Voices: Michael Lahoud

Rossi vs. Castellanos: Young forwards to take center stage in LAFC vs. NYCFC

Week 7 of the 2021 MLS season includes a cross-conference treat, with New York City FC visiting LAFC on Saturday (5 pm ET | UniMas, TUDN, Twitter) for a marquee matchup at Banc of California Stadium.

Beyond providing a test between traditional Western and Eastern conference leaders, this matchup will feature two young, talented South American forwards who are worth the price of admission alone.

LAFC’s Diego Rossi and NYCFC’s Valentin Castellanos will be going head-to-head, with each capable of highlight-reel moments. But who wins this matchup and what makes them so successful? Here's a deeper dive into their qualities.

Coming into this season, I had several questions surrounding NYCFC after they traded away midfielder Alex Ring (to Austin FC) and left back Ronald Mataritta (to FC Cincinnati). They then got off to a shaky start when giving up an early lead and losing 2-1 at D.C. United on opening weekend.

However, the strong play of Valentin Castellanos is a massive bright spot for the team from the Bronx. The Argentine has been everywhere, playing both wide and centrally, and should be someone more MLS fans are talking about.

After six games, Castellanos has been the dangerman for Ronny Deila's team. Jesus Medina may be leading the way in highlight-reel goals, but Castellanos has led the charge offensively with four goals and two assists, a reflection of his hunger for scoring.

Against D.C. United, he showed a remarkable desire to get into the box by sprinting 35 yards and blowing past center back Brendan Hines-Ike to arrive at the far post for a gritty finish. Plays like that recently earned him a five-year contract extension – not bad for a day’s work!

What I like most about Castellanos is how many ways he can challenge opposing defenses. He can play as a winger, where he displays balance, deceptive dribbling skills and a propensity for cutting in from wide areas for long-distance shots. Yet his hold-up play to bring teammates into the attack and poacher’s mentality have all the makings of a striker.

The 22-year-old has been a handful because he makes good runs and is always looking to exploit spaces vacated by attack-minded outside backs. When he gets into the box, especially when barging down the left channel and isolated 1-v-1 with opposing center backs, he just needs a half-chance and sight of the far post to shoot. He has some swagger about him, too, opting for the Rabona when gifted with an open goal against Philadelphia.

LAFC will need to monitor him because he’ll also drop off their backline and play as a false No. 9, roaming to receive the ball between their midfield and defensive lines, almost as if he's another attacking midfielder. This forces one of the center backs to step out of position, creating gaps for the likes of Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi to run into.

Fresh off a well-taken brace last weekend against Colorado, Diego Rossi will look to keep rediscovering the confidence that saw him claim the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi in 2020.

However, it’s been anything but a confident display for the Black & Gold this season. They’ve experienced an underwhelming start (by their standards) to 2021, with injuries to Carlos Vela and Rossi stunting their attack and putting them in last place in the West before beating the Rapids 2-1 last weekend.

Enter their 23-year-old Uruguay international to the rescue. Saturday will likely be the second time we see LAFC’s new-look attacking trident of Vela, Rossi and Corey Baird, who has impressed after being acquired via trade from Real Salt Lake. While Rossi brought the goals in Week 6, Vela and Baird constantly looking to find Rossi in the penalty area most caught my eye. That makes him the player to watch for LAFC this weekend.

Rossi is such an intelligent player and has made a habit of looking to run in behind defenses. Although he’s listed as a winger in LAFC’s 4-3-3 system, he operates more like a wide forward. Both he and Vela have a tendency to shift inside during LAFC’s buildup, with Vela given the freedom to float in between lines anywhere on the right side of the field, and Rossi looking to play off him. He’s a willing runner and will constantly test NYCFC’s backline.

Rossi likes to occupy the space between the right back and the right center back, then has the presence of mind to wait for Vela to get the ball and turn. He initially checks to the ball to draw the right center back out of the backline, all before making a darting run off his shoulder and into space. If the opponent plays a high line, look for midfielder Eduard Atuesta to be the catalyst for long-driven balls over the top to find that same run.

Since LAFC are a fantastic passing team on their day, his subtle movements on the left are vital to their attack. This forms a narrow trio at the top of the box; Baird and Vela check to the ball and then look to make slide-rule passes to Rossi as he accelerates toward goal. He can also finish with either foot, so NYCFC defenders better be on their “A-game” in and around their box.

Who wins out?

Both Castellanos and Rossi are quality players who can feature out wide or as a center forward. They’ve also enjoyed remarkable success since joining the league several years back from Uruguayan clubs, with Castellanos (22g/12a in 66 MLS games) previously at Montevideo City Torque and Rossi (45g/20a in 89 MLS games) previously at Penarol.

However, it’ll be the Rossi show this weekend. Castellanos will be a constant individual thorn in LAFC’s side, but look for Rossi’s abilities to give the hosts an edge over NYCFC.