Editorial (April 4,2019) — The second season for the Los Angeles Football Club could not have gotten off to a better start. They sit, undefeated, atop the Western Conference standings. Boast the league’s highest goal tally at 15 and an MVP candidate captain in incredible form. As well as establishing themselves amongst the top contenders for MLS Cup.
Purple Patched Perfection: Inside the LAFC Hot Start
While it is still too early to crown a champion or write a team off, it has become clear this season is wide open. Pre-season favorites Atlanta United FC and Portland Timbers both sit winless. Sporting KC, who many had as a possible team to dethrone the defending champs, have struggled to find consistency. New club FC Cincinnati, who had been written off before this season began, are a respectable 2-2-1 through five, and look a real threat this year.
Parity in the MLS
All of that is a long winded way of getting us to point one for LAFC: Parity. 2019 was supposed to be all Atlanta. Many had them winning the CONCACAF Champions League, as well as the MLS Cup, and doing so with relative ease. They had the flashy summer additions and a fully committed Josef Martinez ready to rule over the MLS. It was not to be. A CCL collapse, and the aforementioned winless (0-2-2) start have the defending champions struggling.
However, Los Angeles found success in continuity. Not the most talked about transfer windows, they quietly retained all but a few of the 2018 squad. They brought in defender Eddie Segura on loan, with an option to buy and used their SuperDraft picks well. This has proven to vital for the early success.
While there may not be stats for chemistry, it was clear from the season kickoff, this team was on the same page. They started, and continue to play this season, like a team that has been together for years. That familiarity has given LAFC a sense of freedom and togetherness when playing.
In a season that has so far seen the favorites at the bottom, the predicted bottom dweller in the top five, and what looks to be a wide open MLS Cup race, LAFC have quickly begun to separate themselves. In a league where many squads are still trying to define who they are and how they want to play, LAFC have that figured out. They know not only as a team on the pitch, but as an organization off, what they are, and perhaps most impressive this year, a new implementation of tactics have given blueprint to how they will play.
To say that Los Angeles Football’s Head Coach, Bob Bradley, changed tactics completely, would be exaggerated. However, he did implement some change with regards to how the team plays this season versus last. While Bradley still uses the 4-3-3 formation that was primarily used in 2018, some of the roles have changed.
The fullbacks (LB/RB) have been used as more wingbacks for 2019. What this means, is that along with defending their respective areas, they will also be tasked with playing up the field, providing some added attack. Primarily their job is to add width, servicing the box with picturesque crosses that, theoretically, result in opportunities for goals. In addition to added width, the wingback style gives opportunities for fullbacks themselves to find the back of the net.
It was during LAFC’s latest victory, over the San Jose Quakes, in which Steven Beitashour got into the box and on the end of a great Atuesta pass for a goal. While that may be the reward, this tactic does have inherent risks. While you have your fullbacks pushing up, that leaves you susceptible to counter attacks. It was the aforementioned Beitashour that highlighted this during the season opener against Sporting KC. Beitashour found himself getting caught too far up, and SKC found tons of space along that side on counters.
Fortunately for the LAFC, Sporting failed to convert said opportunities, but it did highlight the weakness in this style of play. Enter Mark-Anthony Kaye. Though not a “true” defensive midfielder, he does more than a job for LAFC.
Though typically more a box to box midfielder, Mark-Anthony Kaye began to make the transition to a more defensive role late last season. His ability to track back and cover up the possession errors that plagued LAFC in 2018 made him important.
Although injury ended his 2018 campaign early, 2019 has seen him pick up where he left off. He has continued to improve defensively which contributes to the success of the new tactics. It gives confidence to Beitashour and Harvey that should they get caught, Kaye will be there to cover. As good as he’s been, he is far from the only one who has improved on that front this season.
One of the more underrated stories surrounding LAFC is the vast improvement they have made defensively. In the midst of the tactical changes, center backs especially must deal with added defensive responsibility. Having to rely on one another even more, with the fullbacks up front.
However, Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura have a partnership well on its way to becoming best in the league. They have combined for a total of seven blocked shots, with at least four of those coming in critical situations and off the line clearances. Zimmerman especially has solidified himself as not just the starting center back, but possibly as one of the leaders amongst the squad.
At just 25-years-old, he is already a core member of this very young squad, and having a growing partnership with 22-year-old Segura means this could be a backline to fear for years to come.
Second Season, Settling In
Another subtle change this season that seems to have proven correct, players in their more natural positions. Last season saw Carlos Vela play a lot in the “false 9” role, along with pure striker at times. This season he is firmly on the right wing and his comfort there has shined bright so far.
With strikers Adama Diomande and Christian Ramirez acclimated, Vela is free to do what he does best, create. Not just chances for himself, but others. Along with his six goals and three assists through the first five matches, Vela has tallied an incredible 20 key passes. A key pass, for the unaware, is a pass that provides an attempt at goal, without scoring. Essentially, this helps identify how much a player helps create opportunities for himself and those around him.
The Immediate, and Beyond
You don’t need stats to see how good Carlos Vela has been this season, and you don’t need stats to know LAFC are the team to beat this season. Just watch and trust your eyes. There is something to be said for the intangible of chemistry, of cohesiveness.
The 2019 LAFC have less errors in possession, less bad touches in the final third, and less moments finding themselves caught defensively, only to watch the attacker flash by as lead after lead would slip away. However, they do have more confidence, in themselves and each other, they have more understanding of what Bob Bradley wants, and they have more of a desire to reach the pinnacle and obtain Cup success.
It is cliche to say the sky is the limit, but for LAFC it well and truly is. They have proven to be a team that can put five past you with ease, just as they can grind out a physical, 2-1 win, scoring in the final seconds. They have dealt with being the most fouled in the league and on pace for more of the same. However, this season it is expected, planned for, welcomed. With each performance the expectation for this club grows. As it stands, MLS Cup, and that would be only the beginning.
First, and foremost there is this week. Another chance for LAFC to beat a team they have yet to defeat in D.C. United. The lone previous match ended in a 1-1 draw where LAFC went down to 10 men just before the half. Then, conceded the equalizing goal in the 84th minute. Wayne Rooney has begun to spark a run of form, and will definitely look to dampen the early, Carlos Vela-MVP talk. The Eastern Conference leaders have only allowed one goal so far this season, but have yet to encounter the new and improved Los Angeles Football Club.
LAFC will look to do as they have done all season, find space along the wings and feed balls in and around the box for opportunities. The obvious game within the game will be the Vela v Rooney. Both come into the match having recently scored hat-tricks. This match should prove close, but as many in and around Los Angeles feel, LAFC can beat anyone.