LOS ANGELES — Aside from a hiccup in Carson last week against the Galaxy, LAFC’s midfield has been nothing short of phenomenal this season.
They’ve been called the most dominant force in MLS. There have been suggestions that their regular center-of-the-park trio of Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing could be the MLS All-Star Game midfield. All that before considering former MVP-candidate Lee Nguyen is ready to fly in off the bench at a moment’s notice.
While all four have contributed significantly to LAFC’s stellar 2019 form, Blessing has actually titled the odds in LAFC’s favor every time he features, according to teammate Steven Beitashour.
“I was shocked and impressed,” Beitashour said of that performance. “You don’t think someone that’s on the outside or up front his whole career, to go into the midfield and just seamlessly transition, it’s difficult. It’s not like you’re playing against amateurs and you can get away with stuff. You’re playing against some of the best professionals in the world. In the middle of the park, it’s got some talent in there and he looks completely fine.”
LAFC coach Bob Bradley was more measured regarding Blessing’s transition.
“We try to develop players to be all-around players, to understand the game, to understand the responsibilities of the players around them in the game, and in doing so, we’ve felt that Latif’s qualities came through, in a good way in the midfield,” Bradley said. “He’s quick, [he has] energy. I think technically he’s really improved. You could see on the days when we did that how he’s so alert to pick up loose balls, so quick to pressure opponents and those things were making a big impact in training so we continued to build on that.”
How has that initial kernel of impact during training manifested itself on the field? Try leading the league in duels won and hovering in top-ten for most other defensive metrics that matter for midfielders.
“Every player has his year,” Blessing told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Last year I played good, but it’s not that good. But this year, I say to myself, ‘I’m going to prove more.’ When I go home, I train more so I have more energy. So when I came in [for preseason], I’m ready to go.”
Blessing’s drive to succeed hasn’t gone unnoticed at LAFC, which has documented his journey from rural Ghana to MLS and picked up his contract option for 2020, but LAFC’s game-changer is quick to redirect where to put the plaudits.
“First of all, I just thank Bob [Bradley] for believing in me,” said Blessing. “It’s not any coach who is going to believe in you to put you in that position. Bob likes me. He likes the way I was laughing. He likes the way I’m disciplined so I thank Bob. It’s not me, I thank Bob. Bob makes me a great player.”
When asked whether other teammates helped guide him into his new role, Blessing was also generous with the gratitude, noting the partnerships he’s formed with his fellow midfielders and singling out Beitashour for being vocal.
And there’s Carlos Vela, who Blessing calls the best player he’s ever played with — though not only for the reasons one might think.
“When I lose the ball this guy never talks [negatively] he just says, ‘let’s go, lets go,’” Blessing said of Vela’s encouraging style of leadership. “That’s why I love Carlos because, he just motivates me, and says ‘lets keep going.’ That makes my tempo calm down and then start like, ‘I’m going to correct myself.’”
Improving every day has become part of the “LAFC Way” Bradley and his staff have worked to implement over their season and half, but how drastically Blessing’s midfield contributions have helped is hard to understate.
Blessing’s constant hustling in the middle of the park — winning balls back quickly, preventing counterattacks, creating turnovers in dangerous positions, pressuring and frustrating opponents — is what gives them that extra 10 percent advantage this season, according to Beitashour.
“Last year that was our biggest deficiency," said Beitashour. “We didn’t have that. If you look at last year, there were so many times we were doing 60-70 yard sprints all the way back and obviously we want to be a high pressure team so then you’re getting up, then you’re chasing and then the ball bounces out. This year we’re winning those 50-50s.”