It’s underdog week here at SB Nation, and while Los Angeles Football Club haven’t held the “underdog” mantle so far in their short history, one player embodies the underdog spirit above all others, in Latif Blessing.
Blessing has several attributes of the underdog. First, his background. Blessing was born and raised in Ghana, and while Ghana produces its share of top professionals, he was unusual in that he broke through in his domestic league. Many players have to go to Europe in order to begin their careers, sometimes finding success, sometimes toiling in obscurity or finding a dead end in a far-flung spot. But the number of sub-Saharan African players who can really kickstart a career in their domestic league are few and far between.
The teenage winger/forward got attention for winning the Golden Boot in Ghana with Liberty Professionals in 2015-16, winning the league’s best player award that season.
A scout noticed Blessing’s stellar season and in 2017 he was picked up by Sporting Kansas City, giving him a much larger profile. He split his time in his first year in MLS between starting and a bench option, scoring three goals and an assist in 25 regular-season appearances that year, who also helped Sporting win the U.S. Open Cup that year.
In less than a year, Sporting helped Blessing obtain his Green Card, but they also left him unprotected in the LAFC Expansion Draft, and guess what? LAFC snapped him right up with one of their five picks.
In his first season in Los Angeles, Blessing became an underdog of sorts again, as he played pretty regularly — making 30 regular-season appearances — but the majority of them coming off the bench. As a winger, Blessing seemed to be the odd man out on the roster, with Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela, top players on the team, occupying the spots Blessing would typically play in.
It’s worth taking a moment to note another element of Blessing’s underdog tag. Blessing is listed as 5’3 and 140 pounds, and while there are definitely players kicking around who are that small, he’s invariably one of, if not the smallest player on the field every game. Soccer isn’t basketball, and players don’t have to be towering to be successful, but the smallest player generally needs to work a little bit harder to succeed against larger opposition.
So after a debut season with LAFC where Blessing was typically a substitute, scoring a decent five goals and six assists, his career was transformed in 2019. With LAFC facing a shortage of central midfielders for a game at Yankee Stadium to play New York City FC, and with LAFC coach Bob Bradley interested in giving Blessing a shot to play more by moving him around the field, he put Blessing in at midfield. It was a stroke of genius, as not only did Blessing showcase his excellent footwork in tight settings against NYCFC, it turned out he was a fantastic all-round central midfielder, too.
Blessing was so good he effectively benched Lee Nguyen, a much higher profile and experienced player, and showcased a game that reminded his own teammates of N’golo Kante. Blessing ended up playing all 34 regular-season games, starting 29 of them, and actually surpassed his scoring stats of the year before when he was in a more attacking role, as he notched six goals and six assists.
Now, Blessing is a fixture in LAFC’s lineup, and last year LAFC signed him to a multiyear contract extension, after picking up his old contract option very early, to keep him in the fold.
Among fans, Blessing might be the collective favorite. A player who seemingly goes all out every game and wears his emotions on his sleeve (or you know, posts them right on social media), his unusual path to MLS and the club, his undersized stature and his incredible play in spite of everything standing in his way makes him a suitable underdog candidate. Every team needs a player or two like this, willing to do what it takes, fitting in where he’s needed, and performing when he gets his chance. The good news for LAFC is that Blessing may have the bearing of an underdog, but he plays like a champion, and that’s a pretty potent combination.
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