LOS ANGELES — Steven Beitashour was a rock for Los Angeles Football Club in 2018, and when he went down in the first half on Sunday, eventually being too injured to continue to play, hearts went in throats as all wondered who would replace the right back.
The sub coming on in the 32nd minute was...Latif Blessing?! At right back?
If you didn’t pay close attention in the preseason (we understand), it turns out, LAFC head coach Bob Bradley had this card in his hand for some time, as he admitted after Blessing played right back in a preseason game that he thought Blessing could play there at some point, and that he had been regularly playing the position in training in 2018.
Of course, training and preseason are one thing. A competitive game is another, and with Blessing entering just after Jeremy Ebobisse tied up the game for the Portland Timbers on Sunday, there was a lot of confusion and anxiety with Blessing’s introduction into a new position.
Turns out, it went pretty well, as LAFC did not concede again and ended up winning in commanding fashion, 4-1 at Banc of California Stadium.
For Blessing, who had been a pure striker in his native Ghana before being deployed as a wide forward, first at Sporting Kansas City and now at LAFC, the versatility is quickly becoming a key part of his game.
“We reminded [Latif] a little bit about [Sebastian] Blanco and what that was all about,” Bradley told reporters after the game. “We said, ‘When he gets the ball, close him down like you do all the time.’ At a certain point, Blanco stopped defending and he was just hanging up the field, and we just have to understand as a team that we can take advantage of that. Sometimes Latif goes forward and then Eduard [Atuesta] or, later in the game, [Mark-Anthony Kaye] or [Peter-Lee Vassell] has to control it, or a center back moves over. So, those are things we work on all the time.”
Will his game be the same as Beitashour’s? No, and Bradley is ok with that.
“Latif’s going to play that position in his own way and we’ll work with him in terms of some positional details, but you don’t try to fill his head with the textbook. We don’t use the textbook so much.”
Blessing’s attitude is to be up for anything.
“This was my first time playing right back. When we’re at training, sometimes they put me at right back. At any time, I’m always prepared to play right back. When the game starts, they say, ‘Latif, be ready to play right back.’ So I’m ready. I’m ready to play any position they put me in,” he said.
Blessing has earned a status as a cult favorite among LAFC fans, for his hard work, energy level, skill and sunny attitude. When asked about his teammate, LAFC captain Carlos Vela broke into a grin and said, “Latif, what can you say [about] Latif? He’s a great guy, funny guy. He can play everywhere, he always has energy, he’s always smiling, so I’m really happy for him. It’s always good to have a player like that in the team. All players like that are always welcome to be part of our team.”
Bradley also said that he thought Blessing could play everywhere on the field. I had to ask: Did that include center back and goalkeeper?
“As a player, I need to be ready to play anywhere. So any position, yeah, any position — I can play goalie, I can play right back, I can play left back, I can play central mid, so any position you put me,” he said, perhaps only slightly tongue-in-cheek.
He may want to keep a pair of goalkeeper gloves on the sideline just in case.
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