Through 19 games, Los Angeles Football Club remains the best team in Major League Soccer in 2019. They have a nine-point lead over second place LA Galaxy, sport by far the largest goal differential of +34 with an astonishing 50 goals for, while only allowing 16 goals against, and are captained by the league leader in both goals scored and assists, Carlos Vela.
With the season going as near perfect as can be, I understand that I might come off as too harsh or even ungrateful when I say LAFC has a bad tendency that needs to be fixed: they cannot keep playing down to their competition.
On April 17th, Los Angeles traveled across the northern border to face the Vancouver Whitecaps. While LAFC had started out their campaign already on top of the Western Conference undefeated through seven matches, Vancouver was sitting in last place, still winless.
Los Angeles suffered its first lost in shutout fashion, 1-0.
Granted, this was LAFC’s second game in one week, so head coach Bob Bradley opted to rest some of the normal starters. Most changes in the lineup occurred in the defensive line: Danilo Silva made his first start of the season at center back alongside Eddie Segura (who still has not missed a start this year), Niko Hamalainen made his only start of the season at left back (and was later replaced by Mohamed El-Munir), and Shaft Brewer made his only start and appearance of the year so far at right back.
A back line with three new faces and no games together to build any chemistry explains why LAFC suffered a lot of pressure in their own half that day. They were not at full strength, so it is not surprising they became vulnerable to a team everybody expected them to beat at first glance.
What these changes in the starting lineup do not provide excuse for, however, is the shocking last of offensive production that game. 2019 draft pick Peter-Lee Vassell did start in place of key midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, but otherwise, the midfield and forward positions remained filled by LAFC’s normal starters. Based on the team’s performance in the weeks leading up to this game, they should have had enough offensive power to compensate for a new defense and a one-goal deficit.
Los Angeles enjoyed a 61-39 possession advantage and even out-shot Vancouver, but the Whitecaps were able to produce eleven shots which was just three less than LAFC. When they play their game, LAFC is usually dominating the play so much that its opponent just does not get the opportunity to settle into their own gameplan. That just did not happen this game.
Though LAFC controlled most of the game, they played lackadaisically in the midfield and attacking half against a perceived lesser opponent while Vancouver’s desperation kept them going tit-for-tat and it paid off in the form of their first win.
It was like LAFC realized they had underestimated the competition for that night and tried to turn it on after it was too late. Bradley even substituted Kaye in to replace Latif Blessing to try and spark his squad.
Though I expected LAFC’s undefeated start to inevitably come to an end sometime, I was certainly surprised that it came at the hands of a winless team. Nevertheless, I made sure not to overreact, knowing every team is allowed to have off-games.
But now, after nineteen matches, it did not turn out to be just one game.
After rattling off another undefeated streak, this time of ten games, LAFC tallied its second loss of the season in Colorado. Like Vancouver, the Rapids were (and still are) in last place and overcame Los Angeles, handily winning the possession battle to hand them another 1-0 defeat.
This time, unlike the Whitecaps loss, LAFC was missing more key players due to international duty such as Tyler Miller, Walker Zimmerman, and Kaye. Perhaps most importantly, center midfielder Eduard Atuesta was rested for just the second time this year.
Another note worth mentioning is that Colorado scored its goal in the 49th minute, just three minutes before a lightning storm delayed the game for nearly half an hour.
LAFC did out-shoot the Rapids and controlled an overwhelming 66 percent of possession, but again gave too little too late. Colorado’s goal came off of a corner kick when center back Danny Wilson elevated over the stationary Segura to meet the ball with his head. This was a situation where Zimmerman’s presence was clearly missed, but Los Angeles’ plethora of talent should make it impossible to get suffer shutout losses to two last place teams.
Having happened a second time, I started to have my first concern all season about LAFC playing too casually against opponents they should handle on paper. Of course, the worry was mostly tempered by the fact that this team was still the best team through seventeen games, but recurring poor performances against similarly unsuccessful opponents is not a tendency top teams usually succeed with.
With Kaye back from the Gold Cup, LAFC seems to be on its way to its third impressive unbeaten streak, turning in 5-1 and 6-1 victories. The latter was revenge against Vancouver.
But what added to the concern was that a now nearly full-strength LAFC lineup again let its guard down early on and conceded a goal to now second-to-last place Vancouver within the first five minutes. Again, LAFC was clearly the better team, evidenced by the fact that at one point, Los Angeles was outshooting Vancouver 15-to-1, but all the Whitecaps needed was for LAFC to make one mistake to make that single shot count.
At this point, it is not one off-game or a tendency. It is a theme. It has happened three times now (four if you count the U.S. Open Cup win over the San Jose Earthquakes, who also scored first and early before LAFC came back to win), and twice against the same team. Especially with the lineup at full strength or nearly so, there is no excuse for the poor play against the so-called weaker teams. Fortunately, LAFC seemed to wake up and put its foot on the gas pedal for the last 85 minutes and pull out a convincing win by five goals, but better teams will take advantage of a Los Angeles side that may not take its opponent as seriously as they should from the first whistle.
I understand giving your starters a chance to rest and rehabilitate against your weakest opponents, but these are the so-called “easy” games the best teams cannot afford to lose in the long run. At this point, LAFC seem to have run away with goal differential so much so that if seeding comes down to it at the end of the season, they will be just fine.
My concern, however, is that the habit of playing down to your opponent and losing as a result leaves points unearned that can add up at the end of the season and, unlike goal differential at this point, jeopardize seeding. These are supposed to be the “easy” points to boost LAFC’s record, but rather, they are being left on the table.
Again, LAFC has played as consistently well as anybody could realistically ask of them throughout the season. But this theme is probably being seen by other teams as Los Angeles’ most vulnerable characteristic. Hopefully, Saturday’s comeback win over the Whitecaps is a signal that LAFC realized they cannot afford to play too casually, even if it’s against some of the worst teams in the league.
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