LOS ANGELES – Often, when coaches and management look toward the transfer window, they look to fill positional needs.
A center back. A goalkeeper. A winger.
Less often, a certain kind of player is sought out, less for position than a more intangible reason.
“We could improve in every spot on the field,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley told reporters on Wednesday in the team's final availability of the year, before addressing the one quality he’d like to add above all others.
“Overall, to still have a player or two who every day, every game, set a higher standard not only in the leadership in terms of competing but the leadership in how to play the game," he explained. "I think we’ve done that a lot by committee this year. I think we have some guys that are developing in those ways but in perfect world, sure, I would love to add one or two of those kinds of guys [but] they’re not easy to get.”
In addition to leadership, LAFC have a lot of players with experience, both in North America and abroad, but relatively few who had actually won first-division titles prior to joining the club.
Among LAFC regulars in 2018, Danilo Silva was the only player who had lifted more than one top-flight league title in his career as a first-team regular — the Ukrainian Premier League in 2014–15 and 2015–16 with Dynamo Kyiv — and just five others had won a top-flight title at all: Eduard Atuesta (2016 Colombian top flight with Independiente Medellin), Steven Beitashour (2017 MLS Cup with Toronto FC), Diego Rossi (2017 Uruguayan Primera División with Peñarol), Benny Feilhaber (2013 MLS Cup with Sporting Kansas City), and Adama Diomande (2013 Norwegian top flight with Strømsgodset).
Turning to key contributors in the XI like Feilhaber, Walker Zimmerman, and Jordan Harvey, who are all out of contract, Bradley didn’t get into specifics about any one player coming in or going out of the club for 2019.
“Obviously there is discussions with different players, there are decisions that need to get made, there’s thoughts about how we can do thing to improve, but the overall picture of the first year and the direction we’re going, I think we all feel good about,” he said.
When asked whether it was more important to hang on to existing players who have spent time absorbing Bradley’s ideas of how to play or to go out and find other options that might be a better fit, the coach split the difference.
“You need both. We need a good number of guys that improved this year and are excited about what’s going on to still be here. Absolutely that’s essential. But, in other spots, you need some guys that you think can make it better. You’re always trying to balance those two things out.”
Among the players guaranteed to be donning Black & Gold next season is Designated Player Carlos Vela, who led LAFC in both scoring (14) and assists (13) in regular season play in their first MLS campaign.
The Mexican international took over the armband when the club’s first captain, Laurent Ciman, left for Ligue 1 side Dijon at the end of August. Bradley credited the star for taking the mantle on the fly.
“When I look at Carlos’ season I don’t look at the part when he wore the armband any different than the part when he didn’t wear the armband. Carlos, as a person in the club, is fantastic. He’s a great teammate. He’s a personable guy. He represents the club in all the right ways.”
But will Vela be wearing the armband next season?
“When we start next year we will see what our roster looks like. We will see who are the guys we are going to count on most for leadership. We’ll see who is most comfortable with some of the responsibilities that go along with being a captain,” Bradley responded.
Bradley explained that just like different kinds of playing styles, there are different kinds of captains.
“There are still some who every day find the right balance for challenging teammates, challenging coaches, challenging management, holding everybody to the highest standards.”
As if to underline the value of those qualities, Bradley reiterated that these kinds of players, even when you cast your net worldwide, are rare.
“This type of leadership,” clarified Bradley. “It’s not just like you wake up one day and decide, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be a leader.’ There’s a real part to it. It’s more than what you say on Instagram or Twitter. It’s real.”
Ultimately, Bradley knows for any new players to arrive, the club will have to prioritize based on opportunity of those available.
“We’re looking for ways to continue to make our team better. You can do it positionally. You can do it terms of experience. You can do it in terms of leadership. You can do it in terms of individual qualities — a couple more great passers, a couple more players that go by guys, somebody who can score even more goals, defenders who organize the back line — you can come up with every little detail and then you try to see when you put all those together how you can improve.”
More than anything — even leadership — Bradley is looking for the intangible: intelligent players who make good decisions and understand the kind of football LAFC is trying to play.
Who’s a name that fits that mold?
“I throw out examples like Xavi. If he showed up tomorrow, I would bet on the fact that the game would be better in training. There would be all these simple little plays — nothing fancy — but all these plays in terms of the right timing. The right move, the right pass, the right weight of the pass, and everyone would benefit from what he would do just by showing up.”