Hire a new coach with an ambitious possession-centric philosophy. Promote a flock of wet-behind-the-ears academy kids and struggle mightily in the first half of the season. Then pivot dramatically in midsummer upon the arrival of a clutch of elite Serie A veterans – one of the priciest talent infusions in MLS history – and mount a dramatic late dash up the table and into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, where just about anything can happen.
As far as plotlines go, you could rank Toronto FC’s plan for 2022 right up there with iconic Hollywood capers like “Heat” or “Midnight Run.”
And while it’s far from certain Lorenzo Insigne & Co. will pull it off – after Wednesday night's 2-2 home draw with New England, TFC sit three points below the Eastern Conference playoff line with eight games remaining – head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley has embraced the challenge.
“It's been a unique season in the sense that changes that occurred before the season were a starting point, but there was also an understanding that there would be additions and changes in the summer, both international window and trade window,” Bradley told MLSsoccer.com in an in-depth conversation this week.
“By the time I had any talks at all with Toronto and [club president] Bill [Manning], it was pretty far along that Lorenzo was coming, and also that there was a good chance that [Domenico] Criscito would come as well. And we knew that in the first half of the year, there was going to be opportunities for young players, and try to establish some starting points on how we wanted to play, so that when others got there this summer, we could try to just continue and work that all in.”
“Our football is getting better”
Those “others” have been quite a talent injection indeed: Insigne (reportedly on the largest salary in MLS history), Criscito, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea, all impact starters, all racing the clock to spearhead the revival.
“These are guys that immediately make the group better. They’re good guys; a lot of the players already knew Mark and Richie really well,” said Bradley. “Our football is getting better, the mentality of the group is positive. Everybody knows that the margin is tight right now, but there’s a sense that if you can be a really good team at the end of the season, it provides you really good opportunities to see how far you can go with this thing.”
As unconventional as TFC’s situation may be, it’s a tribute to Bradley’s ample résumé that he’s already lived a comparable one. He harks back to his time in charge of Stabaek, the Norwegian side he led from relegation pick to UEFA Europa League qualifier in two seasons, in the process drawing the attention of bigger, richer European clubs to his players.
“The nature of a smaller club like Stabaek, in that  season, the team was back in the top league and there were a lot of people in Norway that said it was going to be difficult for Stabaek to stay up,” Bradley recalled of the first of his three managerial stints on the Old Continent.
“We sold some younger players halfway through the year, so it’s almost like we had one team in the first half and then the second half was a completely different team. I think the ones that were there the whole year, the way we trained, the ideas in terms of how we wanted to play, there was consistency on that end, for sure. And that’s been the case this year,” he added.
“But everybody knows that when you add experienced top players, and they’re good guys, and they come with the right mentality, that’s positive for the group, that raises the level of training. So yeah, those things just make everybody better.”
Establishing a culture
The sort of midseason adaptation TFC are betting on can be a fiendishly difficult process. The scale of Insigne and Bernardeschi’s stardom imposed additional layers like marketing and promotion, and both landed in Canada fresh off full Serie A seasons and Italian national team duty, all of which complicated Bradley’s task of integrating them with the group.
“The starting point is just getting them on the field. You can't push them too hard, because they're in preseason,” he explained. “But you have to start to establish, let other guys see, like when they play, how do they play? What is it that they like to do? When they have the ball, what are they looking for?
“And then for them, you have to establish some of the ideas that we've tried to put in place, some sense of positional play, some sense of what happens when we lose the ball, what are we trying to do? But those things are easy. You know, these guys have been around. They're experienced, they understand the game. When you get training going, if training is put together in a good way, a lot of those things start to happen.”
Bradley’s move to Toronto also reunited him with his son Michael, TFC’s captain and a building block of their climb from perennial MLS underachievers to all-conquering treble winners in 2017. Michael has been a linchpin in the Reds’ locker room this summer, putting the Italian skills he picked up in his time at Chievo and AS Roma to good use to help their Serie A reinforcements settle in.
“Fede’s English is pretty good, Lorenzo's is improving but at the moment not great, and then Criscito’s English is good. But Michael takes a big role, his Italian is very good,” said Bradley. “And look, within any team, when you are on the field, you develop an understanding quickly of what you're trying to achieve. You obviously use video in different ways in meetings, to help guys see pictures, whether that's a team video or individual-type video.
“But they're smart, and they see the game, they understand the game. They make themselves clear on one way or another. And so those are just things that are normal and that you work through in a good way so that when you step on the field, you immediately look like a team that's going in the right direction.”
Just as Bob arrived in Ontario with a decade’s worth of additional life and coaching experiences since their time together with the US men’s national team, he’s relished the chance to help Michael, who just turned 35, find top form and hone the finer points of his game in the autumn of his illustrious career.
“Michael loves to play football,” said the elder Bradley. “He loves to train, he's trying to always help the younger players. He's been doing that wherever he's been. And so the appreciation for the guys that are professionals, that come in every day excited, that love to play, that love to compete – the more of them you can have, the better. So I see that in him every day.
“For the years when we were spread out, we still, as everyone knows, always were in touch about the game, things that we were seeing. Things I saw in his team, things he saw in my teams. But he's on that and he does those things at a high level. He's into it. He’s smart, he sees little things, he's always been a player not that does all sorts of things that everybody can see, but he's a player that does a lot of little things that make other guys better, that people that he plays with understand and appreciate.”
TFC are undefeated (3W-0L-2D) in league play since Insigne and Bernardeschi stepped into the starting XI, a dramatic upward reversal that could well push them into the East reckoning if they can sustain it. Some of their play in that stretch has been gorgeous, like the fluid team buildup that led to their opening goal in last weekend’s win over Portland.
“When the football gets better, then the more intelligent players are going to find it easier to just see now what's going on,” said Bradley, “to understand positionally in different moments, when to be on the move, when to stop and trust that the ball’s coming to you a pass or two later. Intelligent players, when you put them with other intelligent players, it can come together quickly. And you know, I think we've got some smart players.”
In light of such irresistibly enjoyable soccer, there’s a natural comparison to be drawn between Bradley’s rebuilding work at TFC and his previous job – building LAFC from scratch, into what has quickly become a behemoth. Bradley led them to the 2019 Supporters’ Shield and the final of the 2020 Concacaf Champions League before last season’s dip saw the Black & Gold miss the playoffs and adjust their approach, including a parting of ways with their inaugural head coach.
Now they're back atop the league under his successor and former USMNT pupil Steve Cherundolo, cruising towards a second Shield and looking far and away like the top contender for MLS Cup. Bradley offers warm praise for Cherundolo, who last year oversaw LAFC’s reserve-team affiliation with USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights FC, and the roster-building work that made MLS’s deepest squad.
“Stevie’s done a great job,” said Bradley. “He was around last year, and it was always good. He'd be in early in the morning and he'd pop in before [training] as I was preparing things and we would talk a little bit. The challenge last year with Las Vegas, first year, training in Los Angeles, playing games in Las Vegas, all that was really a big challenge. And the roster is more experienced, more mature. And it's clear now in terms of how deep they are, and what a good team they have. So it's a credit to everybody there.”
Amid all his labor in Toronto, has he allowed himself to contemplate a high-stakes reunion with his former club come postseason?
“I think everybody in the league would love the challenge of getting to a big game down the road, a final, whatever, and playing against LAFC, because it would be a test against a really good team,” he responded. “So we're still with work to do, but we believe in the process of the football every day, the way we try to improve, the little details. And then just trying to see how far we can take it with the time that's left.”