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LAFC 2020 MLS season preview

Can Supporters’ Shield holders top an excellent 2019?

MLS: MLS Cup Conference Semifinals-LA Galaxy at Los Angeles FC Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

A new season has technically already started for Los Angeles Football Club, but the MLS portion of the campaign begins Sunday against Inter Miami CF for the black-and-gold, and here’s what you need to know for the 2020 season from an LAFC perspective.

How did they finish in 2019?

LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield, their first piece of silverware, with a 21W-4L-9D record in regular season play, the best regular-season team in MLS history. They broke a bunch of individual and team records, most notably Carlos Vela’s 34 goals in 31 regular-season games, breaking a record set just one year earlier.

While just about everything went right in the regular season, it wasn’t unmitigated success. LAFC fell in the quarterfinal round of the U.S. Open Cup and while they won their first MLS playoff game, against archrival LA Galaxy, they stumbled at the very next hurdle, as the Seattle Sounders beat them handily at LAFC’s home en route to their own MLS Cup triumph. If that doesn’t give them motivation, I don’t know what will.

What’s new in 2020?

LAFC have signed a couple intriguing midfielders, Uruguayan youth international Francisco Ginella and Ecuadorian international Jose Cifuentes, and added veteran Dutch goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer.

In turn, the team traded away former starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller, starting defender Walker Zimmerman and opted not to re-sign defender Steven Beitashour, perhaps the most consistent right back in MLS for a decade. As of this writing the defense has downgraded and the fanbase is anxiously awaiting reinforcement at center back and right back in order to maintain a high level.

What’s the one storyline you’ll be following?

Aside from adding players in defense, the big storyline is whether LAFC can maintain something approaching the mile-high standard they set in 2019, and if so, if they can top it this year. Injuries were minimal, Vela was playing the best soccer of his life, and basically every other starter improved substantially, conditions that aren’t altogether common. Can LAFC compete for the Shield again? Can they make a real run at MLS Cup this time around? Or will there be the r-word, regression to an MLS mean, in 2020?

Who’s out?

  • GK - Tyler Miller
  • D - Walker Zimmerman
  • D - Steven Beitashour

Who’s in?

  • GK - Kenneth Vermeer
  • F - Bradley Wright-Phillips
  • M - Jose Cifuentes
  • M - Francisco Ginella

What’s the new jersey?

Courtesy of LAFC.

LAFC have a new primary jersey in 2020, with the biggest change being all the font on the jersey being gold, something a significant portion of the fanbase asked for. With sublimated black vertical stripes, and the standard three giant stripes over the shoulder also being black, LAFC’s new jersey went over well with the people who will be buying it.

Who’s the coach?

Once again, it’s Bob Bradley, reigning MLS Coach of the Year, the person who orchestrated the aforementioned miracle of getting every starter to raise his game year over year in 2019. Bradley had his share of viral moments in the playoffs last year, from telling ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar to “Get lost!” on national television, to Brian Schmetzer getting an earful from Bradley after their teams squared off and the Seattle head coach quipping he was feeling “better than Bob.”

But aside from those moments, if you best remember Bradley from his stint running the USMNT, or his unfortunate spell in the Premier League with Swansea, you’re missing out on following a coach who has not only grown substantially in recent years, but who is on the cutting edge of pushing MLS forward tactically these days.

Projected ideal XI

A few notes on this: Obviously the big question in the long run is who will line up alongside Eddie Segura in central defense. Dejan Jakovic started LAFC’s first game, in Concacaf Champions League, and played quite well, but the veteran does not seem like a suitable replacement for Zimmerman in the long run, who was MLS Best XI last year. If Blackmon plays right back, then the team needs to sign someone at CB.

This ideal lineup also leaves out one of LAFC’s Designated Players, Brian Rodriguez. If any of the attacking three are hurt, or if Diego Rossi is sold abroad, which could happen at some point this year, Rodriguez will slide in. For now, with both pure central strikers Diomande and newcomer Bradley Wright-Phillips out injured, Rodriguez will play. But Bradley has been trying to use three slasher forwards when necessary for some time, and it just does not work as well as having a “pure” No. 9 playing in the middle.

Also, don’t be shocked if there is more squad rotation in midfield this year, if the new signings make the grade.

How will Concacaf Champions League affect the team? How hard will they go after it?

We’ll find out on Thursday if LAFC’s debut CCL foray will be longer than two weeks, as they are currently sitting on a 2-0 deficit through the first leg against Liga MX outfit Club León. LAFC got the hardest initial draw of the MLS teams in this year’s CCL, and their opening game was hard to watch, with the team putting up a single shot on goal and effectively playing their worst-ever competitive performance. Still, leaving with a two-goal loss is in the realm of “possibly promising” but realistically they are up against it.

On the bright side, as long as a key player doesn’t suffer a major injury in the second leg, a quick exit could be a blessing in disguise, as LAFC can quickly turn their attention to league play and won’t have to deal with juggling competitions at the start of the season for the first time, which has derailed other talented MLS teams’ entire seasons in the past.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

Short answer: Some. LAFC have been quite steady in terms of keeping a set group of players together, and most of the projected starters were on the roster in the team’s first season in 2018. But in addition to the holes that need to be filled in defense, transfer speculation, particularly surrounding Rossi, means a big exit could be on the horizon this year. LAFC have the league’s best young player, but in order to have proof of concept in buying promising young talent and selling them to Europe in a few years, they need to actually sell a player to Europe soon-ish. The top candidates are Rossi, Eduard Atuesta and Rodriguez, but LAFC have stocked their roster with these players, and they are waiting for a big payday on one or two of them, and that could drastically change the lineup and options on the squad.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

Aside from injury crises and the like, the big concern has to be if LAFC can maintain the high expectations they have. We’ve seen teams in MLS go on sustained runs of success — the Sounders have yet to have an objectively bad season in their MLS history, Sporting KC were consistently good for nearly a decade, and Atlanta United have had mere wobbles to go with plenty of happiness in their first three years.

Will LAFC follow that trend, or will it come crashing down at some point? The pieces seem to be in place to keep thriving, the front office seems to have a plan in line with the coaching staff, etc. Los Angeles supports winners, and if LAFC continue winning, they will continue to develop a foothold in the local sporting scene. If they don’t? It could get rocky pretty quickly, and after the investment the vast ownership group has made, they don’t want to see that tumble from grace happen at all, least of all this year.

Expectations for 2020?

LAFC will be expected to win another trophy this year, and I don’t think overall folks are too picky about which one. However, if they fall flat in the playoffs again and don’t reach MLS Cup at a minimum, even if they win other trophies, it won’t be considered a fully successful year. Yes, the expectations are sky-high, but I feel like I’m pretty tempered here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!