LOS ANGELES – To get the obvious out of the way first: When your team’s captain — the league’s Golden Boot presented by Audi and MVP frontrunner, who has already set the single-season record for combined goals and assists with a month still to play — is watching the game from the stands with his family, your squad might be less threatening.
Just ask the coach of the team playing against you.
“We were very pleased to see [Carlos Vela's] name not on the team sheet, I’ve got to be honest, before the game,” said Minnesota United boss Adrian Heath after his team’s 2-0 upset of LAFC on Sunday. “Every team is going to miss Carlos Vela, because not only can he score goals but he makes goals as well. Every time the ball goes to him you think, ‘this is a problem.’”
LAFC certainly missed Vela, too, as they lost their first MLS home match of 2019, and only their second league loss ever at Banc of California Stadium. But if you looked at the numbers before you saw the scoresheet, you might not have known it.
Despite losing on the night, the home side still commanded more than three-quarters of the possession over the 90 minutes, completing over 550 more passes than their opponent, and out-shooting Minnesota 24 to 5. The difference is that visitors made their chances count, where the home side failed.
“I thought we started off the game with good tempo, so I was satisfied that we were finding good ways to move the ball, mixing up right and left, that kind of thing,” Bob Bradley told reporters after the match.
“As we got closer to the goal, with that many people back there, your margin is small, so that’s where the microscope looks at all the decisions, the touches, when do you dribble, all these things. So that would still be an area where, at the end of the night, we don’t score a goal, it’s not good enough.”
In the early going Eduard Atuesta found Brian Rodriguez with the kind of throughball he's dished time and again to Vela this season, but the young Uruguayan didn’t muster enough on his shot to trouble Vito Mannone. Ten minutes later Tristan Blackmon bombed forward to spark an LAFC move that saw Atuesta take on several Loons players and rattle off a strike of his own that the Loons’ Italian goalkeeper parried away.
A mere 20 seconds later, Mason Toye hit the first of his two goals in five minutes that allowed Minnesota to leave the Banc with all three points. Soberingly for LAFC, MNUFC’s defensive strategy held off waves of attacks in a way reminiscent of the Black & Gold’s playoff loss to Real Salt Lake last season.
“It’s challenging when teams park the bus so much and they just have eight guys behind the ball sitting inside their box,” said ‘keeper Pablo Sisniega, one of five changes from the LAFC starting XI that faced the LA Galaxy last Sunday.
“But we’re a team they’re going to face in the later parts of the season, so we have to figure out ways to play teams down and figure out ways to create opportunities when teams do that. I think we had a couple opportunities in this game and I also have to give credit to Mannone, he made some good saves. If one of those goes our way, this game goes a different way.”
The former Arsenal ‘keeper had eight saves on the night, the last of which was a near-post block on substitute Adrien Perez just as the match ticked into stoppage time, summing up a night where Bradley felt his team, despite squad rotation, was simply not sharp enough to get a result against an opponent with the specific strategy the Loons brought to the Banc.
“When a team is playing with that many people behind the ball, finding the right situations, the right moments, the right ways, that part of football’s hard,” said Bradley. “Would it help to have Carlos out there in those situations? Of course. But, there were enough moments tonight where I think we created the possibility and as I said earlier, that little bit of sharpness of that final play wasn’t there.”