The things that make an expansion team special are the same things that make managing one so hard.
There’s no history and no tradition. The name is new, the stadium is new, the uniforms are new and so are the players, at least to one another.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said Carlos Vela, the Mexican national team forward who was the first player signed by the fledgling Los Angeles Football Club, which will begin play in MLS this season. “Normally when you go to a new club, the other teammates, they know each other. But here it’s like the first day of school. You have to meet everyone.”
Yet the whole experience isn’t new for Bob Bradley, the coach LAFC has chosen to guide the franchise through its inaugural season. Bob the Builder is the only manager in MLS history to take an expansion team to a league title, something he did with the Chicago Fire in 1998. Eight years later he took Chivas USA, still struggling for an identity in its second season, to the conference semifinals.
Bradley will get a start on what he hopes will be the same kind of success when LAFC opens its first preseason training camp Monday morning at UCLA.
“You take different challenges at different times,” said Bradley, who led the U.S. national team to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup and kept the Egyptian national team together through two years of civil unrest in that country.
“Sometimes you go into a situation and the challenge is to make very quickly the best you can out of what’s there. One of the things that really excited me and drew me to LAFC was the opportunity to take the experiences that I’ve had and my ideas and my vision and turn it into something.”
But while Bradley will be sketching those ideas on a blank canvas, he hasn’t been given much to draw with. LAFC will open camp with just 15 players on its roster. And while it’s a talented group — four players could play in the World Cup this summer while another has already played in one — it’s not deep or balanced.
Among the World Cup hopefuls are Vela; winger Omar Gaber, whom Bradley coached in Egypt; and forward Marco Urena, who led Costa Rica with four goals in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. Defender Laurent Ciman made Belgium’s World Cup squad in 2014 but did not see the field.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber played for Bradley in the 2010 World Cup and another World Cup veteran, Iranian American defender Steven Beitashour, is expected to join the team Monday although his contract has not been finalized.
Yet LAFC’s roster entering camp features five defenders and five forwards, but just two experienced midfielders between them — three if you include Gaber, who can play on the back line or in the midfield. And the only goalkeeper, Tyler Miller, has played only three games in MLS.
“There’s a difference between who’s there on Monday and what our roster looks like [opening day],” Bradley said. “We still have decent time to build our whole roster.”
The team is actively shopping for a third designated player — Vela and Uruguayan teenager Diego Rossi are the other two — although it may hold that spot open until after the World Cup when a flood of players could begin making their way to MLS.
More important for Bradley is building the foundation on which that roster will grow by establishing the team’s principles, tactics and personality.
“That’s not something that happens from the start of the year,” he said. “That’s something that you work towards.”
With the Fire, that coalesced during an 11-game winning streak early in the season that “reinforced all the work and the ideas [and] gave us confidence,” Bradley said.
Vela’s ready to get started on that Monday.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Goalkeeper: Tyler Miller
Defenders: Tristan Blackmon, Laurent Ciman, Jordan Harvey, Joao Moutinho, Walker Zimmerman
Midfielders: Pol Calvet, Benny Feilhaber, Omar Gaber, Calum Mallace