Editorial — Colombian midfielder Eduard Atuesta will be the reason LAFC lift the MLS Cup this season. On a team boasting the soon-to-be MVP, captain Carlos Vela, that’s a bold statement. However, I feel more than confident in making it.
In a little over nine months, the 22-year-old from Colombia went from sometimes substitute to LAFC talisman.
LAFC Find Talisman of the Future in Eduard Atuesta
Atuesta arrived in Los Angeles, on loan, just weeks before the team made their MLS debut in 2018. He made his debut coming on as a sub during the now infamous 4-3 loss to the LA Galaxy. It was clear early on that head coach Bob Bradley had a talent on his hands. Early on, Atuesta was used primarily as a defensive midfielder partnering with Mark-Anthony Kaye in the middle of the pitch. Much like Kaye, Atuesta became a defensive force, and it wasn’t long before he was named a starter. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to an ankle injury in late June.
However, he had already done more than enough to make his mark within the then-expansion club. While the 2018 season ended unceremoniously for LAFC, it marked a new beginning for the young Colombian, as he was signed to a three-year deal in December. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. However, nobody expected it would be this season, that Atuesta would prove it to be the most important signing to date.
Season To Remember
From the first match of the year, it was clear Atuesta would be used as more than just a defensive mid. The opening match saw him deployed as a center midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation.
What does that mean?
Typically, in that formation, your more defensive midfielders play the flanks, while the central midfielder acts a facilitator of sorts. Evident from the start, as Atuesta serviced Diego Rossi perfectly for the first — of what would be many — goal of the season.
What has been most impressive about his breakout season has been his ability to continue his dominance defensively. In addition to preventing goals and stifling attacks, Atuesta pulled the strings to the most prolific attack in league history. Halfway through the season, Atuesta had emerged as one of the best midfielders in MLS. While many will still label him as a defensive midfielder, he has proven this season to be so much more for LAFC.
Box-to-box would seem a more fitting title, though even that doesn’t quite give credit to calmness with which he plays. A smoothness on the ball, more professional curling than soccer, not so much controlling the ball, as he was providing the perfect path for it to reach its destination.
Stats and Beyond
Atuesta finished the season second in assists, behind Carlos Vela, with 11, and only three goals. However, it’s when you look past the readily available stats that you find out just how valuable he is.
The above graphs show not just his ability to pass, but highlights his decision making. The green boxes and arrows, represent successful passes. Of note here, is how much ground he covers in a match. Passes coming from within every part of the midfield, showing he is indeed, everywhere. The red boxes and arrows, as you may have guessed, are unsuccessful pass attempts. Notice how few there are. Both of these graphs are from a match in April, against FC Cincinnati, where Atuesta played all 90 minutes.
Same with graphs from a match in July, against Vancouver. The successful passes are almost identical to the other match while he continued to limit his unsuccessful passes. Atuesta played all but four matches this season, and of the 30 he played, only four saw him subbed off. Maintaining possession in the middle of the pitch, the absolute key to any form of success in soccer, and he does it the best.
Without Him, You Have Nothing
Make no mistake, Carlos Vela is the best player on the team, in the league, and that hasn’t changed. However, even Michael Jordan needed, not wanted, but needed, Scottie Pippen to show up, to overcome the Bad Boy Pistons. Having to almost resort to physical persuading, to get the eventual basketball great to do his part.
Luckily for LAFC, Atuesta is far from Pippen in that regard. In the analogy of championship duos, Atuesta is more Dwayne Wade. A player not so much second fiddle, as he is equal partner. The player you know may not bring all of the flash, but to those who follow LAFC, he is the player they know is the beating heart.
So, no, Eduard Atuesta may not be the best player on his team. He may not have the record for goals scored, he may not be on a shortlist for MVP, but for those who’ve watched this team, they know his importance. They know, if they are to achieve their season-long goal of lifting the MLS Cup, they’ll need him there to do it. You can’t have a show, with the puppet master pulling his strings.