The season, mercifully, has come to an end for LAFC. A team that was pegged by nearly everyone to reach the MLS Cup Finals, if not win it outright. Instead, LAFC limped across the finish line with a 5-2 thrashing at the hands of Colorado Rapids, and finished the season in 9th, on the outside looking in on the postseason. One of the biggest question on fans’ lips is, what went wrong? How did a team that was breaking nearly every league record in 2019, find themselves unable to reach the playoffs in 2021?
The main reason many have pointed to for the team’s struggles over the past 18 months, is injuries. Namely, the injuries sustained to star forward Carlos Vela. After missing 12 matches due to injury in 2020, the new season was set up as the team's return to glory. A fully fit squad, a fresh mentality, and what was allegedly, a new attitude. However, that came crashing down fairly quickly.
Vela suffered an injury in the early in the first half of the first game, having to be subbed off before the 30 minute mark. While LAFC were able to go on and win that match 2-0, it was quickly apparent the season without their star striker would be long. Of their first ten matches the black-and-gold only won three times, with three draws and four losses. Even more worrisome, the goals that once flowed from this team with ease, had suddenly dried up.
Throughout the summer months, LAFC continued to struggle, going until the final match in August before scoring more than twice in a match. Even then, it ended in a 3-3 draw. Many were waiting on the team to flip the proverbial switch, leaning on a high xG that the team maintained all season. In a lot of ways, the team felt unlucky.
In what was the theme all year, LAFC did well enough to create chances, and put themselves in a position to succeed, yet failed to convert on a consistent basis. The team fell as low as 13th, dead last in the Western Conference. With the season slipping away, the team made a move that, while not enough to get them into the playoffs, did spark a fire that lit beneath the team, giving the fans a lot more hope heading into the final push of the season.
In August, the team made a move for 26-year-old Colombian forward Cristian “Chicho” Arango. The signing was an immediate success. Arango brought a new energy to the team, and it showed. In just 17 matches, Arango started 15, scored 14 goals, and dished out two assists. More importantly, he sparked a run of form that saw the team make a legitimate push for the playoffs late in the season. While the team got as high as 5th, they weren't able to put in enough consistent performances, especially when it mattered most, and found themselves unceremoniously eliminated on Decision Day.
The tough questions
Let’s be as blunt as possible, this season was a failure. This team, even without its ‘king’, is far better than 9th. Even before the departure of Diego Rossi, to see this team play the way they had, was disheartening. Usually a squad known for beautiful, attacking, clinical football, often put in shifts that were uninspiring, lifeless, with some players coming off as disinterested. With that said, a failed season doesn't mean you blow it all up.
With emotions high, and opinions plenty, the majority in the LAFC ecosystem feel the time has come to focus on the next era of black and gold soccer. Vela, while many would want him to stay, hasn't been near his standard the last couple of years, and it being down to injury, is only more concerning for a player not getting any younger. Depending on who you listen to, he also just completed the final year on his contract, with whispers that he may be open to a return to Europe.
Another name without a contract as it stands, Head Coach Bob Bradley. Many feel Bradley has done all he can for the club, with plenty of calls for his job given recent years. Which, is understandable. The modern era of professional sports is results-based, with little room for context. It’s made even harder when a conference rival goes through just as many, if not more injuries, finish the season in second place, while we can't even get into the top 7 for a playoff spot.
One thing is evident, change needs to be made. Whether on the roster, or with staff, this club can't find itself struggling for a third year straight. As much as fans might not want to hear it, Bob Bradley has earned the right for another season. Currently, there are no clear replacements should the position become available, and with a handful of young talent coming through the ranks, Bradley deserves to be the one to try and build on the foundation he’s already set. The talent, unquestionably, is there.
For now, all we can do is wait for decisions to be made. If Vela wants out, he will get his way, regardless of any team option that may be in place. If Bradley wants a new challenge, there are several teams already vying for his services. Yes, this season was, without a doubt, a massive failure, but sometimes rushing forward, only hurts you even more in the long run. It’s not so bad taking a step back, taking a moment to just breathe.
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