Sports consumed the house Bob Bradley grew up in. It was just about the only thing anyone talked of and it was certainly the one thing everyone did.
So it was no surprise the two younger Bradley boys went on to make their livings in baseball, Scott playing nine seasons in the majors while Jeff wrote about the game for the New York Daily News and ESPN.
Bob chose a different path — one that seemed odd for a kid growing up in New Jersey in the early 1970s.
“There was just this pull,” Jeff Bradley said. “My brother’s passion for soccer is on such a level that I don’t think many people can comprehend it.”
It’s a passion that has fueled one of the more remarkable coaching careers in the sport, one that has taken Bradley to a World Cup, jobs in Egypt, Norway, France and England, and to a league title in MLS.
But he has done some of his best work in the last two years, guiding an LAFC expansion team that was little more than a concept when he joined to the best regular-season record in MLS history and a spot in Tuesday’s Western Conference championship game against the Seattle Sounders.
Seattle, making its 11th consecutive playoff appearance, has lost just one of its last seven games. But the Sounders are winless in four matches with LAFC.
“He’s one of a kind. He’s special,” defender Steven Beitashour, who has played for five coaches in his MLS career, said of Bradley. “There’s so many individuals that improved so much, that I would never had thought could be at the level that they are, under his system.”
LAFC (22-4-9, including last week’s playoff win over the Galaxy) has always been more about the sum of its parts than the parts themselves. And it has fallen to Bradley to make sure those parts all fit together.
Midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye was languishing in the second-tier USL when LAFC found him; Bradley turned him into the quarterback of his complicated offense and Kaye blossomed into an MLS all-star. Forward Adama Diomande was struggling with Hull City in England’s second-tier Championship before Bradley brought him to MLS, where he’s averaging a goal every two games. And goalkeeper Tyler Miller had played just three games in two years in Seattle; under Bradley, he’s second in the league with 35 wins in the last two seasons.
Even captain Carlos Vela, the first player LAFC signed, came to MLS from Spain’s Real Sociedad overflowing with talent but lacking in confidence. So Bradley publicly challenged him with comparisons to Lionel Messi and Vela responded this season with a league-record 36 goals, including two in the playoffs.
“I think every player is better today than they were when they joined because of Bob and his staff,” Larry Berg, the team’s lead managing owner, said of Bradley, who won a record-tying third MLS coach of the year award this season.
The coach credits people like Berg with creating the environment that has allowed LAFC to thrive.
“There was momentum, there was energy from people in the front office who talked about LAFC and the kind of club we want to be,” he said. “A lot of that fit with my experiences.
“I really felt this time I could take real ideas of what I thought a club should be.”
Bradley, 61, can be as hard and direct as a penalty kick and does not suffer fools lightly. He often answers questions in short, quick bursts punctuated by pauses to collect his thoughts. Sometimes he’ll back up in the middle of a sentence, tapping a mental delete key as he considers a better, more precise response.
And because he expects everyone to bring the same level of seriousness to a conversation, he’ll lash out at questions he doesn’t like — as he did during a live TV interview with ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar last week.
He also holds firm to his convictions, especially about the kind of soccer he wants to play — an attractive, attacking style he calls “our football.” That insistence on constructing teams around a broad vision has earned him the nickname “Bob the Builder” but he says it also cost him jobs with the MLS MetroStars, England’s Swansea City and the U.S. national team, where the desire for short-term success got in the way of long-term planning.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever gathered from anybody that they truly comprehend all the dues that he has paid to get to where he is,” Jeff Bradley said of his brother. “He has walked the walk for such a long time.”
If the next step on that walk is a playoff win over Seattle, LAFC will host next month’s MLS Cup final, a game Bradley won in his first year as an MLS manager in 1998 with the Chicago Fire.
If not, don’t look for him to change course; Bradley has been on this path so long time even a playoff loss is just a bump in the road, not a detour.
“I believe in the way I do things,” he said.
“The most important part is that you create an environment where people enjoy what they’re doing, everybody feels a part of it [and] players know when they show up every day that there’s been a lot of thought that goes into what we do and the culture that we’re trying to build.”