Not long ago, LAFC looked like a team that was showing us the blueprint for what success in this new era of MLS should look like both on and off the field. On the field they had young stars with ambitions of playing in Europe who were motivated and hungry to prove themselves, a superstar forward who was committed and bought into the project, a coach who was reinventing what good, attacking football should look like and a very clear, distinct style of play that wowed their fans and neutrals alike.
Off the field, the atmosphere at Banc of California Stadium was up there with the very best in North America, they trained at a state of the art facility, and they had a diverse, invested, and ambitious ownership group. Off the field, not much has changed. They still have great fan support, a great stadium and top notch training facilities — it’s on the field where the issues abound.
Ever since Walker Zimmerman walked out of the door, they haven’t stopped leaking goals. That is definitely an oversimplification of the cause and effect but if you look at their 2019 Supporters Shield winning team and compare it to their 2020 team, you’ll see that their attacking output largely stayed the same — even without the great Carlos Vela, they managed to score over two goals a game in 2020 — whereas defensively things began to go south very quickly.
Still, my feeling was that as long as they kept scoring at the rate that they did, they could cover the ever increasing cracks appearing at the back. And that largely proved true up until this season. They are no longer conceding an alarming amount of goals, but they have developed two new problems — an inability to protect a lead, and rather surprisingly, a lack of a cutting edge in the final third.
Through seven games, they’ve already lost seven points from winning positions, failing to win after taking the lead in three out of seven games.
They can fix this in one of two ways. The first is to become defensively resolute and start grinding out a bunch of 1-0 wins but something tells me that is not in Bob Bradley or his teams DNA. They were built to attack, to entertain, to be relentless and creative in the final third and so they have to go with the second option which is staying true to their overall philosophy while seriously reinventing a lot of their attacking patterns and ideas.
This team was at its best when they kept the ball for long spells, interchanged positions in the middle and final third, high pressed at a world class level — usually led by Mark-Anthony Kaye — to force turn overs, and got Vela and Diego Rossi into the spots they need to be in to thrive. They have got to get back to that because it’ll have the dual effect of unlocking the attack — which has only scored more than one goal in a game twice in 2021 — and improving their defense because teams won’t be able to get out and attack them so easily, and just like in 2019 they will be up two or three nil before conceding a consolation goal that doesn’t really matter.
Bradley is a better coach than me so he will have to figure out what the new Plan A should look like in terms of their go to playing style — to be clear, I am not suggesting an overhaul in philosophy, just an infusion of new patterns, ideas and maybe even a formation change.
They’ve been well scouted and well prepared for, so they no longer surprise teams, and it’s unrealistic to rely on Vela or Rossi to play hero every week. They’re a team that once took attacking play in MLS to a new level, and the net effect was the best attack and best defense over the course of a season, and so until they can bring in much needed reinforcements, Bradley and his staff will have to think creatively to return to the heights they once consistently reached not so long ago.
In the moments after Chris Wondolowski scored his second goal, the game winner, in a come from behind win away from home against Real Salt Lake on May 7, San Jose had gotten nine points from a possible 12, three wins from four, had scored 10 goals in just four games and it finally looked like Matias Almeyda’s team had mastered the unique ideas their coach has. I, for one, believed they were going to be a force to be reckoned with and a likely top four seed.
Since that win, they’ve lost all four games — three of them at home, all in a row — they have scored one and conceded seven, and now sit in the last playoff spot, just three points from last place while they’ve played more games than every team behind them. With seven of their next nine games being on the road, in a league where it’s notoriously hard to win on the road, the signs are ominous.
Let’s dig a little deeper to figure out exactly what’s been lacking. People who know my philosophy on football are about to be shocked by what I am about to say but it needs to be said — one of San Jose’s issues is that they are having too much possession.
Listen, I love possession based football as much as anyone but it has to be effective, it has to be going somewhere and to have an end product. San Jose are good at two things when attacking: 1. Springing runners in behind, namely Cade Cowell, and 2. Getting crosses into the box for the likes of Wondo and others to feast on.
Neither of those need 65% possession based on lots of side to side passes and not enough penetrating balls that actually move defenders. In their four consecutive defeats they have had 60, 66, 57, and 50 percent of the ball. With those kind of numbers you’d expect to score more than one goal during that time.
A little more directness mixed in with the possession that Almeyda obviously wants will suit this team well. I also wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Cowell and Wondolowski starting together with the youngster playing as a winger. Maybe Wondo isn’t what he once was, but if San Jose can play a game based on crosses, through balls, as well as possession, they will create clear cut chances and no one in the history of the league is better suited to finishing those moves than Wondo.
Win of the night
NYCFC showed great character to bounce back from the disappointing defeat against Columbus last week with a massive win away from home. After throwing away a lead in that game, they’ll feel good about coming from behind against LAFC and managing to find the winning goal even after being reduced to 10 men. It’s the kind of win that teaches a coach a lot about their team and players and I am sure Ronny Deila will hope to use the momentum gained to keep his team in the hunt for first place.
Miami's roster at the heart of their problems
Miami’s team building reminds me of the old way clubs tried to build winning teams in MLS. A lot of good to solid players, one or two above average, and one (usually aging) superstar that could make the difference in the final third. That sometimes worked back in the day in MLS — I’m thinking the 2008 Columbus Crew are a good example with Guillermo Barros Schelotto — but it stopped working a very long time ago.
Miami have been held scoreless in four of their last six, and quite alarmingly, they’ve failed to win any of their four home games this season. With four goals, Gonzalo Higuain has done his job, Blaise Matuidi is obviously a good player and Lewis Morgan had a good season last year. But in general, when I look at their starting 11, I don’t see a team that will strike fear in any opponent, or a team capable of truly having a successful season if success is defined as winning more than you lose, making the playoffs and then making a run. I’ve seen enough from this team as currently constructed to conclude that they will, at best, be a middle of the pack team. I hope to be proven wrong because it’s a club with a lot of potential.
Toronto's issues run deep
The best teams in the East last season were Columbus, Philadelphia, Orlando and Toronto. And while all four had somewhat slow starts to the season, the other three are showing signs of getting back to their best level while Toronto look like they are in for a long season. Only Chicago and FC Cincinnati sit below them in all of MLS, their star striker has seemingly been frozen out, and while the pieces appear to be there on paper, they look like a major overhaul is needed before they can scale back to their previous heights.