LOS ANGELES — Having gone more than half an MLS season without showing any more than brief flashes of slowing down amidst a pair of 1-0 away losses with rotated lineups and a single 0-0 draw at home, LAFC’s scoring machine took its most glaring break Wednesday night against the Portland Timbers.
But had Jordan Harvey not inadvertently poked a ball into the path of an offside Jeremy Ebobisse’s path, the two teams looked more likely to go a full 120 minutes deadlocked at 0-0 than one side finding a winner, netted by Ebobisse in a 1-0 road win in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal.
While that sort of closeness might befit a knockout match, LAFC — a team that scored 11 in the last two games and in 22 matches across all competitions are averaging more than 2.5 goals per contest — managed just one shot on goal over the course of the evening.
When you have Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, who’ve combined for 70 shots on goal this season and sit at number 1 and 2 respectively atop the league’s shots on goal charts, one obvious question following Wednesday performance centered around the fitness of their MLS All-Stars, especially ahead of a very short turnaround for a Friday league match against the Houston Dynamo (9 pm ET | UniMás, Twitter; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
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“Carlos [Vela] has been so strong so it’s not like after one game we think ‘Oh boy, we’ve been doing all this and he’s slowed down,’” said manager Bob Bradley after Wednesday's match. “We have an excellent performance staff. We monitor our guys throughout. We’ll continue to assess where he is physically.”
Vela has played in every competitive match for LAFC this season, going the full 90 in all but one of the Black & Gold’s outings, being replaced with 11 minutes to play in April’s 4-0 victory over D.C. United.
With 21 goals across all competitions, not only is Vela leading the race for Landon Donovan MVP Award, he has also already tied his most numerically productive season of his career (2013-14’s 21 goals for Real Sociedad).
This sort of finishing has also put giant target on Vela’s back, a trend on display again Thursday with Timbers getting stuck in and putting a body on him whenever possible. After one clash, the Mexican attacker stayed on the ground for long enough to concern the Banc of California faithful.
But Bradley insisted if and when Vela needs a rest — from a knock or fatigue — he’ll get it.
“At any point if we feel like he needs to be backed off of for a game, yeah, we’ll do that, but up to now, physically he’s been great,” he said.
One of Vela’s attacking teammates highlighted how so much of match fitness rests with players themselves.
“Obviously with the running during the games one feels that demand, also that need to perform to the max, but at the same time one has to know how to manage it,” Rossi told reporters in Spanish. “Physically I believe we are good and it is very important that one feels good physically in order to play their best football.”
Another player refused to use the fixture congestion as an excuse.
“This time of the year is tough,” said midfielder and fellow MLS All-Star Mark Anthony Kaye, who just returned to the squad after playing for Canada during the Gold Cup. “There is a lot of games in the MLS and you have international duty and Open Cup. To manage minutes is very important. It’s also up to the players to make sure they keep themselves in good shape. It goes the same with the other team. They’re going to experience fatigue the same way we are. You can’t really use that as an excuse.”
For the immediate future, Bradley made it clear how he planned to manage his players’ minutes.
“You’ll see different guys on the field on Friday. It’s impossible to play that kind of game tonight and something like 40 hours [later], step on the field in Houston,” he said.
While the coach called the scheduling of two games in three days “ridiculous,” he did point out that he saw it as an opportunity for others to step up — the way some have in recent games — and continue playing LAFC's flashy style.
“We’ll rotate most of the players and play against a good Houston team that has a good record at home but still try to do the things we do all the time. Try to find the right ways to control the game. Try to find the right ways to create advantages. It’s a good opportunity for guys.”