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LAFC 2021 Player Postmortem: Mark-Anthony Kaye

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Key player moved on, and it didn’t feel good.

Los Angeles FC v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Images

I’m going to lay my cards on the table right at the start: I think Mark-Anthony Kaye became many LAFC fans’ scapegoat over time.

By the time the 2021 season rolled around, Kaye could do no right in the eyes of many. He couldn’t shoot accurately, he couldn’t stop the other team from scoring, he couldn’t connect a pass. Week after week, I was told Kaye was not even a starter, a truly overrated player who was dragging LAFC down.

Is any player perfect? Nope. Even Lionel Messi is strangely bad at penalties. He doesn’t track back to defend (except in the Copa América final). Would you bench him?

Obviously not. Clearly, Kaye and Messi aren’t the same kind of players or on the same level. But was he truly sub-par in MLS? Not a chance.

Kaye is a dominant two-way midfielder, and was probably LAFC’s very best true box-to-box mid, and one of the best in the league. With Eduard Atuesta playing the deep playmaker role, and Latif Blessing alternating between periods of being the team’s destroyer and making the late runs in attack, Kaye was the most “normal” midfielder in LAFC’s unusual system. He would charge upfield and downfield, link up the defense and attack, score a few goals and help stop a few goals. It makes sense why LAFC’s midfield fit together so well when they were clicking.

Here are Kaye’s stats with LAFC in 2021:

Mark-Anthony Kaye 2021 LAFC Statistics

2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2021 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS 10 9 758 0 1 8 2 0 0

At the risk of torpedoing my case here, it must be noted that Kaye did slump to start the 2021 season. Most notably, he had a penchant for turnovers in midrange passes. Obviously, having a pass intercepted into the other team’s box in an attacking buildup is not unusual and so losing possession there is something that happens. But when you’re in midfield, around the center circle or heading into the final third, and you’re coughing up the ball, then that can be much more costly on two fronts: You can spring counterattacks for the opposition with sloppy passing, and you’re obviously not pushing forward in attacks yourself. It’s being pushed on the back foot in a sense, twice.

Kaye seemed to be out of rhythm in his passing and so when he would have a few turnovers in a row, he stuck out like a sore thumb. But this was red meat for the fans who had long ago made him the scapegoat for everything wrong with LAFC. “He keeps coughing up the ball, he can’t be on the field!” And much worse sentiments to go with that.

I can’t pretend to know his mindset at the time, but there seemed to be a clear cooling of opinion among Kaye and the coaches/front office, and the ultimate result was Kaye went away to the Concacaf Gold Cup midseason, helping Canada reach the semifinals in the process, and before he got back on the field for LAFC, he was traded to the Colorado Rapids for $1 million in allocation money and a 2022 international roster slot. That haul is not small by MLS standards, and you can make a case that Kaye’s value may have been near its peak inside the league, and so it was time to move on and take the money.

After his trade, Kaye said openly that he thought LAFC was overlooking him and he deserved to be paid more, and the club didn’t want to do that. Again, at the risk of reading too much into body language and implications, that probably has some justifications for the slump Kaye appeared to be in. If you feel like you’re not being treated fairly at work, do you work distracted? I do.

After moving to the Rapids, Kaye’s play immediately picked up and the Rapids surged to end the regular season, crediting the midfielder for helping them to rise up a level. It seemed like a move that gave both player and his new team life. LAFC got a boatload of money, but they never stumbled out of their collective slump and got their butts kicked by...Kaye’s Rapids to close out a disappointing season.

Perhaps in the long run it had to happen, and it was the best landing for all parties, but I can’t help but be nagged by the sense that Kaye was right — he wasn’t fully respected by LAFC. Obviously in a salary cap league, teams do have to make tough decisions, and perhaps ultimately their hands were tied. That does happen.

But Kaye was a key player for LAFC throughout his tenure at the club, he was a leader (I still think he was the obvious choice to be captain after Carlos Vela moved on) on the field but also off. Helping to organize Black Players For Change, Kaye found his voice in a real way in 2020, becoming an impassioned, persuasive speaker when it came to racism in North American society. His social conscience in a league that has been, um, very vanilla in its history was essential, putting everyone on account to understand the circumstances fueling systemic racism and how to move forward.

On top of that, I still think he was hard done by from way too many LAFC fans. I won’t deny he struggled to open this season, but a portion of fans had been on his back for months before that. Listening to so many of them, you would think he’s the worst player in the league. Not even close. And what bothered me throughout is the timing of the criticism, and Kaye somehow coalescing to become the player to be picked on. Put simply, you can critique a player’s play, but there was no need to take it as far as too many did and that part was gross. We’ve seen multiple players get bullied, directly and indirectly, by putative LAFC fans, and it’s not a good look.

So Kaye’s on a new team, I expect he’ll be a key player for the Rapids moving forward, probably serving as captain and play at a high level for several more years. Did the salary cap just force LAFC to trade him? Perhaps. But I have a feeling there will be recurring regrets about this move, and we’ll see how the club copes with that.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.