The numbers suggest last season was far from the disappointment it looked like for Bradley and LAFC.
On Wednesday, Bob Bradley was named both the ninth non-interim Head Coach and fifth General Manager in Toronto FC history. For the most part, early reviews have been incredibly positive.
Bradley comes in with a wealth of managerial experience including stints with the US and Egyptian Men’s National teams. Perhaps more importantly, is his MLS experience which includes an MLS Cup, two US Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, a three-time MLS coach of the year recipient, and a Concacaf Champions League runners-up medal (see, he fits right in). The surname “Bradley” alone is enough to attract at least some kind of goodwill among TFC faithful.
However, especially after a season like Toronto FC had in 2021 there will be many who remain skeptical. For every tweet or post demonstrating excitement about Bradley’s appointment, there are those who have expressed concerns about him being the captain’s dad. Or, more validly, many who bemoan the fact that a Canadian has only been the head coach for 11 games in this club’s history.
The vast majority of concerns, however, seem to focus on a central theme: Bradley is joining the club after a very disappointing season in which his previously perennial contender LAFC side missed the playoffs. If he couldn’t get the job done with that team, how will he with what seems a far more broken Toronto FC side?
Comparisons of this nature are tricky and I am certainly keeping in mind how much Chris Armas was lambasted for comparing himself to Pep Guardiola earlier this season. But in some ways, this Bob Bradley hiring has shades of another group of Reds.
Going into the 2015-16 season, there was some concern among Liverpool faithful about the hiring of Jurgen Klopp. After all, his magical powers with Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund seemed to have run out. Klopp’s team had spent much of the previous year mired in a relegation battle and finished the season in 7th.
Only, a deeper dive into the analytics would suggest something completely different about Klopp’s final season in Dortmund. Taking into account a statistic called “expected points” his team should have actually finished second in the league and were numerically incredibly unlucky not to have finished in a much better spot.
Let us return then to Bradley, whose LAFC side missed out on the playoffs for the first time in club history. What seems like a massive underperformance actually looks a lot more like rotten luck with a quick glance at the numbers.
First, the qualitative factors. Deigo Rossi, Carlos Vela and Brian Rodriguez started only 18, 15, and 13 games respectively this season. Toronto FC fans will certainly understand the impact that missing key players for that much of the season has on a group.
With that being said, Bradley’s group still created plenty of chances and goals in 2021. In fact, per American Soccer Analysis’ model, they led the league in xG (expected goals) this past season with 59.22, better even than the record-setting New England Revolution (56.59).
Where they really got unlucky, however, was defensively. Bradley’s side conceded roughly 14 more goals than expected this past year, and their goal difference minus expected goal difference (GD-xGD) was a league-worst -22.42. For a team that missed the playoffs by only three points that is a lot of bad luck. Toronto FC, it should be noted, was third-worst in this category at -12.69 so we can expect a bit of positive regression there as well.
What this tells us is a) expect LAFC to bounce back in a big way next season and b) maybe it is worth looking at the bigger picture of the Bradley era in Los Angeles versus focusing on his team’s latest shortcoming.
At the end of the day, it is a results business, and Bradley’s teams didn’t get enough of those last year. His time in Toronto won’t be judged by anything expected but by the hard numbers he puts up.
But by and large, he did that in an incredibly impressive fashion during his time in Los Angeles. He built a team with a clear identity, that scored goals for fun and played an attractive brand of soccer. Last year, it is safe to say, appears to be an outlier.