Bob Bradley

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MLS Cup Final roundtable: Plenty of talking points for a ‘three-match’

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Don’t call it a three-match. Or do. That’s fine, too.

The MLS Cup Playoffs are down to two very familiar teams, as Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC sprung upsets to set up their third final in four seasons.

[ MORE: Berhalter calls up 20 ]

We asked our writers to lay out the main talking points for the Nov. 10 final in Washington state.


So, Toronto v. Seattle again. MLS won’t tell you they hate it, but the league almost certainly wanted LAFC and Atlanta in this spot, xyeah? What’s your level of interest for the final besides the inherent attraction that comes from it being the last match until Spring?

Joe Prince-WrightI’m like 8/10 intrigued. Toronto and Seattle have provided two very tight and chippy finals in the past. Seems like there’s some bad blood between these teams and add to that an incredible atmosphere at a sold out CenturyLink Field, it should be intense on the pitch and off of it. Also, it’s tough not to focus on Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore for Toronto. With the decline of the USMNT in recent seasons, they’ve taken a lot of stick traveling around MLS from disgruntled U.S. fans. If they deliver a second MLS Cup in three years with Toronto, their moves back to MLS can be deemed a success even if things haven’t been going well on the international stage.

Nick Mendola: There were so many reasons to love the idea of LAFC-Atlanta, with weapons like Carlos Vela, Pity Martinez, Diego Rossi, and a now in-form Ezequiel Barco trying to outdo each other while big names Bob Bradley and Frank De Boer match tactical wits. I also think Atlanta would’ve traveled very well to make a riotous (in a good way) atmosphere even wilder. But… I like this rematch. In terms of tactics, Vanney-Schmetzer should be just as fun for neutrals as Bradley-De Boer, and the USMNT-heavy lineups will make for proper industry and added emotion. Plus, it’s Canada against the U.S. sandwiched between the two nations dueling in high-tension CONCACAF Nations League matches.

I also really like the contrast of the quality dual national goalkeepers, with Quentin Westberg playing his entire career in France before taking Alex Bono’s job in Toronto and Seattle backstop Stefan Frei moving from Switzerland youth player to American college and MLS star.

Kyle Bonn: They definitely wanted LAFC v. Atlanta, which would have been awesome. Now it’ll still be fun, but way more meh.

Joel Soria: I’m moderately interested in this final, mainly because we saw this matchup in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively. If this were a Champions League Final, then repetition would be much easier to digest. But MLS is supposed to be based around parity, and this has no inklings of that.

What could have been… (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

MLS has shown a home-field advantage that perhaps no other top flight can boast, for lack of a better word. Whose loss was more surprising, LAFC or Atlanta?

Joe Prince-Wright: Hmmm, I want to say LAFC because they were so damn good during the regular season. But they did ease off in the final months and you always sensed they had an early playoff exit in them. For whatever reason, Bob Bradley’s side looked like they were feeling the pressure and the weight of finishing off an incredible season in style was too much. I’d actually vouch for Atlanta being the bigger shock. Frank de Boer’s side finished the season so well and in front of that huge, fired-up crowd they start so well. But fair play to TFC, they dug deep and delivered when it mattered most. ATL’s decision to start an injured Josef Martinez backfired spectacularly and kind of summed up their season. FDB turned it around in the end, but it was far from smooth for the reigning champs.

Nick Mendola: Atlanta, mostly because Toronto was without Jozy Altidore and started Wednesday’s match like the game plan was, “Just play a high line against an electric team and let ’em go back to the final.” Bob Bradley’s LAFC was fantastic, but was bidding to go to their first final. There’s something to be said for going somewhere you haven’t been before, and the three other semifinalists had all won the MLS Cup over the past three seasons. I’m more surprised that Bob Bradley was out-foxed than Frank de Boer’s failure, for what it’s worth.

Kyle Bonn: Atlanta’s was more surprising because they made uncharacteristic mistakes. LAFC always felt like it was on the verge of a disappointment despite all the excitement and positivity surrounding that team. With Atlanta, they really felt like they had figured things out, but suddenly made insane defensive mistakes and misses in front of net uncharacteristic of that team, especially at home.

Joel Soria: LAFC’s without a single doubt. What was destined to be the greatest season put together by any team in the league’s history ended in sheer disappointment at home, inches away from a final. Hard pill to swallow.

Seattle righteously deserved their win while TFC looked very sloppy aside from two impeccable moments from Benezet and DeLeon. How heavy favorites should Seattle be at home?

Joe Prince-Wright: Very heavy. They have so many attacking talents and Toronto have had injury issues to deal with all season long. Seattle should win this by two or three goals, but we all know how crazy and unpredictable MLS can be. I actually think playing away suits TFC. They can sit back, soak up pressure and rely on the talent they have in attack from Pozuelo and Alitdore, if he’s fit to play.

Nick Mendola: Are Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore fit and ready to start? If that’s the case, I think I like the idea of Gonzalez, Laurent Ciman, and the stellar Chris Mavinga combining to make this a much closer match than any are suspecting at the moment and Altidore giving Seattle fits at the back. That said, Altidore’s health is the bane of both TFC and the USMNT over the past two seasons, so Seattle should be considered as comfortable under pressure as David Lee Roth in the bridge of “Panama.”

Kyle Bonn: Quite heavy. In fact I think Toronto is nearly +300 in some places. Anything can happen in this crazy league and Toronto is good enough to win a one-off game like this clearly, but Seattle should win.

Joel Soria: Sure, they’re favorites, but the topic should be approached cautiously. This is MLS, anything can happen.  CenturyLink Field is not immune to the disease.

What’s the top story line, or two, for this final?

Joe Prince-Wright: Redemption for Michael Bradley? He’s quietly been plugging away since Couva and he’s still in the USMNT but as we mentioned, for many he will always be the scapegoat for why the USA didn’t reach the 2018 World Cup. Bradley lifting the MLS Cup trophy with the captains armband on would be oh-so-sweet for his family, especially after LAFC’s failure to reach the final.

Nick Mendola: Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo and Seattle’s Nico Lodeiro are kindred spirits in that they had fits and starts outside of MLS but are megawatt talents in this league. Tell me which one plays better on Nov. 10 and I probably tell you your MLS champion. And I agree with my NBC teammates about Bradley carrying intrigue: The American legend has been fine but just that the past two seasons after spending his first four years with Toronto FC as an absolute game dominator. A title here would be very redemptive.

Kyle Bonn: The top storyline here is a number of U.S. internationals going at it for MLS glory. LAFC v. Atlanta wouldn’t have featured this kind of battle. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley against Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan. I’m excited to see how they do going up against one another.

Joel Soria: Seattle wins an MLS Cup in front of their massive fan base.

Rapid fire. Who would you rather have, assuming full health: Jordan Morris or Jozy Altidore? Nico Lodeiro or Alejandro Pozuelo? Michael Bradley or Cristian Roldan?

Joe Prince-Wright: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Nick Mendola: Altidore, Pozuelo, Bradley

Kyle Bonn: Altidore, Lodeiro, Bradley

Joel Soria: Altidore, Lodeiro, Roldan

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Either Brian Schmetzer or Greg Vanney will have two MLS Cup titles after Nov. 10. Both, seemingly, don’t get a ton of credit for what they’ve accomplished? If it came down to the better coach, who are you picking to win?

Joe Prince-Wright:  Vanney. I like Schmetzer a lot, and he’s proven to be a very good tactician over the past few years. That said, if it’s a tight, scrappy game, as we expect, then Vanney seems to be able to organize his teams better defensively for these one-off occasions.

Nick Mendola: Schmetzer’s story is wonderful enough that I despite choosing between the two, but what Vanney has done to stabilize an organization (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) which was a bonafide stranger to success is remarkable. Now TFC has a title and is going for two just a few months after the Toronto Raptors claimed an NBA crown. It might sound nuts, but Vanney’s stewardship started it all (as did the purchase of Sebastian Giovinco, but I digress).

Kyle Bonn: Schmetzer has done an unbelievable job with the Sounders in what can only be described as a less than ideal circumstance to begin his first MLS head coaching job. You never want to be the guy after the guy (just ask David Moyes), yet Schmetzer has excelled despite following Sigi Schmid. I think he’s the guy, even though Vanney might be one of the more underrated coaches in the league.

Joel Soria: This is tough, mostly because neither are known for being overly tactically astute coaches. If I had to choose, I’d go with Schmetzer because of his positive demeanor and penchant to win.

Finally, MLS is still gonna MLS, as Andy might say, but this league has grown so much and the trajectory stills feels upward. What’s your state of the league? What’s the best and worst of it?

Joe Prince-Wright: I think MLS is exactly where it should be. Nothing more. Nothing less. There has been some incredible growth in recent years, with Atlanta, Cincinnati and LAFC arriving, plus new stadiums for Minnesota United and the Chicago Fire moving downtown all positives. But with Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger gone and Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely to follow them, where are the next superstar signings coming from? That may be a good thing, as clubs will focus on recruiting young players smartly from Europe and South America, but there’s still a need to attract the world superstars coming towards the end of their careers. Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise.

From a managerial perspective, the league is very strong with a core of American coaches proving their worth (Bradley, Schmetzer, Vanney and Jim Curtin to name a few) and Matias Almeyda, Frank de Boer, Dome Torrent and Guillermo Barros Schelotto all faring well in their first full seasons in MLS. Teams are more interesting tactically and there is now more of a global feel within MLS. With Nashville, Austin, St. Louis, Miami CF and Sacramento all arriving in the coming years via expansion, these are exciting times. But more must be done to improve the fortunes of some of the MLS originals in the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution and Chicago Fire (who have set the wheels in motion) plus the likes of the Montreal Impact and Houston Dynamo need some TLC. MLS can now build from a position of strength, but the direction the league is going in with regards to big-name player purchases and making sure the spotlight is evenly spread across every franchise is perhaps more unbalanced than it has ever been.

Nick Mendola: The league has grown in quality, no doubt, but two major issues remain for it to take the next steps toward being a next level league. First, the top-end, well-paid stars are great but you cannot expect people to really rate a league when Liga MX is so much deeper due to better pay for guys 14-18 on the match day roster. Second, our country is gigantic and about to take its closed-door system and slam it shut on no more than 30-32 markets. That is insane, this league is never going pro-rel without a FIFA mandate (Heck, I bet many European leagues wouldn’t institute pro-rel if they started today because, well money). But try telling major league media markets like Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, even Buffalo that they’re never dancing on the center stage.

Kyle Bonn: The growth is there, it’s impossible to ignore. I’m still concerned about the overall skill level of the league even after all these years – it doesn’t look good when Zlatan and Rooney both look done in Europe, and come over to MLS and completely dominate the league despite clear weaknesses (have you seen Zlatan try to run?).  That to me is a bad sign. The pay structure of the league still lends itself to a few top-tier stars that dominate the otherwise mediocre talent across the landscape. Still, the league is growing in popularity and exposure, and youth development, and that’s always a positive. The next step is growing the base-level talent, not just investing in brand name stars. I think it’ll come…the base of the league is stronger than it’s ever been.

Joel Soria: From Zlatan (let’s see if he returns) to Vela, from LAFC to Atlanta United, there are a lot of positives going for MLS, at least from a marketing and quality standpoint. My doubts are in the league’s strategies and methods  behind their never-ending expansion process. Cincinnati, Nashville, Miami, Sacramento and Saint Louis are great additions, but no one wants a 35-team league. The approach needs to be pragmatic and less reflective of what has already been done by other major sports leagues in the U.S. It’s worth noting, however, that it might be too late to dial in damage control.

LAFC react to MLS Cup playoff exit: ‘We weren’t good enough’

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Bob Bradley‘s message was simple after LAFC were dumped out of the MLS Cup playoffs by the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday in the Western Conference final.

It just wasn’t good enough.

[ MORE: Analysis on LAFC-Seattle ]

After a record-setting season, the 2019 MLS Supporters’ Shield winners hosted Seattle with many expecting a big win en-route to hosting MLS Cup final.

But after taking the lead LAFC coughed up two goals in four first half minutes and never quite recovered.

“In terms of our attacking play, it’s pretty simple. I don’t think that tonight we were good enough,” Bradley said post-game. “As disappointed as we all are, we have not been a team once that came in and said, ‘Well look what they did.’ No. It’s our responsibility to try to take control of the game, to make the right decisions to make the right plays, when balls turn-over get those kind of reactions where we can control moments and continue to attack. We love trying to play that way and tonight we tried over and over, but still, when all is said is done, we weren’t good enough.”

LAFC’s historic exploits in the 2019 regular season will be remembered for a very long time as Bradley’s side, led by record-breaking goalscorer Carlos Vela, were unstoppable all season long.

But for their second-straight season as a club, LAFC came up short in the playoffs at home.

That’s something Bradley will look at closely over the offseason but in all honesty, LAFC were that good this season that one bad day at the office can be overlooked.

Seattle put in a near perfect away display and LAFC didn’t turn up in their biggest game of the season. That will frustrate Bradley and his players but this LAFC team still deserves its spot as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teams in MLS history.

Yes, they will not be MLS Cup champions this season, but over the last eight months they’ve been sublime. They will give them little solace over the next few days and weeks, but Bradley’s project at LAFC is one of the most impressive in league history.

The final step is winning some major silverware. That is the only thing left to achieve for LAFC.

Bradley tells reporter ‘get lost’ during on-field television interview

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Adrenaline, man, it can get you.

A heated rivalry took a lot out of both teams, and LAFC coach Bob Bradley was in no mood for anything but positivity after a 5-3 win over the LA Galaxy on Friday.

Asked by ESPN reporter Sebastian Salazar about Vela’s outstanding game in relation to some of his previous big game performances, Bradley tore into the reporter for asking about it.

[ MORE: Match recap | Disrespectful Zlatan ]

Bradley criticized Salazar’s line of questioning, asking “Who asked those questions?” before telling the reporter twice to “Get lost” and walking away from the interview.

It was an ornery and unnecessary response from a respected coach who’s usually able to control himself. Maybe it’s all the LAFC black that’s made him embrace some sort of villain role, but it wasn’t cool.

Unfortunately for Bradley, a USMNT legend coming off an incredible season, Salazar brought the “#receipts.”

Bradley himself asked those questions of Vela’s big game acumen, and Salazar was simply inviting the coach to say his star had answered all doubters.

It was a grooved pitch down the heart of the plate. And Bradley threw his bat at the pitcher.

 

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

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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.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

“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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Galaxy-LAFC rivalry captures Los Angeles’ passion for soccer

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Although the wordless billboards went up quietly this week on the streets around Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium, their message to the city is loud and clear.

Some of the huge signs show imperious LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic running into LAFC’s Latif Blessing, sending the smaller man flying. In others, Zlatan is making a saucy gesture toward LAFC’s Carlos Vela, or perhaps celebrating in his fellow superstar’s face.

Each of the photos captured a triumphant moment for Zlatan and the Galaxy during the first four editions of El Trafico, the increasingly outstanding rivalry series between Major League Soccer’s two Los Angeles clubs. LAFC’s fans have the best team in the league this season, but it has never beaten the Galaxy – and those fans will have to walk past these trolling provocations around their home ground before the latest edition of the LA derby Sunday night.

“I thought it was funny,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said after he saw the billboards on social media. “That stuff gets us going. It’s just good for the city, man. Even though they’re probably a little bitter about it.”

A rivalry that didn’t exist 18 months ago has grown into one of the highest-profile matchups in the league, drawing rowdy crowds and attracting international attention for the intensity and quality of the first four games.

The Galaxy are the only five-time champions in MLS history, while their crosstown foes are a model expansion franchise with a lavish new stadium near downtown LA. Multicultural Los Angeles has loved and embraced soccer for decades, but having two successful professional franchises has amplified that passion, turning each of these rivalry games into something special.

“Ever since the first game, this rivalry has grown so organically,” Lletget said. “You’ll see on Sunday, the intensity is as if you’re in a derby in Europe. It’s pretty crazy.”

Although the Galaxy (13-11-2) are in third place in the Western Conference, they’re a whopping 20 points behind LAFC (19-3-4), which is running away with MLS’ best record during a spectacular second season.

But LAFC is 0-2-2 against its biggest rivals, making this final regular-season meeting even more urgent for the newcomers in black and gold.

“It’s the derby,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “It means more. So far, with all the things we’ve done, we haven’t beat them.”

Thrilling finishes, spectacular goals and bad-tempered play have been in abundance ever since this rivalry began with Zlatan’s electrifying two-goal MLS debut during the Galaxy’s comeback victory in March 2018.

Ibrahimovic and Vela have scored a whopping six goals apiece in the four El Trafico games, doing everything that’s expected from arguably the league’s two best players. Their last meeting was dominated by the superstars, with Ibrahimovic’s hat trick besting Vela’s brace in a 3-2 victory for the Galaxy on July 19.

“When you play against the other team of the city, you always want to do your best,” said Vela, who already has 26 goals and 15 assists in a historically prolific season. “You want to win. You want to show you are better than the other team of the city, and it’s a good chance to show how good we are this season. I hope we can finally get the three points.”

The rivalry is new, but the fan bases’ animus is older.

Galaxy supporters look down at LAFC for its brief history and an empty trophy case, but also because LAFC’s fan base includes many hard-core supporters who switched allegiances from Chivas USA, which dissolved in 2014 after a dismal decade sharing the Galaxy’s stadium.

But LAFC fans love to point out the Galaxy technically aren’t from Los Angeles, and never have been. They’ve been based in Carson, a suburb due south of downtown LA, since 2003 after spending their first nine years of existence at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“The intensity comes by itself, because it’s two teams from the same city,” Ibrahimovic said. “Rivals. I think it comes automatic, the intensity of this game.”

Banc of California Stadium will be intense from the moment LAFC’s 3252 supporters union starts rocking the North End a couple of hours before kickoff. Ticket prices on the secondary market for Sunday’s game skyrocketed in recent days, with few single seats under $200 and the high-end tickets topping $1,500.

Along with a national television broadcast, fans at home can watch a streaming comedic commentary program synced to the match by Funny or Die, the comedy website co-founded by LAFC minority owner Will Ferrell.

What’s more, both sides of this derby are getting serious reinforcements before this edition.

Sunday’s game will be the first El Trafico for Cristian Pavon, the speedy Argentine forward who arrived earlier this month and immediately took a major role in the Galaxy’s attack. It could also mark the LAFC debut of Brian Rodriguez, the promising Uruguayan designated player whose paperwork cleared just in time to make him available to Bradley this weekend.

“Games with the Galaxy take on an extra dimension,” Bradley said. “We know that. We’ve had really good moments against them, but we haven’t won yet, and so that’s something that doesn’t need discussing inside our team. Everybody knows.”

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