Bob Bradley hadn't coached a match in more than a year, the longest such stretch of his coaching career, but he was rewarded for that wait on Sunday, as his Los Angeles FC made a dream start to life in Major League Soccer.
The expansion MLS side went into CenturyLink Field and knocked off the two-time defending Western Conference champion Seattle Sounders, 1-0, to become the first team since those very same Sounders in 2009 to kick off an expansion season with a shutout victory, and first since the 2011 Vancouver Whitecaps to win their MLS debut.
It was far from a dominant performance, and came, at least in part, with the help of the fact the Sounders rested some starters. But that doesn't take away from the reality that LAFC looked like and played like a real team and not a collection of parts hastily thrown together, which can sometimes be the case with first-year squads.
"When you're starting out as a team, you have to learn how to win different kinds of games," Bradley said. "A lot of guys gave big efforts."
The dynamic duo of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi figured to be the focal point of LAFC's attack this season and needed just 11 minutes to let the rest of the league know just what a problem they will be to defend. Rossi's one-time blast was the fastest debut goal by an MLS expansion team in league history, and while LAFC couldn't generate a second, Rossi's thunderbolt was a worthy first strike.
Just as impressive was the defense Bradley was able to build, one that will help LAFC contend in year one. Even with Walker Zimmerman forced out of the lineup before kickoff, the defense was still good enough to keep a dangerous Sounders attack at bay, though it needed goalkeeper Tyler Miller to make a handful of excellent saves against his former team.
The Sounders made LAFC earn it, even though veterans Clint Dempsey and Chad Marshall sat the match out to be ready for a vital CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal clash with Chivas on Wednesday. Seattle still had enough firepower to spoil the visiting team's MLS debut, especially with second-half substitutes Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Handwalla Bwana giving the Sounders a much-needed spark, forcing Miller into a total of seven saves on the night.
As much as Seattle was missing key players, LAFC was also without some top options as well. Egyptian midfielder Omar Gaber was left on the bench after having been injured in preseason, Zimmerman was forced out, and newly-acquired Colombian midfielder Eduard Atuesta had yet to integrate into the squad. Throw in long-rumored designated player target Andre Horta, who could still be signed during the current transfer window, and you realize how far away LAFC still is from being the finished product.
Nobody knows how much further there is still to go than Bob Bradley, who took the expansion Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup title 20 years ago. He knows how important a good preseason foundation was to build on, but also knows there is no rush to have his team reach its full potential just yet. Unlike his last job — Bradley's doomed stint at Swansea City — the former U.S. national team coach actually had a hand in building this team. From Miller, who Bradley took first in the MLS expansion draft, to Benny Feilhaber, who he took to the 2010 World Cup during his time as U.S. coach, to first-round draft pick Joao Moutinho, who showed well in his professional debut.
"I don't think we showed, football-wise, what we're capable of, but that's only going to get better," Bradley said. "I'm very confident that, as we build this team, that we're going to see some real football."
LAFC still has plenty to work on, including how better to hold onto the ball in order to avoid being bombarded with pressure like we saw on Sunday, but the foundation is clearly there for LAFC to be a strong expansion team, rather than a pushover. With a tough defensive nucleus, and the Vela-Rossi tandem up top, the newest MLS team is already a handful and will only get tougher as the final pieces to the puzzle are added in the coming weeks.
Things won't get any easier for the club though. LAFC faces a tough opening schedule, with five more road games looming before unveiling its new stadium with a visit from none other than the same Sounders team it just defeated. Earning points during this season-opening road trip is key to improving the team's chances of being a serious playoff contender.
"A lot of positives, great to win, but still a lot of work to do," Bradley said.
Could LAFC follow the path of Bradley's previous expansion team and win a title? It's way too early for that sort of talk, but what was made clear on Sunday is that Bradley made the most of his time away from the sidelines and has put together a team ready to be competitive against the very best that MLS has to offer.