Friday, September 1, 2006
Bradley does it his way
The experiment had failed miserably.
The 2005 Chivas USA foray into MLS was an abysmal disaster, a cluster bomb of on-field ineptitude. Everything on the field, from the awful rejects shipped in from the team's sister club in Mexico, to the team's tactics and dynamics were embarrassing. The team was a sham, and an embarrassment to its fans. Enter Bob Bradley. As the 2006 season heads to its climax, the team can no longer be considered "Guadalajara Lite." This is Chivas USA, with its own unique identity; an identity that is distinctly MLS. When Chivas USA came calling for Bradley, it was a signal that its business model had failed. The move was an acknowledgement that management had miscalculated and needed to assimilate into MLS, and not vice versa. The league wasn't going to change, so Chivas would have to adjust. In came a man who not only knew MLS, but had won in the league. To be brutally honest, Chivas 2005 was a disaster. Pure and simple, yet Bradley saw a team, saw a fire and potential in this bunch that he could work with. There was an intangible that he knew he could work with. The first time he stepped on the field with his new team, he sensed this pride. "I was impressed with the team's spirit, that at the end of a difficult year, they wanted to turn things around," he said. "The organization is about pride. To a man, all appreciated being a part of Chivas USA. This was something I wanted to be a part of." On this tone, the road to respectability began. The hiring of Bradley had gone against the flow of Chivas' previous personnel moves, and yet the formula has worked. Through 24 games, Chivas USA has catapulted themselves into a spot among the league's top four. They've won with grit, they've won with style. Most importantly, they've won on Bradley's terms. It has worked because Chivas has bought into Bradley's vision, even if it meant moving away from the Mexican-centric direction the team was built on. Bradley cared about the player, and not his heritage or skin tone, and Chivas USA's management embraced his philosophy. "From the first time I met with the ownership, there was a great vision and passion. They felt the first year was a learning experience," Bradley said. "Together we all agreed that we wanted to keep the foundation and Mexican heritage, but to be successful in MLS, we had to adjust it a little bit." And it is being done on Bradley's terms, his way, with his players. This isn't an imitation of another club. This is a team that now can compete in MLS. "Bob Bradley changed the mentality of the players," Chivas USA president Antonio Cue said. "We made some mistakes in 2005. We realize that the league was much more powerful than we thought. He knew exactly the way to manage players, to utilize the draft, the youth programs. Bob was very open and passionate about the sport. His passion impressed us. Chivas USA had to change its mentality, and Bob was the right man for the job." Bradley went the untraditional route, spurning the chance to acquire hyped UCLA product Marvell Wynne and trading the top pick in the SuperDraft to the MetroStars. The move was a shock. It wasn't popular at the time, but it netted him Jason Hernandez and the fifth selection in the draft. Hernandez has turned into one of the team's most solid and dependable players, while Wynne has struggled to adjust to the professional game with the MetroStars. More importantly, with the fifth pick, Bradley netted Seton Hall's Sacha Kljestan, who has immediately earned minutes for the team. Kljestan has rounded out a revamped and rejuvenated Chivas midfield that is among the best and most fluid in the league. The rookie is second on the team in minutes played, narrowly trailing veteran defender Tim Regan, another one of Bradley's acquisitions. "[Kljestan] had a really good feel for the game," Bradley said. "I believe that he has the right chance to develop. He has the tools to be very good." Yet, perhaps no addition, not even late-round pick Jonathan Bornstein, a fan favorite who has solidified the team's back line, has earned the respect of the Chivas faithful quite like Ante Razov. Ante's unique relationship with Bradley has earned him some derision, but there is no denying that Razov is on fire this year, and putting up MVP-type numbers. "The bottom line with Ante is that there is a good level of trust," Bradley said. "Ante knows what I expect of him, what a forward needs to do to help this team. Our relationship was not built upon me telling him what he wanted to hear. I told him he had to do more than be a forward that hangs out and waits for chances. Ante sometimes has a reputation for being a little difficult. Ante has a good heart and is a good person. Sometimes his emotions come out, but it is because he wants to win. I've coached a lot of players some would call difficult, but I've felt they want to win, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. I've always felt that I understood what players like that are all about. Ante is no different." By all accounts, the season has been a success for Chivas USA, but Bradley realizes the job isn't quite done. "We are smart enough to realize that to be good at the end, we have to develop throughout the year," he said. "Our goal was to become a good team, to make the playoffs, to compete for the championship." And the players have bought into the Bradley philosophy. Brad Guzan, a holdover from the disaster that was 2005, has noticed the change in mind-set. "Our goals were not only to have a better record than last year, but a record that gets us into the playoffs," he said. "Once you are in the playoffs, anything is possible. We believed since the beginning of preseason that we had the players that could get us into the playoffs." Now, Chivas is the team that no one wants to face in the Western Conference playoffs, because when they click, there is no side in MLS that is more fluid on the ball and reads the game better. It's a blending of European discipline and South American flair, making the team the most unique in MLS. Perhaps fans consider Chivas USA the surprise team of MLS this year, but the team's run of strong play came as no surprise to those who know Bradley well. Columbus Crew defender Tim Ward, whom Bradley drafted in 2005 when he was with the MetroStars, knew what Bradley would bring to Los Angeles. "No, I'm not surprised by the success of Chivas," Ward said. "Bob is a very good coach and there are a lot of talented players at Chivas. He demands and gets the best of his team, and most importantly, I think that all of his players respect him." This first year with his new team is a redemption story for Bradley. He won't admit it, he never will, but deep down inside, it has to feel good to be Bob Bradley right now. Coupled with the fact that he turned a doormat into a contender, Bradley is doing it in the city he now shares with Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy general manager who fired Bradley in 2005 during his time with the MetroStars. Certainly, Bradley's revenge is not yet complete, but one look at the MLS standings sees Chivas in a prime position for the postseason and Lalas' side outside the race to make the playoffs. It has to be satisfying. Yet Bradley sees an even bigger picture than any personal drive for Chivas to succeed. Even if it isn't the way the club had fantasized it to be when formed in 2005, they've finally righted the ship and begun to win. Bradley, however, is not satisfied with just an improvement. "We're making progress, there is work to be done," he said. "People come in every day with the right mentality to improve. We'll get there." Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for The New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com