After every LAFC home game, a familiar song plays over the Banc of California Stadium speakers — Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” A subtle reminder that every little thing is gonna be all right.
As the 2021 Major League Soccer season progressed for the Black and Gold, it became clear that was far from the truth.
Following the conclusion of their final home game on November 2, a 1-1 draw vs. the Vancouver Whitecaps, there was a bizarre postgame moment. During a fireworks-laden light show as the players, coaches and families paraded around the stadium, a fan with a “Bob Out” banner was shown on the big screen, right in the middle of thank you messages and other tributes.
Turns out it was a final goodbye for Bob Bradley, as he and LAFC mutually decided to part ways after the most tumultuous season in franchise history. One that was loaded with championship expectations, yet seemed doomed from the very start. Prior to the season, star striker Carlos Vela said, “I feel right now our team is stronger than other years.” That notion was quickly challenged.
Defender Eddie Segura had ACL surgery in early August and was lost for the year. Vela himself battled through injuries for the second straight season and only played 20 games, with the last few being brief appearances off the bench. Midfield fulcrum Eduard Atuesta was sidelined with ankle and shoulder injuries. But that all masks larger issues.
Because of the absences throughout the roster, Bradley was forced to move away from his beloved 4-3-3 formation and tinker with different methods using wingbacks and makeshift defensive lines of five or three at times. It might have served as a blessing in disguise, but instead it exposed more flaws. Defensively LAFC was too often unorganized, allowing 51 goals, and they struggled to score, something Bradley and the players consistently attributed to not being sharp enough.
From April to November, that sharpness was never found.
In net, meanwhile, it was a revolving door. Goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer was released a day before the season opener. Pablo Sisniega stepped in and filled the role well, only to be replaced by 20-year-old Tomas Romero. And when it seemed like the young Salvadoran was getting into a good comfort zone, LAFC announced the signing of Jamal Blackman, who started the last eight games.
If it sounds like a mess, that’s because it was. And while there’s enough blame to be passed around, the coach ultimately takes most of the heat.
The potential LAFC showcased under Bob Bradley is still there even after his departure. (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports)
Bob Bradley helped build LAFC from the ground up
Bradley knew that, which is why the relationship between him and the club started dwindling throughout the year. His departure surprised nobody that was paying attention. Time ran its course and there was no reason for both sides to continue on. Bradley now takes over Toronto FC, where he’ll get to coach his son, Michael.
Four years in Los Angeles was a big enough window for Bradley to accomplish plenty. He was brought in to give an expansion club an identity and real ideas, and to make them a force. LAFC’s 2019 season was historic, breaking the points record with 72 en route to the Supporters’ Shield. It ended, however, with a home loss to the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final. The next season LAFC came close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, conceding a pair of goals to Tigres in the last 20 minutes of the final.
Too many big moments ended the same — short of the goal. That’s why this season stung, because for the first time Bradley and LAFC failed to even make the playoffs. It was a direct reflection of the team’s identity. Conceding late goals, dropping points at home and sometimes seeming flat-out lifeless.
After a 1-0 loss to Atlanta United on August 15, Bradley was at his most candid. “If you have some guys in the moment that still aren’t at their best, it’s on me at that point to figure out,” he said. “Find the right message, tone for each guy and the team. That’s completely on me to every day keep figuring out how can I keep these guys going.”
Ultimately, there were more questions than answers for a coach with the third-most regular-season wins in league history.
After all the tough decisions Bradley had to make over the course of the season, his last was perhaps the easiest. He gave some LAFC fans what they wanted: Bob Out.
What’s next for LAFC?
While the first major domino of the offseason has fallen, more shouldn’t be far behind.
The most pressing question for LAFC now is what Vela decides to do. There are reportedly ongoing conversations about whether or not the 32-year-old wants to remain in Los Angeles. He set records in his MVP campaign in 2019, and when healthy he might be the best player in MLS. But the past two seasons he’s been a shell of himself. If your star designated player becomes more of a liability than resource, it might be time to start thinking ahead.
Life after Bradley has started. Life after Vela is coming sooner or later, too.
The health and form of Carlos Vela (right), along with the bounceback of Eduard Atuesta, will help define LAFC’s future in 2022 and beyond. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
His decision is the ultimate factor for the next manager, and vice versa. Having a player of Vela’s caliber makes all the difference, and transparency at this stage should be at the forefront for LAFC across the board.
What the new coach also has to realize is he’s stepping into a system that’s already in place. Those foundations Bradley built over the four years are the pillars moving forward. That identity of attacking play is what makes this team, in this market, an entertaining product.
General manager John Thorrington mostly wants to stick to the script of onboarding young foreign players, developing them and ultimately selling them to European clubs. That’s why Diego Rossi was loaned to Turkish power Fenerbahce at the end of August. The plan is also the same for Atuesta, LAFC’s most important player who might already be in Europe had it not been for the pandemic.
Brian Rodriguez is in a similar predicament after a failed stint with Spanish second-division club UD Almeria landed him back in L.A. He’ll have to prove more stateside and with the Uruguayan national team to take that leap again and stick the landing.
What’s clearest for LAFC right now is next season should be built around 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year Cristian “Chicho” Arango. In just 17 games he piled up 14 goals, five shy of Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos of NYCFC. Beyond Arango’s scoring, his impact on the team in such a short time showcased the 26-year-old Colombian’s quality as a player and a leader.
Fellow Colombian Segura figures to bounce back and retain his role as the focal piece of the defense. Mamadou Fall, the 19-year-old who was LAFC’s biggest revelation this year, earned a role on the backline too.
Even with Bradley gone, this roster appears to be good enough to be a playoff team, not one that struggles to stay relevant throughout a season.
So long as it finds a missing piece in the new coach.