WASHINGTON – The pink-and-white blossoms of the cherry trees that dot the Tidal Basin and neighborhoods across the District of Columbia are nature’s signal that winter is finally retreating from the United States’ capital city.
So, spring fever was well and truly in bloom at kickoff at a festive, sun-soaked Audi Field on Saturday, with D.C. United hopeful of extending their 11-game home unbeaten streak in regular-season play as LAFC made their first-ever visit.
It must be hard for Southern Californians to relate, because the Black-and-Gold travelers killed D.C.’s seratonin buzz with such clinical, comprehensive quality that the 4-0 final scoreline, powered by an elegant Diego Rossi hat trick, could’ve been much worse.
Even though Bob Bradley and his players sought to tamp down any excess cockiness postgame — “It’s hardly a day where we feel like we’ve arrived,” declared the coach — their opponents’ words did plenty to underline LAFC’s championship credentials.
“Tactically, they left [Carlos] Vela high with our outside backs, so when we did possess the ball and tried to switch it, our outside back was [caught] high,” said veteran D.C. center back Steve Birnbaum. “We lost the ball a couple times, you know, they could hit us on the counter pretty quick, because he’s basically wide open and it’s one-on-one and he’s one of the best players in the league at finishing goals like that. Same with Rossi on the other side.”
Star men Rossi (left) and Vela (right) lived up to the billing in LAFC's master class. | Geoff Burke-USA Today Sports Images
“I watch them week in and week out, I know Bob a little bit and talk to Christian Ramirez about the type of things that he asks from his players and it’s great. They’re a great team,” Arriola told MLSsoccer.com postgame. “They’re very smart. They have a very good idea of what they’re going to do.
“It’s an understanding like Berhalter with the national team, where you have ideas and you know in certain situations what to do. And you could tell that they’re very clear about that — any time we would get pressure, if they could play it quickly through the middle, they’ll do it. If not, they’ll go long and look for the second balls and they’ll leave Vela and Rossi high for a transition. So a lot of credit to them. We’ve got to do a lot better.”
Much of the discussion around LAFC dwells on the elite quality of their attacking duo, and with good reason. But the central-midfield trio of Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and converted winger Latif Blessing were equally, impressively dominant on Saturday, providing Vela and Rossi the platform for those wickedly quick transitions and cold-blooded finishing.
“We planned a lot for this game because this was the test for us, D.C., since we start,” said fullback Mohamed El-Munir, who made his LAFC debut off the bench. “Strong team with strong mentality, very good players, very fast players – they play almost the way that we’re trying to play, so we just prepare ourselves, we study each situation, each player they have … We did very well to close the spaces and we defend good and the chances that we get, we translate into goals.”
Also striking: Afterwards, Bradley spent as much time chiding his team for not being even more ruthless in the second half against 10-man D.C. as he did praising their scintillating work to seize a 3-0 lead inside 33 minutes.
“I think if you went around and asked everyone on the team how they felt in the second half, I think they would say it wasn’t our best,” he said. “But you don’t want to take away from a really good team effort.”
When a reporter noted that Kaye had agreed with the postgame hype about this meeting of potential MLS Cup contenders, Bradley used it as another chance to deliver a message to his talented squad.
“Mark didn’t really say that, I hope,” he said with a fleeting flicker of a smile. “That would be impossible for anybody to say at this point in the year. So if he said that, the fine’s going to be really big, OK?”
There were lessons for D.C. to absorb, too, and hints of an evolving paradigm in MLS, where it’s becoming just as important to neutralize the opposition’s blue-chip talent as it is to maximize your own.
LAFC completely stifled United’s “LuchoRoo” attacking combo and pressed influential holding midfielder Russell Canouse to good effect, creating, then exploiting errors to leave the (now-former) Eastern Conference frontrunners looking like a shadow of themselves. When a frustrated Wayne Rooney was sent off shortly after halftime for a reckless lunge at Rossi, it drove home the effectiveness of the visitors’ game plan.
“We know these two players are really talented, are really good players, and we have to be really close – don’t let them think on the plays, don’t let [Rooney] turn,” said Vela. “That was the key, I think our defenders do a really good job stopping these two guys, and when you stop these two guys the rest is difficult for their team, because they are the most talented players in D.C.”
LAFC know they’ll have to keep proving themselves in the months ahead, and that at some point fortune and circumstance will cut against them like it did D.C. this weekend. But they believe they can make a real run at both MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, and at this point, who’s to tell them they can’t?
“We have to be ambitious,” said Vela. “We feel we are really contenders to win the league, so we have to keep working … in all terms we have a lot to prove, but we are happy with the level we are showing.