Bob Bradley said his soccer team took a big step forward in Thursday’s MLS playoff win over the Galaxy. Several steps, in fact.
For starters the 5-3 win pushed LAFC forward into Tuesday’s Western Conference final, in which it will play host to the Seattle Sounders. It also gave the second-year team its first win in six games with its neighborhood rival and likely closed the book on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s MLS career.
But Bradley was referring to something intangible. By refusing to wilt after surrendering a two-goal lead in the biggest game in franchise history, Bradley believes LAFC may have finally made the transition from being a decent team to being a good one.
“To really become a good team, to go with the football there’s got to be a mentality,” he said. “There’s got to be something that when you have games that get away from you, you take the lessons along the way. And then at some moment, against your biggest rival, when everything’s at stake, to see those guys respond, that was awesome.
“That’s something special.”
Even more special was the man who led the response.
For forward Adama Diomande, this season has been a rough one. He started the year on the bench after offseason hernia surgery, then went back to the sidelines after six games with a hamstring strain.
By mid-summer he had reclaimed his spot, starting 11 of 12 games, when he suddenly disappeared again, voluntarily entering the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.
Diomande made his return in the 59th minute Thursday, four minutes after Ibrahimovic had tied the score with his 31st goal of the season. Seven minutes later LAFC went ahead to stay.
In 31 minutes Diomande scored two goals on three shots and completed every pass he attempted. It was a victory over adversity as much as a win over the Galaxy.
“That was something great to see,” Bradley enthused. “I’ve known Dio and he’s a good guy. Obviously any time a player has a personal situation, that’s a challenge. The support of his teammates was really important.
“In this whole stretch I think Dio has grown.”
Publicly, Diomande and the team have declined to go into detail about why the player entered the monitored program other than to say it was a personal issue, not one that involved drugs or alcohol.
“I don’t drink and I’ll never do drugs,” Diomande said.
But, he added, by standing with him through the struggles Bradley may have saved his career for a third time.
The son of parents from the Ivory Coast who emigrated from France to Norway, Diomande grew up in a tough, gritty section of Oslo in which soccer was the only common language. He made his debut in the Norwegian league as a teenager but was quickly shuffled between four teams in Norway and one in Belarus before Bradley brought him back to Oslo to play for Stabaek.
He responded with his most productive season as a pro, scoring 25 times in 26 appearances.
The coach left at the end of the season and so did Diomande, who struggled through parts of three seasons with England’s Hull City. So Bradley called again, bringing Diomande to LAFC just before the transfer window closed in the spring of 2018 and he rewarded the team with 12 goals in 18 games.
“He’s been like a father to me,” Diomande, 29, said of Bradley. “I didn’t grow up with a father who was around. He’s always supported me. He’s been helping me a lot.”
Bradley said he could tell something wasn’t right with Diomande last summer and it continued into this season before the player voluntarily sought help.
“He was moodier than he was when I worked with him at Stabaek. Sometimes on the personal level there’s some things,” the coach said. “He’s handled it great.”
The same can’t be said for Ibrahimovic who, if he’s leaving, chose to take the low road out of MLS.
When the final whistle sounded on Thursday, Ibrahimovic, alone among Galaxy players, did not exchange handshakes and congratulations with the victors but headed briskly for the exit, responding to a heckler by grabbing his crotch as he left the field.
An hour later Ibrahimovic met with reporters to finish burning what was left of the bridge linking him to the league.
“If I don’t play in MLS what will you talk about then?” said the Swedish superstar, whose league-record $7.2-million contract ends at the end of the year. “If I stay…for MLS it’s good because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”
“I made LAFC famous,” he continued. “I made even [Carlos] Vela famous. So he should be happy.”
Vela is happily headed to the conference final. And Ibrahimovic?
“We’ll see what happens,” he said before leaving the stadium, this time with his hands at his side.