Both when John Thorrington and Bob Bradley were hired in their respective roles by Los Angeles Football Club ahead of the MLS expansion team’s season, the men who have built and used the roster for the team used all-too-familiar terms when describing the kind of soccer they wanted the team to play.
“It’s going to be a creative team, it’s going to be a dynamic team, it’s going to be an ambitious team,” Thorrington said to the Los Angeles Times when he was hired in December 2015. “But it will be underpinned by this substance, which will be a relentless team that plays with controlled aggression.”
Bradley’s goal? “To have a team that’s fun to watch, a team that competes, a team that plays good football, a team that connects with this city and the supporters in all ways,” he told Angels on Parade when he was hired in July 2017.
It was so familiar it’s a cliché at this point: Coaches and executives almost never step into a job and say their goal is to play cautious, defensive soccer. Attacking is fun!
The only thing is, the best laid plans often break down along the way. For every manager who comes in saying he or she is going to play front-foot, attacking soccer, creative soccer, one that’s fun to watch, nearly every one adjusts their tack over time, realizing that for all the desire to go hell for leather there’s a need to be pragmatic, too.
But here’s where it gets really interesting for LAFC: Thorrington and Bradley have fully been men of their word, and it’s rather extraordinary.
The strategy LAFC has taken so far has been very attacking. Yes, Bradley tends to play a four-man defense, nothing radical there. But he has basically gone the whole season without playing a traditional defensive midfielder.
Yes, it’s true that Benny Feilhaber, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Lee Nguyen and Eduard Atuesta have played an effectively defensive midfield roles at times for LAFC. Players can alter their roles over their careers and to an extent, that’s happening here.
But Atuesta comes closest to playing a “destroyer” role, and frankly, he doesn’t do it very much, more often playing a box-to-box role like Kaye did before his injury. Nguyen and Feilhaber play like deep-lying playmakers, midfielders with definite roles on both sides of the ball, but still first and foremost players meant to attack.
This is a radical approach. I cannot recall a team that has gone out of their way in MLS to avoid playing a traditional defensive midfielder. In fact, the trend often goes the opposite way, with teams for some reason cramming four, five, sometimes more d-mids all over the field. It’s also not common in world soccer — you could argue Manchester City was as non-reliant as any team on defensive midfielders, but Fernandinho was still an ever-present on a very attacking roster.
Even a pundit who was a defensive midfielder as a pro thinks this whole set-up by LAFC is radical tactically:
I'm going to write about this more at some point but: if LAFC succeed this year, it could revolutionize the game. The oldest truism in tactics is that you have to have a sturdy d-mid. It could change the way we see the game (or at least how we view midfield & team balance).— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) August 5, 2018
Ironically, this is happening under Bradley, the man who came to be marked as “boring” towards the end of his tenure coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team, in part because of a reliance on an “empty bucket” midfield formation, with dual defensive midfielders in the middle (typically his son Michael and Jermaine Jones). The two d-mids, both of whom were skilled players who were not merely destroyers, still tended to cause a lack of attacking movement up the middle, and the playmaking had to come from a forward, usually either Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey. It could work, but it was relatively easy to point the finger at the problem if the ball got stuck in midfield and attacking momentum couldn’t be carried upfield.
LAFC may be miles removed from the USMNT, both in terms of personnel and approach. But while LAFC has definitely been one of the most interesting teams to watch this year (they’ve played just one 0-0 to date, and have only been in two games where only one goal was scored, both coincidentally against the Seattle Sounders), they aren’t perfect. They’re second in the league in goals scored, and 14th in goals allowed. They have lost 16 points over the course of the season in games they were leading — obviously even the best teams will be pegged back from time to time, but even if LAFC held on for eight of those points, they would be in first place in the Western Conference and well in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield right now.
But a recent trend in capitulating late has left many worried that LAFC won’t be able to weather the all-out-attack approach in the long run. Defensive lapses and goalkeeper errors have led to calls to bolster the defense in the transfer window and maybe, finally, bring in a defensive midfielder.
LAFC did get a defender, bringing in Danilo Silva, and he’s already seen action for the side. But they’ve also bolstered their attack, trading for forward Christian Ramirez. In some ways, it makes sense — pick up a good, proven striker when you can, and deprive opponents of snapping him up in the process...you never know when a player will get hurt or who will go cold.
But unless LAFC swoop for a d-mid by the time the summer transfer window closes on Wednesday night, the plan is clear: Attack!
LAFC have Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Latif Blessing, Marco Ureña and now Ramirez in their forward corps. All of those players are starting-caliber in MLS. They’re not all going to start every game. You have to walk before you run, and teams need to win some titles before we go for hyperbole, but this could potentially be the deepest striker group on an MLS roster, ever.
We’ll see if this attack like hell approach continues to work. For as down as the fans get when LAFC stumbles, they are still having a hell of a season, and we’re approaching the business end, when the games really count, and LAFC are still very much in the mix. But if you were a fan pining for a team to dispense with a traditional defensive midfielder, load the lineup with attackers, and score more than you let in, LAFC is the team for you. We’ll see if the grand experiment Thorrington and Bradley envisioned will ultimately lead to trophies, and truly change the sport.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!