The first El Trafico of 2021 is almost upon us and the eyes of Los Angeles and much of the soccer world will be watching on Saturday at 8 pm ET on FOX and FOX Deportes. As an adopted Angelino, I know I’ll be watching.
The newer LA kids on the block burst onto the scene with a playoff berth in year one, the best regular season in MLS history in year two and came within minutes of winning the Concacaf Champions League in year three.
This season could be the last chance at glory for the core group of LAFC originals: Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing, and Mark-Anthony Kaye. All of them have had strong interest from European teams, and coming into Saturday’s match, they’re looking less like the league juggernauts a lot of people are expecting to finally win MLS Cup, and more like a team burdened with the lofty expectations of this year.
Yes, they won their season opener against Austin FC but they didn’t look as convincing as the 2-0 scoreline suggested. Injuries to 2019 league MVP, Vela, and 2020 MLS Golden Boot winner, Rossi, have left their attack stunted. For a team that scored 10 goals in their first 3 games last season, they’ve managed less than half of that return (4) this season. And yes, it’s still early days but without the two talismanic figures for this club at full force, it’s hard to see where the goals will continue to come from.
Corey Baird has been doing his best to fill the goal scoring void left by Vela and Rossi, scoring two in his first three matches but if the history of this rivalry has taught us anything, a good offense may not always win championships but it usually wins these games.
And the version of the Galaxy that LAFC will meet on Saturday will be a very different proposition to the one they've come against in recent times.
After a 2020 season to forget, the Galaxy had to make swift changes, and FAST. Getting rid of many of their “surplus to requirements” players was a start. But they went one better by bringing in head coach, Greg Vanney, to write the wrongs of last season.
In their season opener, it felt like “here we go again” when they came out extremely flat and seemingly overwhelmed by Inter Miami’s high pressure. Just before halftime, Vanney pulled the team in for a team talk. Rather than blasting his team, he showed his winning pedigree by calming his players down and bringing them back to center with words of encouragement and solidarity. One player who has heeded those words is DP striker, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez ...
Before the start of the offseason, Hernandez, said he’d been working with an emotional coach and promised us we’d see the real Chicharito in 2021. Well, he’s seen the light and has come out the gates flying for the Galaxy.
What’s made “The Little Pea” so fun to watch is that he looks like he has his appetite for playing soccer and scoring goals back. I've been particularly impressed by his movement and his attacking instincts to follow up shots and pounce on loose balls around the goalmouth.
LAFC’s backline has struggled with crosses. The partnership between Eddie Segura and Jesus David Murillo is still taking time to jell defensively as both can be guilty of ball watching from whipped-in balls from wide services. For a striker who thrives on service from out wide, he’ll be fancying his chances of scoring against the Galaxy’s bitter rivals. Look for his tireless checked runs in the box, in-between defenders, to either the near or far post to cause problems for LAFC’s defenders.
However frustrated Bob Bradley must be at things not fully clicking just yet offensively, he has to be over the moon with the play of Eduard Atuesta.
With the absence of Vela and, until last weekend, Rossi, the Colombian midfielder has been LAFC’s best player. Oftentimes used a deep-lying playmaker to control the team’s tempo and play dynamite passes to the two aforementioned frontmen, Atuesta is showing a different side to his game this season; his offensive prowess.
He scored LAFC’s goal against Seattle in week 2, and created a few golden opportunities for himself and chanced his teammates (I’m looking at you Diego Rossi!) with third man running and penetrating passes in tight spaces in front of Houston’s backline.
LA Galaxy’s outside backs have looked vulnerable, so look for Atuesta to exploit them by picking out the diagonal runs of Rossi, Baird and Diego Palacios towards goal.