Voices: Andrew Wiebe

El Trafico unsung heroes: Who will be Saturday's X-factor on FOX?

“It’s not Chicharito vs. Carlos Vela. It’s LA Galaxy vs. LAFC. He’s a top player, I’m a top player but we need to be respectful... Carlos Vela would be no one without his teammates, I'd be no one without my teammates."

All due respect, Javier, but it’s also sorta Chicharito vs. Vela. But selfless superstars will play too, I guess.

Anyway, in case you hadn’t heard, Saturday’s match at Dignity Health Sports Park (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes) will be the first El Trafico to feature both Chicharito and Carlos Vela. That’s cool and all, but they’d be nobody without their teammates, so let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s most likely unsung heroes.

I’ve listed them in order of their ability to impact the match!

Enjoy the games. We’ll dig into MLS Week 6 on Monday’s Extratime! Did I mention that this is the first El Trafico to feature both Chicharito and Carlos Vela? Yes? OK, cool.

Whoever fills in for Mark Delgado

First, in case you forgot, Mark Delgado is suspended for this match thanks to a pair of yellow cards in Portland. I’ll tell you what the Galaxy are missing (an awful lot) and who might replace him.

Second, humor me and answer this quick quiz question before we get rolling. How old is Mark Delgado?

Seems like he’s been in MLS forever, right? At least a decade? The man was a Chivas USA Homegrown after all! Don’t think too hard. Time’s up. What’s your final answer?

The correct answer is 26. This is his 11th professional season. Mark Delgado is playing his 11th professional season (!!!) and he’s only 26 years old. There were 19 clubs in MLS during Delgado’s rookie season in 2012, and he played for a club that no longer exists (and hasn’t for eight years). That number is now at 29, including St. Louis CITY SC. Get ready to feel old a whole lot more as MLS academies continue graduating talented teenagers to the first team.

Alright, back to Delgado, who is a/the major reason the Galaxy look more stable in 2022 than they did in Greg Vanney’s first year with the club. That shouldn’t be terribly surprising given Delgado was mostly a first-choice starter for six years, many of them glorious, in Toronto under Vanney. He understands better than perhaps anyone else what his manager is asking for, individually and collectively.

Collectively, Vanney wants the ball. We know that, and the Galaxy’s opponents know that. It’s always been his preferred approach, and it allows this Galaxy team to build into ideal cutback and crossing positions for Chicharito as well as defend via sustained possession higher up the field. LA are among the league leaders in average possession time (25.8 seconds, 4th), passes per possession (5.9, 3rd) and average territory gained per possession (25.3 meters, 3rd).

More simply, the Galaxy’s possession game leads to lots of big scoring chances; you don’t have to defend when you have the ball and it’s much easier to defend effectively when you lose the ball a lot less than other teams in your own final and middle third.

Delgado is the metronome, the pacesetter to Vanney’s possession game. He brings, to my eye, three things: availability, predictability and progression.

  1. Availability is pretty straightforward. You can bet on Delgado being positioned and prepared to receive a pass (4th in MLS). For LA, when in doubt, pass to Mark. And while Delgado doesn’t participate in a ton of duels and he’s not a big tackler, he leads the team in recoveries. You’ll find him hovering around defensive actions or potential possession changes to either hoover the ball up himself or receive a pass out of pressure. In other words, he’s always available to facilitate (or disrupt) play.
  2. Predictability is the baseline for building sustained possession. Delgado’s teammates can trust he’s going to put them in a position to keep play rolling along smoothly. He’s second to NYCFC’s Alfredo Morales in 2nd pass percentage among players with more than 70 passes attempted. He is decisive and plays quickly. He plays to the right foot. He makes receiving the ball predictable, allowing the Galaxy to string together passes.
  3. Delgado is just not playing backward or side to side, either. Far from it. He leads the Galaxy in forward passes and passes into the final third. He takes small chunks at a time, whether on the carry (2nd on the team) or via the pass, helping position LA to advance up the field and enter the final third, where losing the ball isn’t as catastrophic for a sometimes-shaky backline.

And they’re missing all that in their biggest game of the season so far. Tough.

Defensive midfield depth isn’t exactly the hallmark of this Galaxy squad, but there is a clear solution/unsung hero in Sacha Kljestan, who can reprise the deep-lying role he often played at Anderlecht next to Rayan Raveloson.

The Galaxy’s possession game shouldn’t be disrupted, but can they disrupt LAFC without Delgado covering every inch of grass? Can Kljestan – 10 years Delgado’s senior (sorry Sacha) – keep up with Kellyn Acosta and Jose Cifuentes? We’re going to find out.

There might not be a better young player in MLS than 19-year-old Mamadou Fall. That is not hyperbole.

We’re going to see how Fall deals with Chicharito’s movement in the 18-yard-box, but we’re also going to see how the Galaxy deal with his ability in the air and knack for the dramatic.

I’m going to be watching Fall closely on set pieces, and so are the Galaxy. He had four goals (three headers) via dead-ball situations in 2021. Fall generally gets a big run-up and leaping opportunity at the top of the six via the space cleared by a hard Jesus Murillo near-post run. He’s looking for the alley-oop.

LA haven’t been forced to defend many aerial balls in their own box this year, though they did give up two set-piece goals to Seattle. On corners, they zone mark across the six-yard box (though some teams have crowded the goalkeeper and forced them deeper) and selectively man-mark runners.

To keep Fall from punishing them, the Galaxy need to push him off his run before he can get into position to get up for the dunk. No stationary defender is winning an aerial on this kid when he’s got a running start.

Fullbacks play an outsized role in the modern game, and you’re going to see both these guys affect the match from touchline to touchline.

What can Raheem Edwards do on the ball? Ask the Timbers.

What can Ryan Hollingshead do in the final third? Ask the Whitecaps.

Both are goal and assist dangerous, in slightly different ways, and both will be looking to negate the other on the other end of the field. It might be the most interesting tactical wrinkle of the match. Left back vs. right back. Whoever gets the edge has a chance to be an El Trafico hero.

Vanney has a decision to make between Efrain Alvarez and Victor Vazquez in his starting XI. It doesn’t matter when your number is called when you’ve got this in the bag.

Just imagine … an LA boy banging a game-winner that looks like that in El Trafico. They’d be singing his name for years to come when these two teams meet.