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LAFC identity coming into focus after busy MLS draft

5:08 PM EST 1/19/18
Joao Moutinho Los Angeles FC
The expansion side took fullbacks Joao Moutinho and Tristan Blackmon with the first and third picks Friday, adding potential to a star-studded core

PHILADELPHIA — MLS has undergone quite the metamorphosis since Bob Bradley last coached a match in the league more than a decade ago.

Back then, David Beckham had not yet prompted the concept of big-money "designated players" that revamped how clubs built their rosters. Flagship franchises like the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Atlanta United didn't exist in MLS. Chivas USA did — and was a Western Conference contender under Bradley, to boot. Joao Moutinho, the No. 1 overall pick to Bradley's Los Angeles FC in the MLS draft Friday, was 8 years old.

Yet so much about the roster construction process remains familiar to Bradley, who has since managed the U.S. and Egyptian national teams, Norway's Stabaek, France's Le Havre, and Premier League side Swansea City. As LAFC prepares to kick off its first preseason next week, Bradley has found himself leaning on some timeless principles of squad-building.

"There are different rules, different mechanisms and all that stuff," Bradley said. "But at the simplest level you're looking for good players and good guys and trying to challenge them every day and help them understand what a good team is all about."

Having already signed the star-studded likes of Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber and Laurent Ciman, LAFC added a double dose of potential at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Friday. After grabbing Moutinho out of Akron with the top pick, the expansion side sent $200,000 in allocation money to D.C. United to acquire the third selection and select Pacific product Tristan Blackmon.

A technically polished and versatile prospect, the 20-year-old Moutinho will most likely compete with veteran Jordan Harvey at left back. A natural right back, Blackmon gives LAFC an option behind new signing Steven Beitashour — likely allowing Egypt international Omar Gaber to play defensive midfield instead of fullback.

With those promising pieces in place, LAFC has filled out its depth while potentially settling the outside back positions for years to come.

"I played like three or four positions at Akron and I think I did pretty well," said Moutinho, referring to his experience at center back and defensive midfield. "I'll play whatever the coach wants me to, and if he doesn't want me to play I won't. But I'll be ready every single game."

Blackmon added: "We're here to win from the get-go. You can't ask for more. The talent level is going to be there, so I'm just ready to be there to do whatever they ask me, do the dirty work — I'm ready to go."

In central defense, MLS standouts Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman have the makings of an elite partnership. The attack is coming together as well: Bradley expects Uruguay youth international Diego Rossi to play as a No. 9, while Mexico international Carlos Vela can fill roles up top or out wide. LAFC also offers expansion draft selections Marco Urena and Latif Blessing as attacking options, and Bradley has Feilhaber to pull the strings in midfield.

That projected lineup has left Bradley hinting at the need for another midfield connector, though. With Vela and Rossi taking DP slots already, the coach expects the club to fill its third and final spot before the season kicks off in March.

"We still need to add a few more players," Bradley said. "We're in different kinds of discussions, so the picture of what your team is going to look like constantly changes. You're always adjusting a little bit based on what a player brings. We're still in some good discussions about midfielders. If you want to be a team that controls games you've got to have midfielders who can do these kind of things.

"I think we have some starting points when you look at some of the guys up front, some of the guys in the back. Obviously a guy like Benny Feilhaber gives an indication to all of you of the kind of football we want to play in the middle of the field."

Having led the Chicago Fire to MLS Cup glory in 1998, Bradley remains the only coach in league history to win that title with an expansion team. For all of the evolution the league has experienced over the past two decades, Bradley again played up an enduring philosophy that served him well during his previous stint in MLS.

"You have to start the process," Bradley said. "It's time to establish how we're going to play football. You've got to, by the time the season starts, be ready to compete in Major League Soccer. There's always three points on the table — it doesn't matter in the moment whether you're an expansion team or not. You're one of the two teams fighting for the points."