Friday was a landmark night for Los Angeles Football Club defender Tristan Blackmon. Making his second start of the 2019 season for the black-and-gold, he went the full 90 in a 4-2 win over the Montreal Impact, scoring his first career MLS goal in the process.
It was unequivocally Blackmon’s best game yet in MLS, showing the development of the 22-year-old.
And yet, it wasn’t a guarantee. After LAFC surprisingly traded away first-ever MLS Draft pick Joao Moutinho in the offseason in favor of the more experienced Mohamed El-Munir, and Blackmon was sent on loan to USL Championship side Phoenix Rising FC to begin this season, it looked like the Las Vegas native might not have much of a future with LAFC.
First going on loan to Phoenix last season, he played well in the second tier, and his position there, center back, seemed to indicate he would be a project for LAFC to be permanently converted to the center of defense.
He began in that spot again this season for Rising FC, but at a certain point in his five appearances there, he moved back to right back, his original position. Before long, he was recalled along with the rest of LAFC’s on-loan contingent in Phoenix, and it was a mystery if he would be in the mix, and in what position.
With Steven Beitashour remaining a top right back in MLS, minutes would be hard to come by for anyone, but the veteran has dealt with injuries this season and given others a chance to get some playing time. Bob Bradley initially favored converted forwards — Latif Blessing and Shaft Brewer, Jr. — before turning to Blackmon in the road match against the Seattle Sounders.
In that game, he left the game at halftime, seemingly a mix between a tactical decision by Bradley to become more aggressive against a 10-man side, and the Sounders going after him as the weakest link on the backline.
But against Montreal, Blackmon didn’t show any of that weakness. Even before the goal, off a corner kick, he looked more assured and accustomed to the speed of play than ever before, and it resulted in a collective team performance that, but for a late own goal and even later penalty conceded by teammates, LAFC would have posted another shutout.
After the game, Bradley did something we’ve heard a bunch in his LAFC tenure: He compared one of his players to a superstar elsewhere, in this case, Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos.
“Tristan’s got talent, we know it and that’s why we keep trying and trying,” he said. “And yet, we’ve not been able to get him to really just play without any fear, to play and make plays and just go for it. We talk to him and show him over and over a guy like Sergio Ramos and say, ‘Look: You don’t get to be Sergio Ramos if you’re always afraid of making a mistake. You become Sergio Ramos when you are fearless.’”
“Tonight, Tristan played more like that, and I’m happy for him,” he continued.
While Blackmon sort of nonchalantly shrugged that his goal was “being in the right place at the right time,” he acknowledged the spirit of embracing his opportunity overall on the night.
“This past week, I’ve focused a lot on being aggressive and doing things that the coaching staff are telling me, putting in front of me. It goes to show the work that I’ve put in the past week. In the game I tried to be as aggressive as possible and help my teammates out however I could,” Blackmon told reporters after the game.
So, it’s just one game, but what does Blackmon’s performance tell us about LAFC? Most notably, it’s an occasion to give the player more confidence, which could help him push on to become the first choice as Beitashour’s understudy moving forward. The words from both Bradley and Blackmon himself indicate the hesitancy seen in his game at times at MLS level wasn’t just a matter of play — it was a frame of mind, too, and if he can string a few more good performances together, those concerns could be in the past for good.
But beyond that, it’s a good sign for LAFC’s depth, something that’s likely to come to the fore in the coming weeks. The game in which Bradley went most to his depth, in Vancouver, led to a disappointing 1-0 loss, the only loss to date of the season for LAFC. It was obvious at the time that it was a “sink or swim” kind of game, an opportunity to give a nearly turned-over defense a chance to impress on the road, and it didn’t work out. At the time, it raised some major concerns about the state of LAFC’s depth — perhaps the midfield could roll with absences, but was there much behind the first-choice guys in defense?
Since then, Bradley has been more gradual in making lineup changes and the depth has performed better. There could very well be another Vancouver-style game in the offing, where major changes are made to give regulars a rest or merely out of pure necessity, but Blackmon’s progress shows that the worst-case scenario of “starters or bust” may not be quite as likely as we thought just a month or so ago.
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