MLS top coach Bradley leads LAFC’s daily quest for greatness

LOS ANGELES (AP) Bob Bradley rocks in his chair under the sizzling Southern California sun and gives an exaggerated New Jersey shoulder shrug. The Los Angeles FC coach can use his entire body to make a point, and he’s emphasizing what’s actually important about individual accolades, such as being named Major League Soccer’s Coach of the Year for the third time.

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“Individual awards are recognition of the team,” Bradley said, naming LAFC general manager John Thorrington and “everybody else I get a chance to work with every day.”

“I think we’ve created a good environment,” he added. “I think we challenge each other every day. The most important part is you create an environment where people enjoy what they’re doing. Everybody feels part of it. Players know when they show up every day that there’s been a lot of thought that goes into what we do, and the culture that we’re trying to build. For me, it’s only recognition of all that.”

To Bradley, this sport is not about awards. It’s only partly about championships, even when LAFC is about to start a potential three-game run at its first MLS Cup title with the biggest game in franchise history on Thursday night against the LA Galaxy.

Instead, it’s about building a team that vigorously pursues excellence, never reaching perfection and never stopping. With Bradley telling the story, the mundane day-to-day work of professional soccer is an epic quest that probably won’t be completed, but should always be embraced.

“Look, trophies become part of that, but it’s about football,” Bradley said. “It’s something the fans can see. Every time you step on the field, there’s something real there. There’s something different there. There’s something that if you watch, you want to come back and see again.”

Bradley has been trying to build that ideal team for the past 25 years, ever since his decade in charge of the Princeton men’s soccer program propelled him around the world on a coaching odyssey including stops in MLS and with national teams in the U.S. and Egypt, followed by professional sides in Norway, France and Britain.

His latest stop has arguably brought him closer to perfection than ever before. A lifetime of coaching knowledge has combined with LAFC’s eager ownership, smart player selection, a beautiful stadium and an already robust fan culture to create something spectacular in record time.

Bradley will be honored with the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year Award on Wednesday after guiding a 2-year-old franchise to the best regular season in league history. LAFC (21-4-9) reached the MLS records for points (72), goals (85) and goal differential (plus-48) while dazzling the continent with an aggressive, cohesive brand of soccer.

Less than three years after the first American coach in Premiership history was fired by Swansea after just 11 games, he sits atop MLS with one of the best teams ever assembled. Bradley rejects any notion of I-told-you-so satisfaction after his abrupt dismissal at the Welsh club in December 2016, although he is clearly confident he could have succeeded with more time to implement his ideas.

“They’re so far in the rear-view mirror,” Bradley said of all his past stops. “Every day brings you that new challenge. You enjoy that part, you feel good about it, and I believe in the way I do things. I love to engage the people around me to bring something out of them, and hopefully in doing that, they can bring more out of me.”

Deep into his second year in charge at LAFC, his players have grown accustomed to Bradley’s style. The same coach who designed the sophisticated offense that allowed Carlos Vela to score an MLS-record 34 goals also nags his players to clean up after themselves when they eat at the LAFC training complex, believing that sloppiness at the lunch table can translate into imprecision on the field.

“It’s not the bigger picture with him,” defender Steven Beitashour said. “It’s so minuscule. It’s the smallest little details. … It all correlates to the game. It’s all about just trying to improve, and not showing up just to be here. There’s so many individuals that I’m not going to mention that improved so much, that I would never have thought could be at the level they are, unless they were under his system. He sees everything.”

And on Thursday night, Bradley will lead LAFC into its Banc of California Stadium for a one-game Western Conference semifinal against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy. The sixth chapter of the already sizzling El Trafico rivalry is the rivals’ first postseason meeting.

For all its success, Bradley’s team has never beaten its closest rival. Along with three exciting draws, the Galaxy have won two of the clubs’ five matchups, including Ibrahimovic’s electrifying two-goal MLS debut last year in the first El Trafico.

While Bradley greets this matchup with excitement – “It had to be the Galaxy,” he said – he would never hold his work hostage to a single day’s result, even if others might try.

“The champion of the league is determined by MLS Cup, and we’re one of the teams with a chance,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. But everything else we’ve done, the way we keep trying to do it into the future, none of that changes.”

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Thierry Henry has been named as the new manager of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer.

Henry, 42, has signed a two-year contract to lead Montreal and has an option to extend his deal to 2022.

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Speaking about his return to MLS, this time as a manager, Henry is delighted to be heading to Quebec.

“It’s an honour to coach the Montreal Impact and return to MLS,” Henry said. “It’s a league I know well, in which I had some very nice moments. To be in Quebec, in Montreal, which has an enormous multicultural heritage, it’s extraordinary. I’ve always kept an eye on the club and now I’m here.”

Henry holds his UEFA Pro licence and his previous managerial experience includes being the assistant manager for the Belgian national team before and during the 2018 World Cup and then a brief stint at his former club Monaco.

The latter didn’t go well, with Henry fired less than four months into the job and with Monaco battling relegation in Ligue 1.

Henry has also worked as a TV pundit for Sky Sports in the UK after he called time on his legendary playing career with Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls.

But coaching has always been his plan, and now the World Cup winner has the chance, just like his former Arsenal and France teammate Patrick Vieira, to stamp his identity on an MLS club.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the legendary French striker gets on as a head coach in MLS, but at least he knows from his playing days how the league operates and some of the logistical challenges that will face him and his team.

The Impact have missed the MLS playoffs in each of the past three seasons and parted ways with previous boss Wilmer Cabrera, who had taken over after Remi Garde’s tumultuous time in charge.

Players will certainly flock to Montreal to play for Henry, but given some of the reports about his time in charge of Monaco and how strict he was on the training ground, it will be interesting to see how Henry’s approach has developed, if at all.

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Senegal and Nigeria started with wins on the first day of the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations on Wednesday.

Senegal was comfortable in a 2-0 victory over Republic of Congo, and Nigeria less so when it came from behind to edge Benin 2-1.

Senegal opened its qualifying campaign less than four months after losing to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup in Egypt. Sidy Sarr and Habibou Diallo sealed the win over Congo in Group I with first-half goals. Sadio Mane also played.

Semifinalists at this year’s African Cup, the Nigerians made a fumbling start to the decisive group stage when they went behind in the third minute at home in Uyo to Stephane Sessegnon‘s goal following a defensive error. Victor Osimhen converted a penalty on the brink of halftime and Samuel Kalu scored the winner in the second half to put three-time African champions Nigeria top of Group L.

The result provided some relief for Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr, whose relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation has become uneasy since failing to make the African Cup final in Egypt.

Cameroon, the 2021 host, was held 0-0 at home by Cape Verde to draw another blank under new coach Toni Conceicao, the second goalless draw in two games under Conceicao. Cameroon has already qualified as host but is playing in qualifying for match practice. The Cameroonians couldn’t find the target again in their Group F opener after a 0-0 draw against Tunisia in the Portuguese coach’s first game in charge a month ago. Conceicao replaced former Netherlands international Clarence Seedorf, who was fired after Cameroon’s title defense at this year’s African Cup in Egypt ended with a round of 16 defeat by Nigeria.

The top two in each group will qualify for the 24-team finals except in Cameroon’s group, where just one other team will make it through. The qualifiers run until November next year.

African champion Algeria starts its campaign on Thursday against Zambia. Egypt plays Kenya the same day and the Pharaohs will be without Mohamed Salah for that game and Monday’s meeting with Comoros, the Egyptian Football Association said, because of an ankle injury. Salah has been wearing a protective boot on his left foot while sitting out training with Egypt.

New coach Hossam el-Badry, a former Egypt player, will take charge of his country in a competitive game for the first time against Kenya as the team moves on from the bitter disappointment of not even making the quarterfinals at their home tournament this year. That failure led to the departure of coach Javier Aguirre and the resignation of the entire EFA board.

There were also wins in Wednesday’s qualifiers for Namibia, Malawi, Sudan, Gambia, Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Sudan provided the most resounding result with a 4-0 rout of 10-man Sao Tome and Principe.

Sierra Leone and Lesotho drew 1-1 in an eventful game in an empty stadium in Freetown. Sierra Leone was ordered by FIFA to play the game behind closed doors as punishment for fans misbehaving in a game against Liberia in September, when they threw objects and invaded the field.

Kwame Quee gave Sierra Leone the lead with 20 minutes to go. Thabantso Jane equalized in injury time and after both teams had a man sent off. Lesotho captain Marepe Basia was given a second yellow for his foul on George Davies in the final 10 minutes. Davies was sent off for retaliating.

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England boss Gareth Southgate has admitted that Raheem Sterling is far from happy about his punishment for attacking Joe Gomez at England’s training base on Monday.

Sterling, 24, has been left out of England’s EURO 2020 qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday after he confronted Liverpool defender Joe Gomez in the players’ canteen, and they had to be separated after Sterling tried to grab Gomez around the neck.

Southgate decided to keep Sterling in the squad and let him train with the rest of the England team, but has punished the Man City winger by making him unavailable for the game on Thursday.

“I wouldn’t imagine that he’s hugely enthusiastic. But I can understand that and in the end he’s with the group,” Southgate said. “He’s a massive part of what we do. He’s with us for the game tomorrow, he’s back with the team on the training pitch enjoying his football. He trained superbly well, as he always does. The thing is finished.”

Southgate added that Sterling will play in England’s final EURO 2020 qualifier at Kosovo on Sunday, with the Three Lions needing just a point from their final two qualifiers to qualify for the tournament.

The punishment for Sterling has divided opinion, with some believing Southgate’s strong stance was warranted as he continues to unify the Three Lions squad but others believe the incident should have been kept in-house.

A bust-up between Sterling and Gomez following the heated battle between Liverpool and Man City 24 hours previous was always going to be leaked out somehow. Southgate seized control of the situation and Sterling was made an example of.

England’s players now know that any squabbling about games they play against one another for their respective clubs is not allowed.

Sterling’s name has been in the news for the wrong reasons once again, but after he attacked a teammate in the England players’ canteen and has since apologized and accepted he was wrong, he can have no complaints.

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A diversity report shows improved racial hiring practices for Major League Soccer but also highlighted a continuing decline in gender hiring efforts.

The annual report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida on Wednesday gave MLS an A with 93.9 points for racial hiring in 2019 for its highest score in 15 years.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

But the gender score of 72 points for a C grade fell for the third straight time, down from 76.8 points in 2018 and 81 points as recently as 2016.

The overall grade for MLS was a B at 82.9 points, falling from a B-plus and 85 points in 2018.

TIDES director Richard Lapchick, the lead report author, called lower gender hiring numbers across men’s professional sports a “systemic problem.”

Online: http://tidesport.org/

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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