After hot start, LAFC seek trophies, not history

LAFC Celebration

Editorial (July 10, 2019) — You’ve heard the narrative. You’ve seen all of the accolades, publicity, highlights of goal after goal. Words like “dominant,” phrases like “record-breaking,” have all been synonymous with LAFC throughout 2019. However, breaking records, isn’t the goal. For Los Angeles, there is only one thing on their minds, trophies.

Halfway through the season LAFC want trophies, not records

Ending the season without lifting the MLS Cup would be a massive disappointment. To say the season would be a failure may seem harsh, but it’s not far off the truth. While this club may only be in their second year of competition, their ambition is close to unmatched. That level of ambition, especially from a team so young in existence, tends to ruffle more than feathers. LAFC made a decent run at becoming only the second expansion team to win the MLS Cup in year one. Bob Bradley’s coached, Chicago Fire, achieved the feat in 1998.

Unceremoniously knocked out to what many felt was an inferior opponent, at home, in a game with a handful of self-inflicted errors, gave Los Angeles all the fuel they needed for 2019. From match day one, the mission for season two was clear, win the MLS Cup. Even throughout their first unbeaten run, they maintained focus on the task of winning it all.

Mission Statement

The expectations surrounding LAFC were brought on by the club itself. From the owners, to head coach Bob Bradley, and all the players, everyone came into this season unapologetic and open about their goal. Part of this is how close they came last season. Seeing themselves able to compete for the MLS Cup so quickly was like an adrenaline shot to the chest. They had taken that first dive off of the small board. Now, they are running to jump from the high dive.

Instantly they cemented their confidence, opening up the season with a seven-match unbeaten run. In addition to outscoring opponents 21-5, they began to settle into their brand of football. They built on the chemistry from the previous season, they figured out their style of play — and perfected it. Over the course of the next 15 matches, LAFC did nothing to calm the talk of winning the MLS Cup.

LAFC, up until now this season, have 50+ goals and lead the league in every major category. They are in control of the Supporter’s Shield, along with it home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their best player is the heavy favorite for league MVP — even he isn’t satisfied with the historic start.

In this video of a post-match press conference, Carlos Vela stressed the importance of finishing the job. “If we don’t win the MLS Cup, this is nothing,” he says.

When your best player and leader has a championship or bust mentality, that’s special. He could easily sit back on his glory, bask in the praise of the many and stat hunt his way to a league MVP. However, Vela came to LAFC for more than personal achievements. He arrived knowing he would be the face of the franchise. He knew that he would be the one the players, coaches and fans all looked to in times of leadership. That above video of him looking somewhat sullen, expressing his desire for more, wasn’t after a loss. It was after he scored two goals in a 6-1 victory.

That alone should worry teams for what’s to come.

Cause for Pause

As expected for a team with only three losses in all competitions, there isn’t much LAFC do wrong. However, they aren’t perfect and the latest loss to Portland should have helped shown that. The biggest issues for Los Angeles primarily remain self-inflicted. Matches where they fail to maintain possession, or get sloppy with the passing in their defensive third. However, the one issue they have that can be rectified, is an improvement on the striker position.

Given the struggles of Christian Ramirez this season, along with Adama Diomande not being healthy a whole season or consistently playing an entire 90 minute match, it’s obvious why many are calling for improvements. Combining for only eight of LAFC’s 50+ goals this season, the front two have left much to be desired this season. The lack of scoring isn’t the real issue. However, it’s the lack of threat. With teams not viewing that position as a real scoring threat, they can then key in on the real creators in the squad like Vela, Diego Rossi and Eduard Atuesta.

In the biggest game for LAFC to date, the Portland Timbers played that strategy to perfection. Using the sidelines as an extra defender, they were able to allow Rossi and Vela to dribble wide. However, when it came time for the build up, they often saw two or more defenders. The Timbers aren’t the first team to employ this strategy against Los Angeles. Earlier in the season, a trip to New York proved awkward given the dimensions of the pitch. However, even then it was clear more than the pitch was at play.

NYCFC prevented LAFC from building play from out wide. They played physical with Vela and Rossi, causing the latter to go invisible for most of the match. Though in the end Los Angeles was able to grind out a draw, they finished the match with only four shots on goal. In addition, NYCFC had the better possession percentage of 61 percent to LAFC’s 39 percent. More recently, it was Sporting KC who were able to provide a blueprint. Losing in a 5-1 rout, they forced LAFC to be near perfect, holding them to seven shots on goal for the match.

The Grind Begins

That has been the key to LAFC’s success. They have a high conversion rate because they pick apart defenses. Breaking them down with precise passing from out wide, creeping closer to a goal with each touch. Proximity isn’t an issue when almost everyone can put it in from outside the box.

However, all they need is a clear line of sight. That’s what made the recent loss and subsequent elimination from the U.S. Open Cup so difficult. Portland wouldn’t allow that build up play. A mix of physicality and tactical awareness stifled the attack and resulted in LAFC finishing with only one shot on goal.

As bad as that loss was, the silver lining is that now the focus can return solely to the original task at hand. They don’t have to worry about winning all the awards in one year — and they shouldn’t. Even as the favorites for everything they compete in this season, expecting the treble in year two is too much.

For LAFC the road is only going to get more difficult. As teams start to study more film, try more tactics and bring more physicality, Los Angeles will have their championship mettle tested. Less than 48 hours after their loss, they are back on the road facing off against the Houston Dynamo. The rest of July isn’t easy either as they still have the long-awaited trip to Carson, in the first LA Clasico match of the season. Meanwhile, they finish the month hosting the defending champions, Atlanta United.

Last Word

While the first half of the season was filled with excitement, with everyone talking about breaking records and MVP favorites. The time has come to really get down to business. If the goal all year has been the MLS Cup, the road begins now.

Teams feel they have LAFC figured out, they sense vulnerability and are ready to come at the kings. Given how Los Angeles tend to respond to defeat, it might be wise for the rest of the league to remember one thing, you come at the king, you best not miss.


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