Los Angeles Football Club is the best team in the MLS halfway through the 2019 season with 37 points and nine points clear of the next best team. After a historic inaugural season which saw the club set the expansion-team record for most points earned with a total of 16 wins, LAFC already has 11 wins through their first 16 matches this year.
Though the biggest reason for the club’s one-loss start is undoubtedly the explosive offense led by captain Carlos Vela, who leads the league in goals scored (39), it would all be for nothing if not for the defense matching the offense’s success. While LAFC owns a commanding goal differential of +26, it would not be so without the chemistry developed between that back four of players and their new-found trustworthy backups. And that chemistry does not exist without each of the seasoned veterans consistently performing together.
While many teams across the league struggle to piece together a back line for a variety of reasons like injury and poor performance, the Walker Zimmerman-Eddie Segura center back tandem is as good as it gets in the MLS. Without many new faces compared to last season’s roster, the addition of Segura is perhaps LAFC’s most valuable offseason transaction.
Segura has not missed a game. He has a pass completion percentage of 88.6, wins a decent amount of aerial duels per game (2.4), and seems to be good for one goal-saving play every game. Segura’s combination of speed and strength allows him to chase down quick attacking players which perfectly complements the big-bodied Zimmerman next to him.
Zimmerman is a 6-foot-2 tower that saves scoring opportunities on one end and produces opportunities for his own team and himself to score on the other. Aside from Kaye and Christian Ramirez, Zimmerman is the next big body LAFC looks to pick out off of corner and free kicks and he has a heading goal to show for it.
If the Zimmerman-Segura tandem is as good as it gets, Walker Zimmerman is as good as tall center backs get. While his passing percentage is 4.6 less than that of Segura, Zimmerman dominates in the air, winning a stellar 3.7 duels per game. As of June 4th, Zimmerman has earned the most MLS All-Star votes in the league for a defender.
Consider this: Segura has played all 1,440 minutes so far this season and Zimmerman has only missed one match, which was the second game in a short week. Center backs playing 15 out of 16 matches is as ideal as it practically gets, and the chemistry shows it. While LAFC has scored 11 more goals then the next most-productive team, the back line has only allowed 13 goals scored which is good for second in the league behind only Atlanta (11).
LAFC did not make any blockbuster signings in the offseason, but they sure made the right decision bringing back Jordan Harvey. Though at this point in his long career some might knock him for his age at 35, with age comes knowledge. And Harvey’s high IQ visibly rubs off to the rest of the team, especially since LAFC has a relatively young roster.
The 15-year veteran has played over 2,000 minutes in each of his last six seasons, and it does not seem like he is slowing down. Harvey has started all but two matches, both of which were the second match within a week. He has also demonstrated the ability to be a threat on the attacking end, most recently evidenced by his game-winning assist to Latif Blessing this past Saturday.
Across the back line from Harvey stood Steven Beitashour who has started 11 games so far this year. The five games he has missed so far were a result of injury, most recently a pulled hamstring suffered on May 16th in the second game against FC Dallas in four days.
Injuries aside, Beitashour has found a home at right back for this squad. The 31-year-old is even more of a wing threat than Harvey is, so his presence is sorely missed, especially playing on the same side as Mark-Anthony Kaye and Carlos Vela.
Even though he has missed LAFC’s last three matches rehabbing, Beitashour’s performances this season were good enough to earn the fourth-most votes for the upcoming MLS All-Star Game as of June 4th. With him out, Los Angeles did not have to panic, as perhaps the silver lining of Beitashour’s injury came in the form of Tristan Blackmon.
Blackmon has started all three games that Beitashour has been out at right back. This includes LAFC’s last two matches, in the first of which Blackmon scored the game-clinching goal which was also the first goal of his career. After this 4-2 victory over Montreal, head coach Bob Bradley went out of his way during his post-game press conference to highlight Blackmon’s play.
“Let me mention Tristan Blackmon because tonight was an important night for him,” Bradley began. “Tristan’s got talent, we know it and that’s why we keep trying and trying. 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. Tonight, Tristan played more like that. That was awesome. So I was happy for him.”
Blackmon’s playing has completely turned around the last two matches. He is playing more free and this “go for it” approach Bradley wanted to get out of him has caused him to produce a goal and an assist over these two games. LAFC has to be thrilled to know they have a backup defender they can now count on.
Back on April 28th when Blackmon made his first start of the season, he seemed to be playing too timidly. He looked so out of place that already with a yellow card awarded, he was subbed off at halftime and normal outside midfield Latif Blessing was temporarily sent back to play right back. Yes, LAFC’s winger/midfielder deserves some spotlight for his defensive impact.
Many times throughout the season so far, Bradley has been able to rely on Blessing taking over an outside defensive position. Sometimes this happens because a midfielder like Lee Nguyen replaces Beitashour or Harvey and Blessing drops to the back line.
His unique speed coupled with his short stature allows Blessing to easily adjust to the position change mid-game. He already tracks down the ball in the midfield using his speed and quick feet and his approach in that regard does not seem to change with his position.
So, on top of having a trustworthy defender of the bench behind one of the best back lines in the MLS in the form of Tristan Blackmon, to have a player with the versatility like Blessing to be able to play really any outside position at every level of the formation allows LAFC to continue to grow more and more confident in their ability to defend. And their ability to defend is one of two reasons they sport far-and-away the best goal differential in the MLS of +26 when the next best team in the league has one of +10!
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