LOS ANGELES – On Tuesday night, the Seattle Sounders will visit Banc of California Stadium as the latest team to try to beat the side that set or tied nearly every MLS record in the books in 2019 (10 pm ET | ESPN in US; TSN1/5, TVAS in Canada).
There are many, many reasons for LAFC's success – from their Coach of The Year-winning boss, MVP-caliber captain, stellar footballing operations staff, and a defense marshaled by two of the top five nominees for MLS Defender of The Year.
But perhaps the most critical piece of the LAFC puzzle this season has been the midfield.
Eduard Atuesta earned a slot in the 2019 MLS Best XI. Mark-Anthony Kaye was an MLS All-Star this year. Even league veteran Lee Nguyen — who’s been an MVP candidate himself in the past — has come alive late in the campaign to give the LAFC midfield an added layer of confidence, control and creativity.
It seems every team who faces off against LAFC discuss their midfield, how to clog it, halt it, unhinge it from doing its job.
But the one player who possesses perhaps the biggest challenge in opposing teams' plans to foil the Black & Gold midfield is the same one who has often been overlooked when it’s come time to hand out these formal accolades.
Not that Latif Blessing is bothered by being underrated.
“I know where I come from so I say to myself, I have to be a better player,” the Ghanaian midfielder told reporters after training earlier this week. “So any game by game, any training, I work hard.”
The hard work certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates. Earlier this season veteran right back Steven Beitashour spoke so highly of Blessing’s hustle — he has been given the nickname of “Game Changer” — that he estimated a full 10% boost for the team as a whole this season over last year.
In 2019, Blessing has transformed from a role of reserve winger to that of a starting central midfielder — the first action he saw there for the team was way back during a St. Patrick’s Day meeting at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC, in a pinch with the ranks there thin due to injuries. But head coach Bob Bradley hasn’t been shy about slotting him on the backline in mop-up duty, either.
“Latif, his quickness, his energy, no matter where you put him on the field, he’s somebody that closes plays down, picks up loose balls,” said Bradley. “He’s very difficult when teams try to put pressure on him because he’s got an ability to twist away from opponents and then when he has some space, move with the ball or play the right passes, so he’s versatile, but he’s got this quickness and this energy that whenever there is a play where he’s around the ball, you know that something good can happen.”
That was on display in Thursday’s Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal victory over the LA Galaxy, where Blessing was a menace to the visitors, notably snatching the ball away and starting the attack that led to Carlos Vela’s opening goal.
Compared on more than one occasion by more than one teammate to the Energizer Bunny, Blessing’s no-nonsense, non-stop commitment to the team cause also earned him something he’d been dreaming of since arriving in MLS with Sporting Kansas City — an extended contract that gave him the security he sought.
“They let my dream come true,” said Blessing whose new contract runs until 2022. “I feel comfortable here in L.A. The culture is good, the family here, everybody is good to me. When I go out, I feel special so I have to put my heart into the team. When somebody loves you, you have to prove it, you know. When the community loves you, you have to prove your heart and love them back. That’s what you do. I love this team, that’s why I wanna be in L.A.”
So while the accolades have yet to arrive the same way they have for other pieces of LAFC’s midfield, for now the 22-year-old is content knowing his club, its supporters and his teammates see what he brings to the table as the Black & Gold continue their march towards MLS Cup.
“He really comes to training every day with a smile on his face,” said goalkeeper Tyler Miller. “He’s just someone that brings a lot of energy to this team.”
LAFC supporters perhaps know that spirit best for the way Blessing dances with them following matches, the same way he did in Kansas City, and the same way the midfielder says he did growing up — where people liked his dancing so much they’d pay him to dance at parties.
“That’s Ghana’s culture,” he said. “You have to make the fans happy because after the game you can’t go to the dressing room because they need something from you guys, they have to support you, you have to do something to make them happy, so after the game I go and dance for them to make them happy.”