“We reminded [Blessing] a little bit about Blanco and what that was all about,” said head coach Bob Bradley after the game. “We said, ‘When he gets the ball, close him down like you do all the time.’”
Blessing did close down the Timbers’ Argentine star, but wasn’t able to do it cleanly.
With the Timbers having recently scored off a Diego Valeri set piece and their captain standing over the ball again, Bradley’s decision to bring Blessing on at right back less than five minutes earlier — replacing the reliable Steven Beitashour, who left under concussion concerns around the half-hour mark — was quickly put under the microscope.
Tyler Miller was able to punch Valeri’s shot from danger, however, and LAFC went ahead not long after and never looked back.
“It’s easy for me,” Blessing told reporters with his trademark nonchalance after the victory. “I play right wing so it’s like the same thing, just go and come back, go and come back.”
Diego Rossi and Latif Blessing | USA Today Sports Images
It’s impossible to know whether a better free kick from Valeri would have drastically changed the course of the game — what is certain is that after Blessing’s yellow card, the personnel swap worked beautifully in the home side’s favor.
“[Blessing] involved in a bunch of plays where he steps into the midfield, comes away with loose balls, slips some good passes, makes some good runs, so that was something that we were excited about,” Bradley said in his assessment of Blessing’s first competitive minutes as a defender for the Black & Gold.
Among the fan favorites at Banc of California Stadium for his hustle, Blessing had trained in defensive roles last season and saw a few minutes during preseason at outside back. As the game wore on Sunday, his constant forays forward played a major part in overwhelming Portland.
“At a certain point, Blanco stopped defending and he was just hanging up the field, and we just have to understand as a team that we can take advantage of that,” said Bradley.
It’s not uncommon in world football to convert a wide attacking player to a fullback. How much coaching is required to make these kinds of transition depends on the player, but in Blessing’s case, Bradley has encouraged the 22-year old Ghanaian to simply be himself.
“Latif’s going to play that position in his own way and we’ll work with him in terms of some positional details, but you don’t try to fill his head with the textbook,” said Bradley. “We don't use the textbook so much.”
If Blessing does see more defensive action in the future, LAFC value his tendency to get forward and be involved in the attack — as he did for their third goal on Sunday — and can mitigate the danger of him being caught upfield.
“Sometimes Latif goes forward and then Eduard [Atuesta] or, later in the game, [Mark-Anthony Kaye] or [Peter-Lee Vassell] has to control it, or a center back moves over,” said Bradley. “Those are things we work on all the time.”
For now, Bradley seems less set on pinning Blessing to a specific position than merely finding a way to get him on the field, where he’s been a shot of energy for his teammates.
“He can play everywhere, he always has the energy, he’s always smiling,” captain Carlos Vela said following Sunday’s match, his eyes lighting up when talking about Blessing. “All players like that are welcome to be part of our team.”
Blessing, for his part, is keenly aware of his function as a spark plug.
“When I come in, I have to encourage them like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’” he said, before being asked if there were any other positions where he feels comfortable playing.
“Me? I can play any position. Any position. [Get] gloves for me and I can play goalie. I can play right back. I can play left back. I can play central. So I’m ready to play any position where they put me.”