Since their 2018 arrival in MLS LAFC have won both games and respect with their playing philosophy and the demands it places on the collective. Bob Bradley’s commitment to possession and pressing with pace and precision has been unstinting, and it requires high levels of execution from all 11 players on the pitch in order to work.
It’s a laudable approach, and it’s produced some of the most aesthetically enjoyable soccer in MLS over the past three years. But certain truisms can be devilishly difficult to transcend in this league, and the importance of elite talent is one of them.
Bradley's side were shorn of Designated Players Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi by injuries as they hosted their West Coast nemeses the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. And for all their typical assertive play – and a dream start via Eduard Atuesta’s cheeky early free kick 85 seconds after the opening whistle, the fastest goal in LAFC history – the absence of that high-end scoring expertise denied the Californians a taste of revenge against the team that’s knocked them out of the MLS Cup Playoffs two years running.
“I liked our mentality. I felt that the concentration to really stay in the game against a good team was at a high level,” Bradley said at the outset of his remarks to media after the rugged 1-1 draw at Banc of California Stadium.
“We had opportunities in the second half, had we been able to be a little sharper with the final pass, or sometimes our crossing. So some little things when we get around the box where we just weren't good enough, creative enough, sharp enough.”
As usual, LAFC enjoyed plenty of the ball and their pressing kept the Sounders uncomfortable for long stretches. But move after move sputtered or fizzled as they entered the final third, with the likes of Corey Baird, Mahala Opoku and Jose Cifuentes failing to produce the crisp and clinical actions of the first-choice front line – “that sharpening up of ideas around the box, the quality of execution in key moments,” as Bradley mused postgame, “that separates” the good from the great.
It's why the Black-&-Gold finished second-best to the more efficiently incisive Sounders in the expected goals column.
“I think we do know how,” said Bradley, “but that doesn't always mean that in the moment, the timing or the quality of the play, the idea, the sharpness of the move is as good as it needs to be. And that's what you work on regularly and that's what gets tested in big games.
“Seattle plays with three in the back and then it becomes five, so the windows to play certain balls are very tight. The timing of certain moves has to be very good. And I think that in some of those situations, we saw that just on the day, weren't quite good enough.”
That imprecision left the door open for the visitors to snatch a point when wingback Brad Smith flashed one of the benefits of Seattle’s new 3-5-2 system, haring forward to poach at the back post once, then twice, and eventually finding his reward.
“The game came down to little details,” said Marco Farfan, who made his first LAFC start in the unusual task of a left-footer asked to deputize at right back, and got drawn out of position on Smith’s equalizer. “That one play from a cross, it happened twice in the game and one of those moments, they were able to capitalize on it. So I think it's just little details and little times we need to stay turned on as a team.”
The nature of MLS makes it nearly impossible not to become reliant on star performers like Vela and Rossi; Seattle are in a comparable position as they continue to make due without longtime linchpin Nico Lodeiro, for example. How teams with their levels of ambition replace players who are almost by definition irreplaceable can be hugely influential on the standings, and beyond.
On Saturday that provided further exposure for homegrowns like Josh Atencio – the Sounders’ 19-year-old holding mid, who again impressed – Ethan Dobbelaere and Bryce Duke, and newer reserves like Cal Jennings, Raheem Edwards and the lively but still raw Opoku.
“We pride ourselves on the way we train every day. We always try to push players [so] that when the moment comes, that they're ready, they’re excited, that their teammates have confidence in them,” said Bradley of his team’s depth. “Certain guys on the field, you see the experience paying off and them getting better every day in training and then getting tested on the field in the game.”
With the clock ticking on the big names’ return to full fitness, these minutes are an audition of sorts, a fleeting moment to muscle into the regular rotation. The next few weeks could tell us much about the young players in Seattle and LA being offered those chances.