LOS ANGELES — Results the last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster loop for expansion side LAFC.
A comfortable 2-0 victory over bottom-of-the-league San Jose was followed by a 3-1 defeat away to struggling Chicago before things got back on track last weekend when the league debutants defeated Colorado, 3-0.
In all three of those games, team captain Carlos Vela appeared in a different position — paired up top with Adama Diomande against the Quakes, on the left of the attack vs. the Fire and swapped to the right side in Colorado.
So, with only three games left in the regular season, is there a best position for LAFC's first-ever Designated Player?
“I don’t think there’s a great answer to that,” coach Bob Bradley said after training Wednesday. “[Vela’s] played the most in his career on the right side in the attack. I think that is a very good spot for him. We’ve used him again as a No. 10, a little bit as a No. 9, I think he’s actually a good nine.”
In moving the Mexican playmaker around, the LAFC boss has tried to make the most out of Vela’s knack for both scoring and creating opportunities.
“You have to try to see: Where does he get the ball? Is he a threat? What kind of rhythm are we able to get as a team?” Bradley said. “Then you try to balance out pictures of what different games have looked like along the way: How did opponents try to play against us? We’ve had games this year where we’ve had more control, more possession, more fluidity. Then we’ve had other games where possession is more balanced, but we’ve been dangerous by being able to create some fast attacks from different places.”
Despite Vela’s positional changes, his partners in attack across the last three games — Diego Rossi and Diomande — have begun to cement themselves as starters, the latter feeling as though his chemistry with the LAFC captain is coming at just the right time.
“I arrived, played for 10 minutes with [Vela], and he left to the World Cup,” Diomande said, lamenting how few chances he got to play alongside the Mexican international before the Norwegian suffered an injury that kept him out of starting contention until recently.
“Now it’s the first two or three weeks where we’re starting to get the right connection because we haven’t been playing too much with each other.”
Diomande offered his own take on where Vela is best utilized.
“I feel that he’s better behind the striker than on the wide, I think, so he can have more freedom in the middle and he can run in the sides, too,” Diomande said. “He’s a very clever player to play with.”
Both Diomande and Bradley believe the performance in Colorado was a step toward the form the club wants to be in come playoff time, but each pointed to the preparation before the match as a major factor in creating chemistry.
To develop that understanding they feel minutes played together is most important, but the preparation leading into the game matters as well.
“Before the game, before we went on the field in the warm-up, I felt they were more engaged with each other than any game I’ve seen this year,” said Bradley, who noticed veteran players like Vela and Diomande reminding their teammates of little things and encouraging each other.
The Norwegian recalled how players weren’t isolated on their phones in the locker room, but actively talking, something he feels will help improve the chemistry not just for himself, Vela, and the other attackers, but the whole squad.
Though they’ve officially qualified for the Audi 2018 MLS Cup playoffs, there’s a sense around training that as they continue to mesh better together, the best LAFC football may still be forthcoming.
“The last few weeks [we’ve had] a lot of really good training sessions,” said Bradley.
If players are building chemistry on the field, during training, and on game days, even before warm-ups, then Vela’s positioning might matter much less than the team’s performance.
“He’s versatile,” Bradley simply said of his captain, “which is a plus.”