Expectations weren’t high when Lubos Kubík showed up in Florida in early 1998 to trial with the expansion Chicago Fire. The Czech defender had appeared in only a handful of top-tier games in the preceding two years, and he told coach Bob Bradley that his only recent physical activity had come playing ice hockey back home.
The conversation went something like this, Bradley told SI.com.
“So, you haven’t played any football.”
“No. Just hockey.”
“O.K. Have you played much with four in the back?”
“Then today we’ll play with three. Lubos, I don’t want you dropping deep. Stay between Francis [Okaroh] and C.J. [Brown]. Keep us high, and when we have the ball you can step into the midfield as an extra man. But first, organize the group in the back.”
Bradley continued, “He steps on the field and hasn’t played a game in how many months? He’s been playing hockey. And we’re taking him.”
Kubik, a World Cup veteran and the libero Bradley never envisioned using before that day, was the 1998 MLS Defender of the Year and a key to the Fire’s double-winning season.
Which comes first, the vision of what your new team will look like when it takes the field, or the players who will comprise it? There’s no easy answer to expansion soccer’s ultimate chicken-and-egg riddle, which is why you wind up having days like the one Bradley enjoyed in Florida nearly 20 years ago.
That team-building project obviously worked out. Bradley managed Chicago to one MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cup titles and went on to compile a career that’s been unique among American coaches. Now, after a World Cup and stops in Egypt, Norway, France and England, he’s come close to full circle. As the coach of Los Angeles FC, which will kick off next year in its new stadium next to the LA Memorial Coliseum, Bradley is back to creating a team from scratch. The existential question remains the same. Which comes first, the players or the plan? But Bradley is in an even better position to address it than he was two decades ago thanks to additional experience, more connections and greater purchasing power.
“As much as the league has grown, players still want a sense of what kind of team you’re trying to build,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to talk about what you’re trying to do, and it’s the same idea as some of those conversations I had 20 years ago. Only in this particular case, with the momentum that’s been established here in L.A. and obviously with the stadium going up so quickly, certainly there are a lot of good things that can be shared that give players an idea that it’s being done the right way.”
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LAFC has been linked to a host of big-name players but until this week, the club had only four men under contract. And only one of them, Mexican forward Carlos Vela, is a headliner. Vela was negotiating with a team led by LAFC president Tom Penn and GM John Thorrington before Bradley came aboard. Finally, on Tuesday, the first signing connected to Bradley’s arrival was announced: Egyptian defender/winger Omar Gaber.
Gaber, 25, will spend 2018 with LAFC on loan from FC Basel. The new MLS club can buy his rights at the end of the season. Gaber recently has had some difficulty getting regular minutes with the eight-time defending Swiss champs, but he’d proven himself to Bradley when they worked together with the Egyptian national side in 2011-13.
“When you work with a player and you have a good experience, there’s always the idea that somewhere along the line, it can happen again,” Bradley said. “In recent years I’ve been all over the place. And players know that Carlos Vela signs and they’re excited to hear more and when you talk about the team we want to build, it’s well received.
“The picture changes a little bit every day based on discussions with different players,” he continued. “The basic vision we have of a team that’s exciting and that plays good football—a team that players are excited to be a part of and a club that does things the right way. Those are all the kinds of reasons that i wanted to be a part of this. ... Then you want to take your experiences, vision and ideas and turn it in something that, football-wise, can be a little special.”
The journey from ideal to reality is shaped slowly by the strengths and weaknesses of the players who trickle in and, occasionally, by something like Kubik’s comfort in a back three. Bradley will have Vela to build around, and the club reportedly remains in talks with Uruguayan forward Diego Rossi, a 19-year-old at Peñarol who would be LAFC’s second designated player.
“Certainly the possibilities to bring exciting, younger talent into the league from outside the United States—that part is different than it was 20 years ago,” Bradley said.
LAFC also counts 21-year-old Argentine forward Rodrigo Pacheco among its early signings. On loan from Lanús, Pacheco scored one goal in seven matches for the USL’s Orange County SC this season.
“You build a roster for top to bottom and from bottom to top. Every piece is important. You aim to not only bring in big pieces, but to get guys that every day train the right way—guys that are good teammates, guys that do small things on the field that maybe go unnoticed,” Bradley said.
Gaber was acquired with TAM money, and so he won’t be a DP. But Bradley still envisions the World Cup-bound Egyptian being a key addition because of the importance of intangibles and versatility on a new, evolving side. Gaber likely will start at right back, but he can play further up and even spent time in defensive midfield at Cairo club Zamalek before his 2016 move to Switzerland, Bradley said.
“When you think about a situation [in Egypt] where the league stops and players aren’t being paid and you need to organize friendlies and camps that need to be outside the country, in that process you get to know what guys are all about,” Bradley said of the trying months following the Port Said stadium disaster in early 2012.
“Omar was always a player who came in with a great attitude. Everybody likes him. He can play different positions. He’s very fast,” Bradley added. “He begins a lot of great qualities. He’s a good teammate and has a real ability to give us a lot off the field. Zamalek is a huge club, and the fans loved him because of how he played and how personable he was.”
And so the picture comes into just a bit more focus. LAFC now has a player who’s quick, incisive and resilient, and having those qualities at right back may influence Bradley’s feelings about requirements at other positions or the patterns of play when building out from the back. A team takes shape.
The expansion draft is set for Dec. 12, and LAFC can add up to five players the club can either sign or deal for additional assets. It’ll then pick first in January’s college draft. Bradley said those mechanisms are important to his plans as well. Every piece matters, and every piece informs.
“In a perfect world, some of this would go faster. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “When you’re looking to bring in players in January [for camp] and you’re traveling a lot in September, October and November, that doesn’t always mean you’re going to have everything taken care of. Obviously with Vela, we were able to get that squared away. Then you work through all the different options and you hope you feel good when you bring it all together.
“If you take a player who gives you certain qualities, or if someone new becomes available, your picture changes slightly. You’re constantly updating.”