Bob Bradley blew his whistle at the LAFC Performance Center. He blew it again a few minutes later. One more time, just shortly after the last.
Each time, Bradley moved to the center of the pitch and reminded his players of a concept, a moment from a prior video session, or a small tip on receiving a pass on the run. This time, he had his arm around Latif Blessing.
Moving Blessing forward, Bradley mimicked a sprint to one side and then the other of his central midfielder. Each time, Bradley looked behind him, scanning like a midfielder would when checking to receive a pass with his back to goal. Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye listened attentively, as Bradley moved Blessing again to orientate his body nearly perpendicular with the touchline and facing the center of the field. Bradley put a foot out as if to receive a pass, swiveled and turned upfield. He stopped, having made his point, shouted “PLAY,” and training resumed. Demonstration over.
Blessing arrived at LAFC a winger. This season, he’s become an MLS Best XI-caliber central midfielder. As Bradley has said many times about Blessing, there was the raw makings of a good footballer – Blessing has a natural touch, an ability to navigate tight spaces, and a willingness to pressure all over the pitch – he just needed a bit of coaching on the finer points of the position.
A few weeks later, Bradley was at it again. Initially showering praise on a cross-field ball, he’s stopped training once again.
This time, he made a beeline for Josh Pérez. The winger received the aforementioned pass but did so with the outside of his dominant left foot. The result was an extra touch necessary to go forward. Near the right touchline, it’s the incorrect foot to receive a pass with. Bradley reminded Pérez that if he receives with his right, he’ll save that ever-important fraction of a second going forward. Bradley sent the ball back where it came from, instructed the player to play the pass once more, Pérez used his right foot to receive, and practice continued. Demonstration over.
Like Blessing, Pérez is young. Unlike Blessing, Pérez has only started four times this season. But in a spot start against San Jose in August, the winger scored his first MLS goal and repaid some of the faith the coaching staff has had in him this season.
“His ability to coach everyone, regardless of their age or their experience, is huge. It brings young guys along, experienced guys are learning new things, and I appreciate the fact that we bring in intelligent players and you’re learning a style and way of playing that is new to me but it’s intriguing and exciting,” Jordan Harvey said of Bradley's approach with his team. “I feel like I’ve played with other managers and they have categories. You’re either a ‘piano player’ or a ‘piano mover,’ and I feel like in Bob’s system you can be both. Which is amazing.”
A 15-year veteran in MLS, Harvey has played over 300 matches for four different teams. He’s seen his fair share of coaching styles and been through his fair share of training sessions. But he’s admitted Bradley’s is unique.
“We’re trying to be the best team day in and day out. And Bob pushes everybody to be that. Whether it’s start-stopping [in training] it’s for a reason. Everything is for a reason,” Harvey said. “That’s what I’ve learned to understand and really appreciate. Whatever it is, there’s a purpose and you’re working towards something. When you do that, I think, as a group, everybody understands it and builds as a group.
“That’s why we’re in the place we are. It’s because of Bob and his staff.”
At training, Bradley’s black LAFC cap has a golden hue. It’s not from LAFC’s winged logo but from the hours of sunlight it’s endured, the visual embodiment of Bradley’s time spent amongst his players on the training pitch.
“The biggest thing that keeps him apart from the rest of the coaches in this league is that he takes the time to work on every individual detail with every player and try to get every player better, so that the system works better,” Mark-Anthony Kaye said about Bradley’s work ethic. “It’s actually crazy the amount of time and effort him and the coaching staff have put into that because when you really think with all the time they have to focus on one or two players it’s not that much when you’re trying to help a team become the best in the league.”
Kaye arrived at LAFC from USL side Louisville City midway through the Black & Gold’s inaugural preseason. His first day of training was at left back by necessity. But a day later, he was in central midfield, in a position Bradley had seen him play with Canada at 2017 Gold Cup six months before.
Despite playing in USL the season prior to arriving at LAFC, Kaye had the technical skills to succeed at the next level. The midfielder just needed to be trusted and to learn. Bradley inserted the Canadian into his midfield from the start of LAFC’s first season. He started 19 more times before a broken ankle against the Galaxy ended his season and put Kaye on crutches for months.
After lengthy recovery and rehab process, Kaye returned to LAFC during the 2019 preseason. Bradley put his faith in Kaye once again, starting him in LAFC's 2019 season opener, eight months after the midfielder's last competitive match.
“One of the things he’s really good at is giving his players confidence. I think confidence is one of the biggest things as an athlete. Knowing that you have the backing of your coaching staff and your head coach goes a long way,” Kaye said. “Bob and I had a chat at the beginning of the year. He told me that it’s not going to be easy for me coming back from a big injury. But he never lost faith in what I was trying to achieve and what he felt I could do.
“That just shows what kind of person he is to give me all that trust, especially coming off a big injury. He’s done a lot for me and I appreciate it.”
A Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year nominee this season, Bradley’s work with LAFC and his players in 2019 is really a continuation of the Club’s inaugural season.
In that first year, Bradley took a team of players - many of which met for the first time on the first day of preseason training - and led them to a record most points by an MLS expansion team in an inaugural season with 57. A disappointing loss in the first round of the MLS playoffs followed. But Bradley believed he had the core of a good team.
He was right, and then some. In just Year Two, his side is one win from setting the all-time points record in MLS. That’s in addition to raising the Supporters’ Shield and posting an absurd goal differential of +46 (also an MLS record).
Bradley hasn't backed off his penchant for stopping practice to coach though. Training can be a challenge for players. But more than just riding the momentum of success, they’ve embraced their coach’s pursuit of constant improvement.
“Sometimes it’s hard. Obviously, you just want to get in the flow of the game and keep playing. At the end of the day, we love playing the sport. We don’t really want whistles to stop what we’re doing,” Kaye said. “But we understand the importance of Bob intervening or the other coaches intervening to make sure we know what’s going on in a certain play. So that when it does happen in an actual game, we have the solutions already.
“Every day, we come in and we know that there’s still more to work on. He’s demanding the best from us. His standards are so high that it pushes us to keep trying to get to that next level. It’s paid off so far.”