Bob Bradley knows how he wants things done.
The 61-year-old, from Montclair, New Jersey, has always had strong ideas. In the early 90s, while coaching the Princeton Tigers, he wanted his side to imitate the Milan side of the time.
More than just a general idea, his desire saw players mirroring their Milan counterparts. Jesse Marsch took up the midfield role inhabited by Demetrio Albertini; another player was given Franco Baresi's libero role, and so on.
"There are so many opinions of who he is. Some get who he is and there are some misconceptions, but one thing, he's pushed the envelope wherever he is,” Marsch told ESPN in 2015. “The coach he was 20 years ago, ten years ago, five, is very different from the coach he is now. He's grown so much and refined his philosophy and stayed current with the modern game."
Those characteristics are part of the reason LAFC are the early frontrunners in MLS. Last season the New York Red Bulls broke the previous record points total during the regular season with 71. After nine games they had 18 points. LAFC currently have 22.
While many would allow themselves a moment of indulgence, Bradley demands more.
“I don’t think we’re doing something that’s so different and unique,” he said, noting years in which the league saw quality from other teams, citing Toronto FC, Atlanta United, the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City as examples. “I don’t think we’re the ones setting the standard, that would be wrong.”
What LAFC are doing is showing a robust tactical plan that is difficult for opposition teams to handle. The Seattle Sounders were the latest victim of that plan, after falling to a 4-1 defeat in California. The Sounders players were quick to take responsibility for what they viewed as a lackluster performance, (during which they were without two key players in defender Chad Marshall and striker Raul Ruidiaz). That said, it is worth noting just how LAFC took advantage of the situation.
When Seattle pressed, LAFC played from back to front with quick, direct passing. When the Sounders attempted a more balanced approach, LAFC positioned themselves in between the lines and found gaps.
Brian Schmetzer’s side even tried to bunker in deep, and that was when LAFC’s versatility presented itself with their fourth goal. A flowing move, in which their attackers inhabited dangerous pockets of space, a one-two between Christian Ramirez and Mark Anthony-Kaye resulted in the former slotting it home.
“What a goal, what a performance, what a team,” ESPN’s Max Bretos exclaimed, and while Seattle’s defending had been questionable, (they were also without defender Chad Marshall and striker Raul Ruidiaz) it was hard to ignore how strong LAFC’s attacking performance had been.
They were equally as impressive without the ball. As well as using an aggressive press LAFC stifled Seattle’s attempts to build from the back by man marking Gustav Svensson. That, in turn, forced Seattle to play the ball long from goalkeeper Stefan Frei which forced almost a dozen turnovers.
The result once again highlighted Bradley’s attention to detail and his ability to evolve his ideas for different situations.
As we have seen at the top of the Premier League this season, sides that possess a robust style of play are thriving. Manchester City and Liverpool have both undergone small, but noticeable, tweaks during Jurgen Klopp’s and Pep Guardiola’s tenure and they are better for it.
Not that Bradley is comparing himself to either man. His spell in the Premier League was brief but eventful. He was let go after 11 games, with American co-owners Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan predominantly behind his arrival, rather than long-serving chairman Huw Jenkins.
The time and patience Bradley wanted in Wales has been granted to him at LAFC. The club has big aspirations, and those seem matched by their coach. During an ESPN documentary charting LAFC’s first year in MLS Bradley revealed he regularly shows clips of Barcelona to his players to explain different tactical and technical elements of the game.
"There's two guys I've shown Messi clips to and said, 'look, this can be you,'" Bradley. Said "[They are] Carlos [Vela] and Mohamed Salah and I think I'm right in both of my choices. So Carlos is sick of it, but he's going to keep hearing [about Messi]!"
The mere mention of Barcelona and Messi in the same conversation as MLS may sound fanciful, but you have to admire the clarity of that ambition. Bradley knows how he wants things done, and that should scare his rivals in MLS.