El Trafico delivers fireworks and a rightful winner
Of course it had to go down like this.
Each of the five previous meetings had mayhem. Why would we expect anything different in this one? Thursday night’s meeting between LAFC and the LA Galaxy had the weight of the past’s exhilaration augmented by the pressure of the future’s memory — of a team’s legacy, of a player’s legacy, of a city’s pride on the line...
And it delivered. Eight goals. Two from Carlos Vela, one from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A blown lead. A controversial call. And then, ultimately, the train steamrolling down the tracks. LAFC 5 - LA Galaxy 3.
Fortunately, this was the just and fair result.
Soccer doesn’t always bring a fair outcome. As fans, we don’t usually care about a just and fair ending, either. We want our team to win or we want to be entertained.
Sometimes, though, it’s good and important to have the just and fair result. We got that with LAFC’s win over the LA Galaxy.
LAFC were the best team in 2019. They might have been — honestly, they were, and if you think anything other than that, you weren’t watching — the best team ever over a regular season. They are the best team in MLS right now.
The Galaxy were not good throughout the regular season. They won enough to get the fifth seed in the West only because Ibrahimovic scored 30 goals. But anything can happen in a single-elimination game.
Thankfully, it didn’t. Thankfully, the idea that you can meander through the regular season and save your season with a playoff win did not get rewarded. The better team won. Excellence got justified.
You might think that you like upsets and chaos. Upsets are cool because they happen rarely. The other 90% of the time, the majority of your viewing time, you want excellence. Excellence needs a bar, and when that bar gets rewarded, greatness is more likely to build on itself.
Toronto, the best team in 2017, won MLS Cup. They were probably the best MLS team we had seen to that point. The next year, Atlanta United, one of two teams that were clearly above the pack, won MLS Cup. They either met Toronto’s bar or passed it. This year, LAFC pushed the bar a little further. Every year there is a new “best yet.” It’s not hyperbole and it’s not an accident.
The big question heading into the game was whether Bob Bradley would adjust LAFC’s tactics. LAFC had approached almost every game of the regular season with the same system and the same set of ideas. When that happens, it’s easy to stab the Achilles Heel. LAFC’s Achilles Heel was giveaways that could lead to quick transitions. The Galaxy had used those transitions to take four points from LAFC in the regular season.
Bradley opted to turn that around. The LAFC boss had the Black and Gold sit a little deeper to coax the Galaxy out. He told ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar at halftime: “We found some good ways to try to invite them to come play a little more than they have in the past. We were able to take advantage of it.” LAFC went up 2-0 on two transition goals.
We saw from LAFC on Thursday night what we see from championship teams — adherence to established principles blended with game-specific adjustments. The Galaxy, expectedly, couldn’t hang.
There are a ton of questions now facing the Galaxy. It was a wasted year. Zlatan’s status is in the air. He was the most dominant individual player in the history of the league. Also, his team failed to make the playoffs once and got bounced in the Conference semis in the second year. Those things don’t need to be mutually exclusive in soccer. They can be intertwined, and those are the toughest calls a team has to make.
LAFC, as the counterpoint, found a way to get one of the most talented players in the league to work within the most detailed system in the league. And for that, they have taken over LA and are moving to the Conference Finals.
Atlanta learn to compromise to move to verge of MLS Cup
Atlanta fans might not remember this — we all have an ability to selectively forget — but I remember… I remember when Atlanta United felt like the most combustible organization in the league. They had just lost the MLS opener to DC United, then been embarrassed by Monterrey in Concacaf Champions League and then drew AT HOME TO FC CINCINNATI. Frank de Boer’s system was too slow. Pity Martinez looked more like the Pac-12 Player of the Year than the South American Player of the Year. Darlington Nagbe wasn’t anywhere to be found. It was bleak, man.
Everyone else around MLS pulled out their popcorn and watched as the reigning champions had their first real issues as an organization.
The manager and the players met halfway. We saw the manifestation of that in Thursday night’s win.
Frank de Boer arrived in Atlanta and wanted to fix something that wasn’t broken. We saw the same thing with Dome Torrent in New York City. Accomplished soccer minds had a vision for how they wanted to run a team.
De Boer wanted to slow the Five Stripes down. He felt they needed to put a greater emphasis on defensive security. Tata Martino felt the same way last year, but waited until the playoffs to do it. FdB simply moved it up a few months. The Dutchman pushed for more possession and deeper defensive lines.
It didn’t work for him. Even when Atlanta were winning, the players weren’t happy.
Sometime around the All-Star break, that changed. FdB pulled off the restrictor plate. He didn’t force the players to make safe passes, slow down their counter-attacks, or hold off on their pressing. Atlanta won the next nine games, including two trophies in the Open Cup and Campeones Cup.
But it didn’t take long to see what had de Boer concerned from the beginning. Atlanta lost the next two games; including a match in which Columbus punished Atlanta on the break. It was a validation of de Boer’s biggest nightmare.
Here’s what talent does for you: If you don’t hand over goals, you will probably win. Atlanta have more talent (way more, most of the time) than most opponents. So if they didn’t gift goals in transition to Columbus, or Philadelphia, or New England (and probably Toronto right now)...they will win.
Thursday night showed the final evolution of Atlanta’s season. They didn’t play particularly well for what you’d expect of their talent pool — the divide between de Boer’s vision and the players’ vision always felt too far for that to happen — but they didn’t give Philadelphia anything easy. If neither team gets anything easy, you’ll take Josef Martinez, Julien Gressel, Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, and Darlington Nagbe to find goals. And de Boer has given his star players enough freedom and confidence to go win the game. That’s what we saw.
It’s been a windy road for Atlanta this season. If you thought this outcome, a Conference Final, was never in doubt, then you hadn’t turned on the TV or opened Twitter for eight months. To their credit, though, de Boer and the players figured it out. More than anything, they all met halfway.
When you meet halfway, you probably aren’t going to be overly convincingly. Atlanta have rarely been convincing this year, and they weren’t on Thursday night. What you can be, though, and what they were against Philly, is good enough. When you have Josef and his supporting cast, “good enough” can lift you a Cup.