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LAFC bench working wonders as team tops standings

They’re on a heater, but it may just be sustainable.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Los Angeles FC Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Vela hasn’t registered a goal for LAFC in over a month, and while that slump would often be a concern, at the moment it really isn’t even being discussed.

That’s because the team has a productive bench for the first time in club history.

Whereas in the past LAFC were a high-scoring team almost entirely dependent on their starters, the start of the 2022 season features a team that’s been quite balanced in terms of goal production, and in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, considerable contributions from substitutes in that department.

Sunday’s 2-0 win over Minnesota United featured late goals from two substitutes: Ryan Hollingshead with the winner, Jose Cifuentes with the insurance tally. Both of Cifuentes’ goals have come as a sub.

Here’s the scoring tally for LAFC substitutes through nine regular season games this year:

  • Jose Cifuentes: 2 goals
  • Ismael Tajouri-Shradi: 2 goals
  • Cristian Arango: 1 goal
  • Ryan Hollingshead: 1 goal
  • Danny Musovski: 1 goal
  • Kwadwo Opoku: 1 goal

As a bonus, this has carried through in the one other competitive game to date, in the U.S. Open Cup:

  • Cal Jennings: 1 goal

Eight goals in MLS play, and nine across all competitions? That smashes a club record for production from the bench in a season, and with the season not even a third of the way done. While it may not be something to count on at this rate moving forward, the fact that LAFC have won their last three regular season games from goals by substitutes means it’s not just garbage-time tallies being tacked on in 5-1 romps (well, except for the Open Cup win) but actual meaningful scores, too.

To put this in perspective, LAFC have scored 21 goals so far in league play, meaning 38 percent have been scored off the bench. Vela’s four goals to lead the team in the regular season accounts for 19 percent of the team’s total, by comparison.

If you have supremely talented and hot scorers, of course it makes sense to ride them. LAFC have used that tactic to massive success over the years, between the likes of Vela and Diego Rossi literally winning MLS Golden Boots, to central strikers Adama Diomande, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Arango not far off that pace in stretches.

But with LAFC struggling the last two seasons and Vela and Rossi missing major time or departing the club entirely, the reliance on one or two players showed the limits to that approach. Having gamebreakers is better than not having them, but when they aren’t available or in form, the team’s reliance on them is laid bare.

I think another factor to consider here is the expansion of benches and five normal substitutes being allowed in games. In a salary cap league like MLS, having high-priced players on the bench previously made little sense in most situations, and so teams stacked their starting XI as best as they could, and hoped a young player or grizzled veteran in the twilight of their career would be able to provide a spark off the bench.

Particularly last year, between roster turnover and injuries, LAFC didn’t have enough players who could slot into the starting XI without a big dropoff in quality, and that had a knock-on effect as the bench became hollowed out. I still think the midfield was able to mostly weather this issue, but in attack and defense, it was a nightmare.

While LAFC sought to upgrade their squad in the offseason and went all-in on bringing in more MLS experience, the secondary effect is that there are more options to start for head coach Steve Cherundolo, but also more options to sub into the game. Hollingshead is a starter and his rotations with Diego Palacios and Franco Escobar means there is legit depth at both fullback positions now, and LAFC’s starting core in attack runs four deep: Vela, Arango, Opoku, Brian Rodriguez, with Tajouri-Shradi likely to see some starts moving forward if he can get fully healthy, and Musovski and Jennings possibly to get a start or two along the way, too. Because teams can use more subs now, there’s more incentive for them to invest in the benches better, and LAFC seems to have done this in a real way.

So again, we can’t say with absolute certainty that every time the going gets tough LAFC will just bring a guy into the game and that will fix whatever problems had been ailing them. Chances are the team’s stars will need to carry the team from time to time if they want to stay atop the standings, and there may be games where the bench just doesn’t have the answers. But LAFC not only seem to be on a heater at the moment with their bench players, they may have found the squad capable of keeping this production somewhat sustainable over a much longer sample size, and if that’s the case, this team could be a real contender in 2022.

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