If there’s one player who has been drawing the plaudits for Los Angeles Football Club so far in 2019, it’s Carlos Vela. But if there’s one position group that has absorbed their fair share of praise, it’s the LAFC midfield.
Coming into the season, there were some questions about the team’s midfield unit. Gone was Benny Feilhaber, who had played the most minutes of outfield players on the team in 2018. Mark-Anthony Kaye was due back after a broken ankle, but how would he look? Was there enough depth for the group?
Through the first 16 games of the season, it’s safe to say the midfield has not only delivered, they’ve surpassed expectations as a unit. Let’s assess the good, great and not as good for the midfielders so far this season.
Lee Nguyen entered the season as the player expected to take over Feilhaber’s role. Like his former teammate, Nguyen had been known as a pure attacking midfielder in New England, before being trained to play more of a two-way role, and then Bob Bradley sought to re-mold him after joining during the 2018 season. It was a work in progress, but with Feilhaber’s age and Nguyen getting used to the expectations of the position at LAFC, he seemed set up to flourish.
But he actually has not played a lot. Dealing with two injuries this season, Nguyen has looked good when he’s played, but he’s lost his starting job when healthy. So far, he’s played seven games, only three starts, and a total of 301 minutes out of a possible 1,440. Having a player likely to start on at least 15 other teams in MLS on your bench is a pretty good luxury for LAFC, and Nguyen is likely to play a role moving forward. Whether he gets back into the XI or will be a reserve remains to be seen.
At this stage, LAFC’s first-choice midfield is straightforward: Kaye, Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing. Let’s take a moment to recognize each of them.
Kaye has played in all but one game so far for LAFC, and he not only has fully recovered from his broken ankle, he’s raised his game. Last year, he had two goals and five assists in league play — this year, he has three goals and five assists in half a season, so the attacking side of his game is improving, and LAFC have a number of options already.
On top of the improved attacking chops, Kaye has become LAFC’s enforcer. It’s stereotypical to assign a hockey role to a Canadian, but the change is obvious. When an opponent needs to be riled up, Kaye does it. When an LAFC player is being done dirty, he is the first to trot up and defend his guy. It’s a thankless role, and in hockey is usually the reserve of the least talented player on the ice, not applicable in this case. But Kaye’s improved on-field grit has raised the morale of the team around him, make no mistake. And the combination — attack, defense and intangibles — leave Kaye to be one of the rising stars of MLS and Canadian soccer.
Alongside him is Atuesta, a player who was a part-time starter last year but has started 15 of 16 games so far. The Colombian has also raised his game, adding a more assured passing element to his good defensive midfield base. Atuesta has a goal, but he’s got six assists so far this year, compared to two last year. His ability to pass through the lines and deliver pinpoint assists catches the eye, and has helped Vela to his blistering pace. When the service is good, good players can feast.
Atuesta is 21 and is a vital cog in LAFC’s midfield, but he’s probably also a transfer target at some point for a European club. With so many LAFC players getting rave reviews, Atuesta sometimes doesn’t get the attention, although the jump he’s made this year means his prospects to play on some truly big stages in the future look good, indeed. LAFC’s lineup is pretty set, but Atuesta currently is one of the automatic names on Bradley’s teamsheet.
The big surprise? Sudden utilityman Latif Blessing. If you were impressed with the transformation of Nguyen, then the overnight change from Blessing as a winger/forward to Blessing as a fill-in right back to a starting two-way midfielder has been a revelation. Before, Blessing was unable to lock down a starting spot in LAFC’s attack, and was left to receive the scraps in terms of minutes.
The motivation is obvious. Not only was Blessing game to play anywhere Bradley wanted to use him, but he went from being a luxury player to the most tenacious tackler in the middle, a player whose speed and ability to control the ball in tight spaces, while also winning the ball off opponents, has meant he’s a starter for the time being.
You’ll see position switches in soccer, but seldom will you see an attacking player get “more responsibility” as a two-way midfielder and take to the position like a duck to water. Credit Blessing and Bradley, what they’ve done here is remarkable, and it meant that injuries in the midfield left the overall unit improved in the long run.
There were four other midfielders on the roster, and it should be said off the top that rookie Javi Perez (who now has a torn ACL) and youngsters Peter-Lee Vassell and Alejandro Guido (hasn’t played a competitive minute) haven’t done enough to really be evaluated yet.
That leaves one more player, you can probably guess who. The hope was coming into the season Andre Horta, LAFC’s third Designated Player, would get a full preseason with the club under his belt and really settle in to MLS, after a bad first half-season in the states.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Horta has been dealing with injuries for much of the season, and unless he dogged his conditioning and taking care of his body that can just be tough luck. Any athlete can get hurt at any time.
But after playing a mere 319 minutes in MLS play last year, through the same general stretch of season this year he’s played less, just 184 minutes, four appearances (two starts). He’s yet to tally a goal or assist, although he was damn close against Montreal before Adama Diomande scuffed a golden opportunity.
If you watched the “We are LAFC” documentary, you saw Bob Bradley yell at and cajole Horta in equal measure after LAFC lost in Chicago last season. Horta looked shellshocked, and a little puzzled.
As someone willing to see what Horta could do this season, it’s time to face the fact that it doesn’t appear to be working out. In that Montreal game, Horta came off the bench, played 18 minutes, and yes, almost notched an assist. He also slowed the game down repeatedly, with the rest of the team playing at a much higher pace, and hit a Zlatanesque shot that Max Bretos noted on the live broadcast that lead to Bradley jumping up and down on the sideline in protest.
I'm really not given to hyperbole but the guy just looks so lost compared to the rest of this finely-tuned machine.— Alicia Rodriguez (@soccermusings) May 25, 2019
I'm listening back to Bradley's press conference from last night and to me he sounds like he's calling out Horta without specifically naming him in public. Not making the right passes, slowing down the game (bingo), not bringing what the game needed off the bench.— Alicia Rodriguez (@soccermusings) May 25, 2019
In light of this, the widespread reports that Horta is on his way back to Portugal in the summer window, with LAFC taking a loss to sell him off, is not really surprising.
Time will tell, if Horta departs next month, what the legacy of the signing will be. The reality is that no team is perfect on their signings, and for LAFC to find two big hits and one dud among their DPs is still something most teams would take in a heartbeat. If LAFC win silverware this year without Horta doing anything of note, he’d be a bust but not the kind of bust that ruins a team for years. It’s unfortunate if it comes to that but the numbers are similar in evaluating the midfield, with four starting-caliber players for three spots playing lights-out, a few guys who haven’t played much, and a DP bust who was sent packing after a year.
It means the mark isn’t flawless for the club, but for the first-place team that is playing far and away the best of any team in the league, the demerits may be overcome quickly.
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