Armchair Analyst: LAFC's pace & your Qs answered in the mailbag

It's a long season. A lot can happen — injuries, international absences, loss of form. Any and all of the above is inevitable to one degree or another.

But I think this will be immutable in 2019: LAFC are very good. The numbers so far say they are devastatingly, historically so:

After 7 games

Team Points Goals for Goals against Goal difference
LAFC 2019 19 21 5 +16
ATL 2018 16 17 8 +9
RBNY 2018 12 17 10 +7
TFC 2017 10 10 7 +3

Seven games is obviously not a huge sample size, but it's not small, either — that's a tick more than 20% of the season, and once you get to around that big a slice then the underlying numbers become not just illustrative, but predictive. And LAFC's expected goals differential of +8.6 says exactly what the boxscore numbers and the eye test says: If they keep playing like this, they will be one of the very best teams in league history. 

There are three key facets to who and what they are at the moment:

• The right-side overload

Does this need any explanation? Carlos Vela is the early-season MVP and his total of 8g/5a in seven games is as dominant a seven-game stretch as we've ever seen in this league. The record for combined goals + assists in a season is 38, set by Sebastian Giovinco in 2015 (22g/16a). Barring injury, I expect Vela to break that mark.

Vela's playing as an inverted winger/second forward/playmaking winger all at once. LAFC usually tilt to that side because he's so dominant, but also because veteran RB Steven Beitashour is arguably the most consistent attacking fullback in league history. Those two, working together, create real problems.

• They press as well as anyone in the league

Not necessarily what you think of when you think of this team, right? LAFC are more of a free-flowing, possession team in most people's minds —and they absolutely are that — but that's not all they are.

By the eye test, they just annihilated D.C. United with their pressing two weeks ago, and did so in D.C. By the underlying numbers, their passes allowed per defensive action is at 9.38, among the best in the league. When you let them possess, they pass through you. When you try to possess, they use it against you.

Of note: Their ability to press has only increased since Latif Blessing has entered the starting XI. The Ghanaian's final ball/finishing ability is still lacking, and his decision tree when he's in great spots is often hilarious, but he is a freaking weapon if you're trying to build through the middle against this team.

The third-line pass

A first-line pass is square or backwards. A second-line pass is one that's pushed forward, but wide — around a defender instead of through them. A third-line pass splits closing defenders, hitting into gaps in possession, or through the defense en toto in order to start a break.

Look at the ball from Eduard Atuesta to start this sequence:

Bob Bradley is a flexible coach, but if there's one thing he won't compromise on it's this: He wants his central midfielders, Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye, to play brave soccer. If there is a chance to hit a third-line pass, they have to take it. It's the LAFC way, arguably even more intrinsic to who they are than Vela's greatness.

I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with on Wednesday night against a Vancouver side who've recently put everyone behind the ball and made it their mission to prevent third-line passes up the gut.

Now let's answer a few of your Qs:

I don't! I just think that, given the amount of changes this team's experienced over the past two-and-a-half years, it's too soon to judge each and every thing about this team.

What I'll say, though, is that a few things aren't really working:

  • They want to be a high-pressing team, but their center backs lack pace, which makes it tough
  • Their center forwards have been beyond poor, failing to put a single shot on goal this season
  • An overall lack of chemistry is made worse by constant rotation in the squad, so nothing builds week-to-week

Carles Gil has been a nice addition, and Brandon Bye has improved in year two, so there are at least a few silver linings for the 2019 Revs. But until they sort out the above issues, I'd expect the dark times to continue in Foxborough.

The way to do this would be to move Julian Gressel to right back, which is a spot he's played to good effect (at times) over the past year-and-a-half. Doing so would mean giving up a good chunk of their defensive solidity, though, and that's just never been Frank De Boer's way.

Is this classified as a "good problem," though? The whole idea with the introduction of TAM, and young DPs, and record transfer fees is to collect as much talent as possible in order to build depth and competition for spots. We saw it last year in Atlanta with Ezequiel Barco never really winning a starting role, and that worked out for the Five Stripes, didn't it?

In the end, I do think either A) one of the above guys sits, because Tito Villalba should absolutely be a starter, or B) Barco gets moved to central midfield after Darlington Nagbe is traded (yes, a Nagbe trade is still very, very possible).

Zlatan's already played on turf. Poor guy only managed 1g/1a in 90 minutes against the 'Caps a couple weeks back...

Vela's been amazing, but my money is on Zlatan to continue something close to his current pace, to stay healthy, and to set new records for goals, goals per 90, and total goals + assists.

They're definitely for real — this team's going to collect at least 55 points, and it wouldn't surprise me if they went over 60. Zlatan's an MVP candidate, the central defense has been upgraded significantly, as has central midfield. They can and have won games by controlling the ball, and they can and have won games by being dominant on set pieces.

Plus they (finally) have depth via their youth set-up. Both 16-year-old Efrain Alvarez and 17-year-old Julian Araujo have been difference-makers this year, and there's more of that to come. Friday against Houston will be particularly interesting, by the way, as Araujo is likely to start, and will probably go the full 90.

All that said, this team is not at the same level as their L.A. neighbors, nor Seattle, Sporting KC or D.C. United. The backline is upgraded, but can still be forced into mistakes, and I have real concerns about how they're using their wingers.

This is a good, solid playoff team, but still a work in progress.

LAFC overload their right side a lot. Seattle overload their left side A LOT. I think the idea should be to play their usual game — drive the ball down that side, get Brad Smith overlapping around the edge, and just live with the danger of bad turnovers occasionally going in the other direction.

The advantage there is that if Smith, Nico Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez are all stringing passes together along that side, you force Vela to come back and help. Pulling him 90 yards from goal is a good thing in and of itself.

As Seattle showed this past weekend, they can win 3-2 if that's what the game needs. Against LAFC it'll probably need to be 4-3. I can't wait.

They threaded the needle to hold onto that No. 1 spot in the Allocation Order for a reason. Omar Gonzalez is out of contract in Mexico this summer, and Tim Ream has only one year left on his contract. Say what you want about their respective form with the USMNT — I get it, and have probably said the same. But both guys would be very good MLS defenders.

TFC also need to get Michael Bradley sorted out. He's actually looked very good for the USMNT under Gregg Berhalter, but has been a mess in league play the past few weeks. Seattle were able to exploit that in this past weekend's win.

I don't think they need to buy down all three and collect three superstars. I think they need to buy down one and go get their own version of Villalba — a pacey, direct, goalscoring winger. Pedro Santos ain't it — he has 2g/11a in over 4000 MLS minutes — and it looks, at this point, like the all-star version of Justin Meram isn't coming back (he has just 2g/4a in his last 2400 MLS minutes). Robinho looks like a useful depth piece, but not a match-winning starter.

In terms of per-90 output, Niko Hansen is actually the best of the winger rotation with 4g/5a in about 1500 minutes over the past year, which is pretty good! But this team needs something better than "pretty good" — they clearly need a star. And they have the resources to go out and get one.

Just as clear: Federico Higuain's still got gas in the tank; Gyasi Zardes' great 2018 wasn't a blip; the defense, despite last week's little hiccup in Montreal, isn't going to collapse.

There's a lot to work with for the Crew. I hope they go out and make a huge, aggressive move and find themselves an All-Star-caliber winger.

Also, FWIW: I have no idea how to replace Zack Steffen when the time comes. If I was the Columbus front office I'd do everything in my power to get a six-month loan through the end of the season, because the window of contention for this team (provided they upgrade on the wing) is open for 2019, and probably slams shut this coming winter.

If you want to win, now's the time.


Thanks for stopping by, and sorry to the folks whose Qs I didn't get to. See you back here next week!

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