We’ve seen fantastic passing teams in Major League Soccer before. Toronto FC in 2017 come to mind.
We’ve seen fantastic pressing teams in Major League Soccer before. The New York Red Bulls have carried the torch.
We’ve never seen a team be this fantastic at passing and pressing at the same time. LAFC are the best team in the league at both right now. They are probably the best combo of the two in league history. (Does that then make LAFC them the best team in the league history? It’s too early to say, but the numbers have them heading that way.) They made their dominance clear, once again, in Thursday’s 2-0 win over FC Dallas.
The Black & Gold’s passing, and their intentionality of using the ball to create goal scoring chances via clear, collective ideas, deserves an article on its own. We will get to that at a later date. Here, I want to discuss their pressing -- specifically, their midfield. The way Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Latif Blessing eat teams up is breathtaking to watch.
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LAFC are suffocating.— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) May 17, 2019
It’s proven impossible to pass through the middle of LAFC. D.C. United tried. LAFC beat them 4-0. Seattle tried. LAFC beat them 4-1. Bless their hearts. Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus, and Dallas didn’t even bother making an attempt. Dallas used a 3-4-3 and tried to build their possession through the wingbacks almost every time.
Kaye, Atuesta, and Blessing have the perfect defensive triangle of working incredibly hard, moving as a unit, and being athletic. You couldn’t diagram defensive pressure any better they they do it.
- The first player steps immediately -- either after LAFC lose the ball or when a forward in front of them steps to pressure -- and the “immediately” part is vital. The idea of “transition” has become a soccer buzz word lately. It’s become a synonym for “counterattack.” But it was originally used in reference to the mental concept; transition mentally. When the ball goes out of bounds or turns over or the state of the game changes, do not let your mind turn off. LAFC’s midfield never turns off. They constantly sprint around the field.
- After the first player steps to the ball, the other two midfielders move forward to join the pressure. Again, it refers to the idea of mental breaks. Some players see other people running, they don’t think they need to do anything in that moment, and they let their brain turn off -- a gap develops. It never happens to LAFC. They always move like they have strings attached to each other. The opponent on the ball never has options to find a pass.
On top of it, it helps that Atuesta, Kaye, and Blessing all have elite pace and center of gravity; they can sprint and cut quicker than most opponents. A minor detail that I think makes a huge difference, too: They all glide. When players glide, they move faster than they appear. The action looks effortless so it’s tough to tell how quickly they are moving. As a result, they get to opponents quicker than the opponent realizes. When the person on the ball picks up his head, he thinks he has 1.4 seconds. In reality, the LAFC midfield can get to you in one second flat. Next thing you know the pass is blocked and LAFC are going the other way.
It's going to be great when MLS gets league-wide tracking data so we can see how many sprints Kaye, Atuesta, and Blessing do in the middle, how fast those sprints are, and how much both of those numbers blow everyone else out of the water.— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) May 17, 2019
With all of the waxing poetic, here’s the counter-question (there’s always a counter-question): Can they keep it up?
Teams that work as hard in the midfield as LAFC -- Marcelo Bielsa's teams and teams of his disciples are the best example of this -- tend to fade in the second half of the year. They get a little fatigued and lose 1% and 1% makes a huge difference in that type of style.
The rest of MLS certainly hopes that’s the case. It’s really the only scenario in which they have a chance right now.