Los Angeles Football Club burst onto the scene in 2018, with the best season in points than an expansion side has ever put together and a playoff appearance. General Manager John Thorrington brought in Bob Bradley to lead the side, and built a roster that, on its day, could compete with anyone in Major League Soccer. LAFC used all the resources it could, from the expansion draft, to TAM, to the international transfer window to build and become competitive.
Unfortunately for LAFC, the end of the season came earlier than anticipated. After earning the third seed in the Western Conference, the Black-and-Gold fell to Real Salt Lake at home 3-2, thanks to a wild turn of events including an own goal and a karate kick golazo. This means that it is time to recalibrate and see where there is room for improvement, so that maybe an early playoff exit can be avoided next year.
Center back has been a position of interest for LAFC all year. At the start of the season, the only certainty was Laurent Ciman, the club’s first captain. Walker Zimmerman was, at the time, recovering from injury, and first overall pick in the MLS Superdraft Joao Moutinho wasn’t working out as a starter. LAFC had Zimmerman and Ciman together at times, but injuries started popping up. Bob Bradley then added Danilo Silva as a reinforcement, and Dejan Jakovic saw more playing time. Then, Ciman was sold in the summer, leaving LAFC with a hole to fill. LAFC had three center-backs on the roster, not including Moutinho. Zimmerman became the must-start, and Silva grew into his role in the partnership with more games. Whether it is a starting-quality player to directly replace the loss of Ciman, or to be put in rotation across competitions and schedule crunches next year, LAFC should be looking at adding to the center of the defense. Zimmerman and Silva only got better, and Jakovic is above average, but LAFC consistently sat an injury or two away from having a defensive crisis. Either a starter or a depth player is needed at this position on the field in particular.
LAFC’s midfield corps consists of: Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Andre Horta, Eduard Atuesta, and Mark-Anthony Kaye. The most defensive-minded players in that group are Horta and Atuesta, but even they are the kind of players to push forward far more than sit back. Atuesta is fine when defending and dispossessing opponents, and at playing a kind of wrecking ball role, but that does not mean he is defensive-minded. Kaye is a real box-to-box player, but he is coming off a season-ending injury, and the team took a step back without him on the pitch. None of these players are true #6 midfielders, as they all lean towards the #8 or even #10 role. What LAFC needs is a true defensive-lying midfielder, a general in the back of the midfield to sit in front of the defense, stop plays when he needs to, and guide the offense the rest of the time. Putting any of these players in that spot does them a disservice by taking them out of the offense and out of position, but also would negatively impact the team by putting an offensive midfielder right in front of an admittedly shaky (sometimes) defensive line. This is a role Kaye can fill as the box-to-box player he is, but we saw when he went down the recalibration that was needed in the midfield. LAFC needs a deep-lying player to anchor the midfield in front of the defense and give that support that the Black-and-Gold needed at times this season.
LAFC has a pair of starting fullbacks that aren’t really going anywhere. Jordan Harvey on the left and Steven Beitashour on the right provide defensive stability and offensive support, with plenty of crosses coming in from either side. They work well in Bradley’s system and are important to the offense that LAFC relies on. But outside of them, there is not another fullback on the roster outside of graduated rookies Joao Moutinho and Tristan Blackmon. LAFC need depth at this position, especially with the amount of games over the course of a season, with two competitions and two starters over the age of 31. If one of them goes down, LAFC needs to mix a lot up to adjust, and that is not something that Bradley should have to worry about. LAFC need someone who can play either side if needs be, and someone who can start as soon as he is called upon. Right now, they don’t have that.
This is not a position, but this is something Bob Bradley desperately needs to work on with this group. There were plenty of times this season where LAFC just got burned on the counter, and either a center back was too aggressive and allowed an attacker open, or a fullback got burned, or a player just did not track back. Plus, after the counter was off, there were still times when LAFC looked scrambled and panicked in their own third. This is something that over the course of the season cost them points, which could have had them in a bye spot in the playoffs, waiting for the knockout rounds to finish and getting two legs in the playoffs. This is going to happen when a team has literally never worked with each other before this season, and when the style of play established is a forward, entertaining one, but the hole in LAFC’s game is clearly the defense, and that had plenty of chances to get exposed. When that gets fixed, LAFC will be like a machine.
LAFC is not a team that needs more forwards. They have Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, the two best players on the team. Latif Blessing is a starter-quality player who comes in as a game-changer. Adama Diomande is a pure striker. Christian Ramirez, the best player Minnesota United had, does not even start, and probably should see more time as a clearly dangerous attacker. Marco Urena is a valuable option off the bench. LAFC could start five forwards if they wanted to, and could do a full platoon rotation with them and the midfielders that go forward. That is why LAFC was recognized as one of the most potent attacks in the league, and why LAFC does not need to focus on attacking power this offseason.
Bradley kept saying throughout the year that he did not consider the team an expansion team. LAFC shattered expectations, which had already been set pretty high, and accelerated the growth of their project with early success. Now it is time to build on that success and take the next step in the club’s progression.
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