There was a fearsome sight in the eyes of MLS teams on Saturday night at Banc of California Stadium. In the 64th minute of their game against Orlando City SC, up 2-1 in what ended up as a 4-1 win, Los Angeles Football Club brought Carlos Vela, the team’s star and a potential MLS MVP candidate, off the bench.
At the same time, Diego Rossi, LAFC’s second Designated Player, also came off the bench, and before the night was done, Marco Ureña, who was near the top of the league leader board in assists before he was injured at the end of April, also entered the game as a substitute.
Throw in the fact that LAFC have a third Designated Player, midfielder Andre Horta, waiting patiently in the wings to be eligible to play — which is the next game, and the potential of this team is truly fearsome.
It’s easy to forget this is an expansion team. We may mark the firsts in this team’s history, but inaugural seasons never go this smoothly. LAFC sit in second place in the Western Conference, are in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, have lost a grand total of four games to date in 20, and have gone from having a roster that barely filled out an 18 on opening day to one that is so deep that Ureña, an automatic starter through the first two months of the season who just returned from World Cup duty, is almost certainly going to have to rotate in or come off the bench moving forward because another striker, deadline-day addition Adama Diomande, is scoring at a league-record pace at the moment.
LAFC had their first wobble in the month of May, winning only one game in league play, and going through a stretch where they went four games in a row without a victory. Perhaps they would regress to the mean, find more road bumps along the way, like a normal expansion team?
Nope. After losing their first game in June, they kicked off a three-game winning streak in the league and are now five games unbeaten. The losses of Vela and Ureña for the World Cup were weathered by the likes of Diomande, Lee Nguyen and Mark-Anthony Kaye, who stepped up and kept the team flying high even with two of their most important players out.
The talking point now is “How will Bob Bradley manage his roster and find the right combination for his lineup?” While the defense is more or less taken care of for now, with perhaps Omar Gaber, who has been a non-factor so far this season, having only played 254 minutes, pushing his way into the mix in the back, there are so many options in midfield and attack. You have to think Vela is a starter for every game, barring the occasional rest and rotation. Same for Diomande, as long as he continues his blistering form.
That leaves LAFC with four spots in the XI. Players who have performed well and deserve to start include Rossi, Latif Blessing, Kaye, Benny Feilhaber, Eduard Atuesta, Nguyen and Ureña. Don’t forget about Horta, who may be integrated a bit slowly as he works his way to fitness and chemistry with his new team, like Diomande, but who seems certain to start as long as he’s healthy and not a total flop. So if Horta, Vela and Diomande are probably going to be written in the lineup in pen just about every game, seven starting-caliber players will be battling for three spots.
There’s no guarantee it will go off without a hitch. Injuries, suspensions, inter-personal issues can crop up and damage even the most talented team. Bad luck can trip teams up and send them on an uncertain path. We all know that for all of the attacking firepower, the defense is still pretty leaky, and will that lead to heartbreak down the road?
Those are all questions to be answered. But right now, LAFC are an expansion team that look nothing like one, and that’s a good thing. And believe it or not, but their ceiling could leave them a bonafide Top 3 team in MLS, this year. I’ve been very cautious not to get carried away with this team, but halfway through the first season, it may be time to admit LAFC can truly compete for trophies in 2018, and their true ceiling should really strike some fear in the rest of MLS.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!