Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Midweek Analyst: Latif Blessing's brain, plus stat and young player of the week

LAFC have four points from two games and are atop this week’s Power Rankings despite having played two games (or most of two games, anyway) without the past two Golden Boot winners, Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela. The secret to their success is quite obviously in their central midfield.

Ask any neutral what has made this team so good over the past three years and the first and most obvious answer is going to be Vela. He is, when healthy, the best player in the league.

The second and just-as-obvious answer is that central midfield. Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing have all earned plaudits, both individually and as a triumvirate, for what they’ve been able to do as a group in terms of both facilitating progressive, attacking soccer, and for how they’ve been able to key what is one of the league’s most effective pressing schemes.

Blessing in particular has earned raves for that latter part. He is, if not quite unique as a pressing No. 10 (Philly’s Jamiro Monteiro and FC Dallas’s Paxton Pomykal have both functioned as pressing 10s off and on over the past two years), then certainly distinct in how he performs the role, and how effective he is as a turn-defense-into-offense weapon. Blessing is, in short, miserable to play against, and Bob Bradley’s decision to move him off the wing and into the central midfield was arguably the catalyst for LAFC’s evolution from “really good expansion team” into “record-setting Supporters’ Shield winner and CCL finalist” in Years 2 & 3 of the club’s existence.

Overshadowed in all of this is how smart Blessing is. He’s not just a try-hard pressing machine (though he is, in part, a try-hard pressing machine). His movement when LAFC are in possession is patient, subtle and useful, and so he’s almost always available as an outlet for the likes of Atuesta or Kaye, or for LAFC’s backline. The Second Spectrum tactical cam gave a good view in last weekend’s draw vs. Seattle:

Stuff like this looks simple, but not everybody does it! Blessing recognizes as soon as Josh Atencio steps, Joao Paulo is in a really tough spot: follow him and risk exposing the central defense, or stay central and risk letting Blessing get up the line. JP picks Door No. 1, so Blessing drifts into the channel and gives Jesus Murillo a really obvious option to progress play from the backline into the attacking half, and eventually the final third.

Blessing is so good at this. He gets pressured a lot — 61 times so far this season, which is 17th among all MLS midfielders. But that pressure comes from an average defender starting distance of 9.57 meters as per Second Spectrum, which puts him in the 84th percentile in the entire league. That tracking data suggests the obvious: He is very good at peeling away and finding pockets of space.

And when your No. 10 can find space, good things happen. Last year LAFC completed 46 of 48 passes to Blessing between the lines. This year so far they’re seven for eight. And the Second Spectrum gang is working on some experimental data that suggests Blessing is 14th among midfielders & forwards at total time spent available as a high-likelihood passing option (80%+ pass completion probability) this season.

So definitely keep appreciating Blessing for his pressing, which remains a key factor in everything LAFC does. But don’t look past the other stuff, which he’s doing damn near as well as any other No. 10 in the league, even if it’s not what makes headlines.

LAFC head down to Houston on Saturday (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN) to face the Dynamo.

Second Spectrum numbers of the week

Like, probably, the vast majority of you reading this column, I watched RBNY’s 3-2 loss at the Galaxy on Sunday. I also, unlike the vast majority of you (I’m guessing), watched D.C. United’s 1-0 loss at New England on Saturday night, as well as Houston’s 2-1 loss at Portland, and all or part of every other MLS match this season thus far.

My instinct said MLS teams are pressing higher and harder in Weeks 1 & 2 in 2021 than they had in Weeks 1 & 2 of 2020, but I wasn’t sure if that was recency bias because of the Red Bulls game, as well as because of how D.C. are now playing under Hernan Losada. It is jarring to watch those teams, to the point they can color how you watch what I’ll term “regular” soccer.

So perhaps there is more pressing upfield, but also more variance in how MLS teams are playing?


Final third pressures per game

  • In 2021: 125.15
  • In 2020: 121.88

The feedback I got was this: “These averages in 2021 are affected by a few pretty extreme outliers: Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy with 30 & 30.5, respectively. In 2020, the least-frequent pressure team was San Jose with 47 per game. Nine clubs have averaged fewer than 47 per game this season.”

There is variance in the other direction as well, as LAFC, Minnesota (!!!) and Chicago (!!!!!!!!) are the top three high-pressing clubs thus far with 115.5, 100.5 and 95.5 high presses per game (those latter two are obviously not clubs I expected to be in the top three). LAFC led the league last year with 78.7 high pressures, so you can see how much they’ve ratcheted it up thus far in 2021.

I like that there’s so much more variety thus far this year. It’s made it so that the games aren’t really blending into each other, which can happen if everybody’s playing a mid-block 4-2-3-1 (looking in your direction, 2016).

Young player of the week

Note: This isn’t the best young player of the week, just one that interests me.

The season started with a spotlight on Columbus’s Aidan Morris (whose injury was, and remains, a bummer), and then moved to Seattle’s Josh Atencio. Those are not the only 19-year-old defensive midfielders who’ve featured thus far this year, though the third has somehow flown under the radar.

I say that because Adam Saldana has the sort of C.V. that should make him… better known? More hyped? The subject of more USYNT-obsessed Twitter focus? However you want to describe it, Saldana is, at 19 years old, the starting d-mid for the LA Galaxy — the only team in the league sitting on six points from two games — and a veteran of the same US U-17 team that featured Gio Reyna, Gianluca Busio, George Bello and Ricardo Pepi to name just four. You would think more folks would’ve noticed him.

Yet somehow he’s mostly off the grid despite being a really reliable ball-winner and, frankly, just a rough SOB to play against. He repeatedly got the better of RBNY’s young star, Caden Clark, in their individual duels Sunday, and generally met the moment in an ultra-physical game, in just his second MLS appearance. That is legit, even if he wasn’t still just a teenager.

The reason he hasn’t really been noticed yet, though, is likely because of his passing. It is, in other words, the James Sands Effect.

Saldana completes 89 percent of his passes, which is excellent, but they don’t really move the Galaxy into dangerous spots. Through two games he’s only completed one pass either between the lines, or behind the defense, and that was when he headed a loose ball in the general direction of Chicharito last weekend. You can get a feel for his “safety first” mentality from these clips:

There are some good moments in there — the playlist literally starts with him winning a tackle and recycling possession. But whether or not he can reliably turn those won possessions into dangerous transition moments (as, it should be noted, Morris did in last year’s MLS Cup, and as Atencio has done through two games with the Sounders) will likely determine whether or not he starts showing up on radars outside of the hard-core Galaxy fanbase.

Saldana and Atencio will go head-to-head this weekend when the Galaxy head up to Seattle on Sunday night (9 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).