Boehm: Evolution, growth and Bob Bradley's expansive vision for LAFC

“Bunker Bob.”

The “empty bucket.”

That shaved head and steely gaze, overseeing teams with tenacious spirit, organized defending and speedy counterattacks.

If you’re a North American soccer aficionado of a certain age, odds are you formed a clear perception of Bob Bradley during his time in charge of the US men’s national team from 2006-11. Some of the talking points were generalizations, lacking in nuance or context. But they offered a shorthand of sorts for a burgeoning fanbase, and under the hot spotlight that shines on the USMNT, it can be difficult to carve out deeper conversations.

Bradley heard the criticism all back then, and he’s heard plenty more since, in several languages across several countries. It’s not that he avoids the hot takes; he just doesn’t come across many of value.

“Listen, it’s almost like everybody on social media who comments on players has an agenda. So I make all my own opinions,” Bradley told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging conversation earlier this year. “That’s why I don’t do podcasts anymore; I’m tired of talking about it. I’m not telling anyone else what I see. I’m good at it, and I’m not sharing it. So that’s it.

“You guys,” he added with a wry smile, referring to the media in general, “you guys drive me crazy.”

Besides, these days he’s coaching a pretty good club team – the stylish LAFC side currently setting the early pace in the Supporters’ Shield race with some truly fun, expansive soccer – that allows him to show, not tell, his own personal vision of what the beautiful game should look like.

“Look, we try to play fluid football,” Bradley said of his squad. “And so we try to do that by having ideas, and moving into space and finding space. And I don’t think it’s a unique tactical approach, because trying to play good football should be everybody’s approach.

“We try to push football ideas every day,” he added, “and get the kind of guys that we think grow when they’re challenged, open up guys to new ideas.”

That progressive philosophy, combined with elite talent like Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, has made LAFC into a neutral’s favorite, one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in MLS. This week Bradley leads his group across the continent for a top-of-the-table, national-network-televised date with Wayne Rooney and D.C. United at Audi Field on Saturday (3 pm ET | FOX — Full TV & streaming info).

Though he turned 61 last month, you might say this isn’t your father’s Bob Bradley.

Ben Olsen and Bob Bradley at the SuperDraft | Imagn Images

“Coaches change, and coaches evolve, just like players adapt,” said D.C. coach Ben Olsen, who played briefly under Bradley on the national team in 2007. “Coaches go through different phases in how they want to see their teams play, and they’re exposed to new ideas and new experiences.

“He’s a guy I have a lot of respect for, not only his coaching ability, but even more so some of the challenges he’s taken on,” added Olsen, before praising one aspect of Bradley’s LAFC project in particular.

“They get the most out of their best players, and they get the most out of their role players,” he said, “and that’s a very very important thing to do if you’re going to be a successful coach and ultimately hold championships.”

Bradley’s been coaching for longer than any of his current players have been alive – since 1981, when he took over Ohio University’s NCAA program as a 22-year-old graduate student. But the old dog has picked up more than a few new tricks over the decades, and clearly still relishes the day-to-day labor of his craft.

“My experience is that players, no matter the age, still appreciate being coached,” said Bradley, using his subtle evolution of Lee Nguyen from a luxury attacker of sorts into a high-usage, box-to-box central midfielder as an example. “And they show up every day, training has ideas and that they’re going to be tested and have to think and make decisions and make good plays. And so it's what we do.

“We show up early. I challenge all of them. It's one of the best football conversations every day for three hours before we even we go on the field,” he continued. “I am a pain in the ass. I challenge guys, I tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. But it's real. And when training starts, it's ideas. We share video, we look at clips, I talk about the guys I think are good players and the best teams all the time. I show pictures of that. I show pictures of us. I love that.”

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that LAFC aspire to play the very sort of ambitious, front-foot soccer some critics thought he was incapable of implementing with the USMNT. Perhaps not.

“When you’re the national team coach, you have certain responsibilities. And the first one is, you want to qualify,” he recalled.

“But look, we still tried to always find the balance in our passing, the balance of playing. And when I was talking to [MLS] clubs about coming back, yes, I was very clear: ‘Here’s how I see football, and if I’m coming back to any team, this is what I want to try to do, and if that fits what you are thinking about, great, and if not, it’s no problem. See ya.’ And luckily for me, the people at LAFC said, ‘That's interesting.’”

The Bradley who often seemed so guarded and wary in front of the USMNT cameras and microphones cuts a very different figure now: Comfortable in his own skin, at ease in the sleek, fashionable garb he’s become known for on matchdays. Eager to push the envelope, whether it’s urging Vela to aspire to Lionel Messi’s level of dominance, or trying established players in new roles like Nguyen and winger-turned-utility-man Latif Blessing.

He’s even willing to talk tactics at length with a few crusty old reporters near the tail end of a long SuperDraft in January – and he can’t resist taking aim at, among other things, the suggestion that LAFC play without a true No. 6 at the base of midfield and the idea that his USMNT were dour catenaccio merchants.

“There's a bunch of dopes that years ago were on BigSoccer and are now on social media and they say things, and we have other dopes that can't watch a game and figure things out for themselves,” he said. “And then they write [expletive] like that, and you’re like, ‘These people don't know the [expletive] what they’re talking about.’ This is where we are, football-wise, in this country.

“It makes no sense to me,” he said. “But listen, it’s not my job to go around and tell everybody what they should think. If you can’t see it yourself, I’m not going to tell you.”

LAFC have an early MLS MVP candidate in Vela, an impressive supporting cast and a loud home-field advantage at gorgeous Banc of California Stadium. Could it be enough to power them to an MLS Cup title in similar fashion to Atlanta United last year?

Bradley, as you might expect, is one to sweat the small stuff.

“The ability to control games is still a big challenge and that's an area where we can grow,” he said of his LAFC project. “As much as we love going forward, if the moment is not right, the ability to then connect passes and be very organized so that when the ball turns over, the game isn't open. I think those are qualities of good teams, and we worked hard to find a balance in our ideas, but we certainly have a ways to go.”

Can the man some once derided as “Bunker Bob” make his side the FC Barcelona of MLS? Succeed or fail, there’s something hopeful and inspiring in that, and not just for LAFC fans, but for anyone seeking excellence and growth no matter their age or situation.

“I just try to enjoy what I do,” said Bradley. “I show up every day. I challenge my staff. I challenge the guys. We try to make something that looks like football. So [last] year, out of 35 games, most games, if you showed up to watch and you like football, you saw something that you’d say, 'Yeah, I want to come back.'”

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