MLS top coach Bradley leads LAFC's daily quest for greatness

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Bob Bradley rocks in his chair under the sizzling Southern California sun and gives an exaggerated New Jersey shoulder shrug. The Los Angeles FC coach can use his entire body to make a point, and he's emphasizing what's actually important about individual accolades, such as being named Major League Soccer's Coach of the Year for the third time.

"Individual awards are recognition of the team," Bradley said, naming LAFC general manager John Thorrington and "everybody else I get a chance to work with every day."

"I think we've created a good environment," he added. "I think we challenge each other every day. The most important part is you create an environment where people enjoy what they're doing. Everybody feels part of it. 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. For me, it's only recognition of all that."

To Bradley, this sport is not about awards. It's only partly about championships, even when LAFC is about to start a potential three-game run at its first MLS Cup title with the biggest game in franchise history on Thursday night against the LA Galaxy.

Instead, it's about building a team that vigorously pursues excellence, never reaching perfection and never stopping. With Bradley telling the story, the mundane day-to-day work of professional soccer is an epic quest that probably won't be completed, but should always be embraced.

"Look, trophies become part of that, but it's about football," Bradley said. "It's something the fans can see. Every time you step on the field, there's something real there. There's something different there. There's something that if you watch, you want to come back and see again."

Bradley has been trying to build that ideal team for the past 25 years, ever since his decade in charge of the Princeton men's soccer program propelled him around the world on a coaching odyssey including stops in MLS and with national teams in the U.S. and Egypt, followed by professional sides in Norway, France and Britain.

His latest stop has arguably brought him closer to perfection than ever before. A lifetime of coaching knowledge has combined with LAFC's eager ownership, smart player selection, a beautiful stadium and an already robust fan culture to create something spectacular in record time.

Bradley will be honored with the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year Award on Wednesday after guiding a 2-year-old franchise to the best regular season in league history. LAFC (21-4-9) reached the MLS records for points (72), goals (85) and goal differential (plus-48) while dazzling the continent with an aggressive, cohesive brand of soccer.

Less than three years after the first American coach in Premiership history was fired by Swansea after just 11 games, he sits atop MLS with one of the best teams ever assembled. Bradley rejects any notion of I-told-you-so satisfaction after his abrupt dismissal at the Welsh club in December 2016, although he is clearly confident he could have succeeded with more time to implement his ideas.

"They're so far in the rear-view mirror," Bradley said of all his past stops. "Every day brings you that new challenge. You enjoy that part, you feel good about it, and I believe in the way I do things. I love to engage the people around me to bring something out of them, and hopefully in doing that, they can bring more out of me."

Deep into his second year in charge at LAFC, his players have grown accustomed to Bradley's style. The same coach who designed the sophisticated offense that allowed Carlos Vela to score an MLS-record 34 goals also nags his players to clean up after themselves when they eat at the LAFC training complex, believing that sloppiness at the lunch table can translate into imprecision on the field.

"It's not the bigger picture with him," defender Steven Beitashour said. "It's so minuscule. It's the smallest little details. ... It all correlates to the game. It's all about just trying to improve, and not showing up just to be here. There's so many individuals that I'm not going to mention that improved so much, that I would never have thought could be at the level they are, unless they were under his system. He sees everything."

And on Thursday night, Bradley will lead LAFC into its Banc of California Stadium for a one-game Western Conference semifinal against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy. The sixth chapter of the already sizzling El Trafico rivalry is the rivals' first postseason meeting.

For all its success, Bradley's team has never beaten its closest rival. Along with three exciting draws, the Galaxy have won two of the clubs' five matchups, including Ibrahimovic's electrifying two-goal MLS debut last year in the first El Trafico.

While Bradley greets this matchup with excitement — "It had to be the Galaxy," he said — he would never hold his work hostage to a single day's result, even if others might try.

"The champion of the league is determined by MLS Cup, and we're one of the teams with a chance," he said. "That's what it's all about. But everything else we've done, the way we keep trying to do it into the future, none of that changes."

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