LOS ANGELES -- “People forget it all the time,” the man walking beside me says, pausing briefly as our dirt-covered sneakers sink through a dune of loose earth on the west side of what will become Banc of California Stadium. “But Los Angeles is a desert.”
I stretch for an Egyptian sand quip and Bob Bradley humors me with a stony grin.
“If there’s one thing that’s stuck with me, it’s Egypt,” Bradley said then, answering a question about what he’s learned in his decade away from Major League Soccer.
The room grew silent for the next three minutes as Bradley retraced his time in charge of the Egyptian national team: a full-scale revolution, a stadium riot that left 74 supporters dead, a perfect record in World Cup qualification that unexpectedly culminated in a 6-1 implosion in Ghana — which Bradley compared only to Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semifinal.
“Look, this is who I am,” he said when he’d finished his story about challenges and collapse. “And I’ve never been afraid of that part.”
Though at times long-winded, Bradley can tell a story.
How fitting, then, that he’s returned to the land of make believe. By his own admission, the financiers of his latest project are more open to following his creative lead than when he was a town away down the 110 freeway in Carson, California with Chivas USA.
If David Beckham’s arrival at the Galaxy represented Hollywood’s red carpet roll-out, Bradley’s hiring at LAFC is the sleeve roll-up of a big shot auteur greenlit to make his magnum opus.
He’ll be given a Walt Disney-sized stage to do it on — the $350 million stadium budget is nearly as large as that studio’s legendarily expensive "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," a film that was released weeks before Bradley was fired as coach of the US national team in 2011.
Walking with him down the tunnel and onto the flat space where the pitch will be in less than a year’s time, I asked about his favorite stadiums in the world. Bradley explained the merits of Liverpool's Anfield and the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid's home, before being interrupted for an introduction to a steel foreman. He embraced the bulky fellow the way an appreciative director might a gaffer or a key grip, aware his grandiose production depends on every person working in sync.
It was the same endearing grin Bradley wore when he greeted the LAFC’s independent supporter’s union, The 3252, after his press conference. They responded by belting out the coach’s newly adapted “Bob The Builder” theme song interpolation:
“Bob The Builder, can he do it? Bob The Builder, yes he can.”
For Bradley to achieve the global goals the club aspires to, a good story won’t be enough. In a city with famously fickle sports fans and legions of international and domestic transplants with their own allegiances, trophies might not even be enough.
It’s not merely a winning team Bradley’s been asked to build, but a world.
Not unlike his artistic counterparts in The Industry up the street, he was hired with a plan already in place. The intellectual property at his disposal isn’t a series of comic book source material, but a collection of disenfranchised supporters as sprawling as the urban jungles surrounding the stadium site and a lump of black and gold iconography without a history behind it.
What world do you build with that?
Bradley parried a half-dozen other hard-hatted journalists’ prying during the tour with enough grace he even had time to riff with my colleague about the four-hour send-off his beloved Bruce Springsteen gave the legendary LA Sports Arena, which was torn down last year to be replaced by Banc of California Stadium.
When the tour was finally over, we returned our protective gear and left with our own private teasers for MLS opening day 2018 playing on loop in our heads. We took refuge from the desert sun in an air-conditioned trailer. After a short conference call, Bradley sat down for one last interview with MLSsoccer.com.
The 59-year-old coach answered my questions — some of which he’d surely seen in some form or another at least a dozen times by that point in the day — with a candid demeanor and Ivy League sharpness. We discussed the significance of the club being in downtown, the scientific algorithms available when assessing players to sign, and how the Norwegians also began using the slogan “Bob The Builder” when he was at Stabæk.
Off camera he told me one last story, an old parable he often enacted during his time to in Norway, to illustrate how to build.
“You’re in the far north part of Norway, a Viking is there, and on his desk is this wood carving of a Viking ship. It’s incredible. You look at it and you say, ‘How’d you do that?’”
Without blinking his eyes Bradley finished his story, “I got a piece of wood and I cut away everything that didn’t look like a Viking ship.”
It was only then, trapped in his gaze, did I realize the right way to amend my earlier Egyptian sand comment. A Hollywood reference to "Game of Thrones" or "Star Wars" fit better, because with the LA desert as his sandbox, Bob Bradley is expected to build something beyond pharaohs, Vikings and victory.
He must build something out of this world.