National Writer: Charles Boehm

Boehm: Teams with the strongest identities are dictating at MLS is Back in Orlando

SJvsRSL - July 27 - game action

Like sands through the hourglass, so flow the nights of the MLS is Back Tournament. Just one matchnight remains in the Round of 16. With the San Jose Earthquakes and LAFC advancing with emphatic wins on Monday night, here are a few observations on how they did it.

The Pelado Experience

I’ve come to eagerly anticipate Quakes coach Matias “Pelado” Almeyda’s press conferences at this event. He’s a deeply compelling and charismatic figure, and his media availabilities give us outsiders brief windows into the methods and mentality by which he inspires his players to absorb his idiosyncratic tactical system, then run their guts out implementing it every night.

The Quakes beat Real Salt Lake by doing what they do nearly every time out; they go absolutely full-throttle for most of the 90 minutes and force you to keep pace or outsmart them on the fly. And even when you land a haymaker square to the face, they shake it off and go again, because their leader has instilled a deep confidence in both the ideas and the people on board.

Mere seconds after San Jose opened the scoring on Monday, RSL caught them cold to equalize. For some teams this can be a crushing turn of events; for Pelado, it’s just the way things go.

“No, it’s part of the game. There are 11 players on the other side as well,” said the Argentine. “In the way I see soccer, most goals come from your own errors or the virtues of the players, whether it’s for or against you. We always work on correcting mistakes, but even more gratifying is knowing that the players don’t change their attitude or commitment, and they stick to the system no matter the result or any errors that are committed. That’s called unity. That’s called conviction. And it’s called accepting that somebody can make a mistake.”

Wouldn’t you want to play for this guy? I sure would.

LAFC are so much more than just Vela

Monday marked the third anniversary of Bob Bradley’s hiring by LAFC, and his team commemorated it in the most appropriate way imaginable: by blowing the doors off their Western Conference peers from Seattle to take a measure of revenge for the Sounders’ upset win in last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

It was a 4-1 win that could’ve been 8-1, and it showcased many of the things – save, perhaps, Carlos Vela and the 3252 – that makes the Los Angeles Football Club worthy of that grandiose moniker. Bradley has turned out to be Almeyda-like in the intensity of his commitment to his particular soccer philosophy, even when doing so cost his team important games, and here we could see the payoff for that fidelity.

It’s easy to take potshots at projects like Bradley’s by pointing out the substantial resources made available to him, but at this point we can safely discard the talking point about Vela’s virtuosity enabling LAFC to be LAFC. This is a team powered by ideas as much as individuals.

Diego Rossi has been The Guy for the Black & Gold in Florida, and he – like so many others on that roster – has improved and diversified his skill set under the influence of Bradley and his staff.

“Diego has been a really good player every year, but he's grown, he's improved. He's worked really hard on his finishing, his ability to take balls on the move, to make runs through the defense. He's relentless,” said Bradley postgame. “And I think all of us just feel good about how he's continued to develop.”

Back to the drawing board

Every team wants to have a clear identity that it and the outside world can recognize and appreciate. As discussed above, San Jose and LAFC have reached that point and then some, while their opponents on Monday found out that they’re maybe not as far along in that process as they’d hoped.

RSL and the defending champion Sounders came out to play, ready to stand toe-to-toe and do what they do better than their adversaries do at what they do. And they suffered the consequences, because their own strengths got lost in the wash, and their errors magnified, as they struggled to keep pace with what the night’s eventual victors do so well.

At first blush it may seem ludicrous to say that Seattle, a model club with two MLS Cup titles in the past four years, are lacking in this department. But listen to goalkeeper Stefan Frei on LAFC:

“They have a clear way of how they want to play and how they want to force turnovers and how they want to get their goals,” he said. “We just weren’t able to adjust and figure out what their weaknesses are of their style of play, and made some errors defensively and offensively. Obviously four goals is a lot and all of them pretty crappy. And you’re not going to win games like that.

“We’ll have to go home, regroup and search for a bit more of an identity on our own part – how we want to combat strong teams like we faced tonight.”

RSL boss Freddy Juarez (press conference video above) hit some of the same themes as he admitted how difficult Almeyda’s system is to play against.

“They’re a good team. Sometimes they get the ball and they’re moving all over the place and we had to adjust a little bit in bringing our winger to help press,” he said. “This team you cannot play on the back [foot], you’ve got take it to them and scrap for everything … this is a game that’s tough to get possession in because it’s so fast and if you’re not crisp, you turn over the ball a little bit more.”

The teams that know who they are and what they’re best at are the ones thriving at MLS is Back.