That was the message from players and manager Frank de Boer at Atlanta United’s training ground Wednesday ahead of a huge MLS clash between the league’s defending MLS Cup champions and the current MLS Cup favorites, LAFC (10 pm ET | ESPN in US; TSN2 in Canada).
“I think the heartbeat of the team is the three midfielders,” said De Boer told media ahead of the marquee matchup. “I think they are dynamic, they have quality on the ball, but also defensively they can stand up their man. They provide for the three up front so that they can play their game.”
The trio of Lee Nguyen, Mark Anthony-Kaye and Eduard Atuesta control games in all aspects, according to De Boer, and it’s not just the attacking end of the field in which they assert their dominance over a game. In fact, Atlanta United’s manager compared the way the team plays with another one of their arch rivals.
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“They are a team that away and at home they are pressing fully forward on one side, so we have to prepare for that,” said De Boer. “I think they do a little bit the same as Red Bulls does, but I think they have more quality on the pitch. We have to be in the first and second half switched on, because if not, you will get punished and that is why they are at the top of the table… I realize [Vela] is having a great season, but those three midfielders have a major impact in where they are in the standings.”
It’s that aggressive and creative style that had Atlanta United striker Josef Martínez admitting to Atlanta media last week that watching LAFC “makes me want to cry.” He joked that he’d rather just drink some rum and smoke a cigar.
Vela is a problem though, clearly, as evidenced by his astonishing number of goals and assists this season. But taking a look below the surface level of his league-leading 21 goals and 12 assists (eight of which are primary assists) reveals even more about his and LAFC’s exploits. According to statistics from American Soccer Analysis, the Mexican international leads MLS in “expected assists” (xA), meaning his passes are providing more scoring opportunities than anyone in the league. On the goalscoring front, Vela’s LAFC teammates have set him up for the highest “expected goal” (xG) tally in the league, but Vela is also finishing chances at a higher clip than anyone else, having scored five more goals than his xG number would indicate.
“He's a great player and he's showing it right now,” said Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar through a translator. “He's a national team-quality player, and he's very dangerous. On set pieces he's good, and in open play if you give him any space he's going to be able to hurt you and pick it out and put it in the corner. So we have to be very cautious of him.”