PREVIEW – Almost a week into the MLS is Back, and the tournament shows no signs of slowing down. While a second team, Nashville SC, withdrawing from playing amid COVID-19 concerns, the rest of the league marches on from ESPN facilities in Florida. Los Angeles FC kickoff Group F action on Monday, as they open against the Houston Dynamo.
MLS is Back: LAFC Open Group F Play Against the Houston Dynamo
The last time we saw LAFC, they played in a 3-3 thriller, against the Union, way back in early March. Adama Diomande and new signing, Bradley Wright-Phillips, were out with injuries. The defense, post Walker Zimmerman, was under close scrutiny, and LAFC as a whole made it clear, they had titles on their minds. While much in the world has obviously changed since then, the same could be said of the black and gold.
Previously, on LAFC
After an historic campaign in 2019, LAFC came into 2020 ready to take the next step by winning their first MLS title. However, everything came to an abrupt halt after just two league matches and two Champion’s League matches. While LAFC didn’t lose in the league matches, and won their first leg of SCCL, the sample size was still too small to get a feel for how well this team would perform.
Speaking ahead of their trip to Orlando, Head Coach Bob Bradley touched on what the focus is heading into the tournament. “Since the return of training, our concentration has been on re-establishing our football ideas. Getting guys sharper, getting guys fitter.” While the goal is still to win everything they can, they know they must approach this tournament differently.
Speaking to media about the first training sessions in Orlando, defender Jordan Harvey pointed out, “… They’ve been good preparation, it’s been a build-up. We haven’t just hit the ground running, we’ve built into this, which is smart.”
It isn’t just the opposing teams or even the threat of a pandemic that LAFC have to overcome. It’s also the Florida heat in the middle of July. While they have taken every precaution to avoid strenuous activity during peak hours, Bob Bradley and company know it’s still wise to ease back into competitive training, especially if they are to remain healthy and make a push at winning it all.
The Elephant, NOT, In The Room
The biggest story for LAFC surrounding this tournament will be the very conspicuous absence of their best player. Reigning MLS MVP, Carlos Vela, has opted not to participate in, or travel to, the MLS is Back Tournament.
From the moment the tournament was announced, Vela, who’s wife is pregnant with their second child, made it clear he was likely to skip out amid concerns over health and safety. His teammates, as well as LAFC supporters, all understand and support his decision, however it doesn’t ease the impact his absence will have.
What To Watch For
Not Having Carlos Vela will be tough, but if there is any team who can still find success without the likes of Vela, it’s this one. Adama Diomande and Bradley Wright-Phillips are healthy and while they may not see a full 90 right away, their inclusion will be something to keep tabs on.
In addition, LAFC announced they have signed three of their Academy players to Homegrown contracts. Defenders Erik Dueñas and Antonio Leon, along with preseason standout, forward Christian Torres, have all signed on with the senior team. They are currently training with the team, and could see some minutes at some point during the tournament.
Aside from missing the best player in the league, the biggest question for LAFC will be the play of the defense. New signing, Andy Najar, will likely see minutes at the back, as LAFC continue to try and find their identity in defense. Lacking the playmaking and ability to create that Vela brings will be tough, so keeping clean sheets will be key. LAFC will definitely get out of the group stage, whether they have enough to win it all, will become clearer after Monday.