perhaps shift gears, told Soccer America that “it's a combination of both.”
“[The foundation] is a really strong one to build on,” he said. “We're committed to winning and we certainly have developed a style of play that is an important part of our identity as a club. And Bob helped execute upon that. And that style of play -- the exciting football, the attacking football that our fans have come to love and appreciate, that will continue.”
How it will shift will be determined in selecting the new coach. LAFC is looking for the right fit, and they're allowing themselves the “space and time to go through a rigorous, diligent process in order to find that right candidate,” Thorrington said. Interest in the job is “incredibly strong,” and there's a “growing list of fantastic coaches” to consider. Previous MLS experience is helpful, of course, “but is it an absolute prerequisite? No.”
Whoever gets the job inherits a pretty good roster, Vela or no Vela. There's an open Designated Player slot (at least one) with the aim, Thorrington says, of “getting a real impact player, likely an attacker but open to other positions as well.” Brian Rodriguez has always been more impactful than his stats suggest, his four-and-a-half month loan to Almeria prodded a desire to give more and better, and he's a good match with finisher Cristian “Chicho” Arango -- MLS's Newcomer of the Year -- in the attack.
Atuesta should be back, and Segura's ACL tear gave teenager Mamadou Fall unexpected time in central defense. Jose Cifuentes is in mid-breakout, and Latif Blessing is in the middle of so much LAFC accomplishes. Defensively, things could be better -- LAFC has always emphasized attack over defense -- and new faces are needed here and there. Thorrington says “it's more about rounding out the pieces we have” during this offseason.
LAFC was 12-13-9, ninth in the West and 19th overall. The metrics say the team was much better than that. By American Soccer Analysis' computations, LAFC led MLS in expected goals (59.22), had the fifth-best expected goals-against (36.80) and the second-most expected points (60.45, just shy of NYCFC). But 51 were scored and 51 surrendered, for the league's worst goal difference below expectations (minus-22.42), and 45 points were won, the worst-below-expectations mark in the league (minus-15.45), just below Cincinnati's.
That's cause for confidence, sort of.
“Sometimes -- oftentimes -- our performances did not get the results they deserved ...,” Thorrington said, “and it causes us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. ... We by no means think this system is broken, but I do think it needs some tweaks. ... We think we have a really good core to build on, but it certainly does need some improvement, and we have the available slots and resources to make sure that we hit the ground running in 2022.”
We await word on who'll lead that marathon.