On the surface there is the individual brilliance of a attacking juggernaut led by Carlos Vela, who is the favorite to take home the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award and is trying to fend off challenges from Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez to take home the Golden Boot presented by Audi as well.
But Vela also leads the charge in the other aspect that impresses Armas — the hard work against the ball.
“Their individual commitment, the team commitment to defend, that’s impressive,” Armas said. “Because I know that's a big demand on players and I can see that they're in on it, all in on it. There’s no tolerance it seems and there's a real excitement to defend and win balls back and reconnect into the game at times.
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“And if you're talking about Vela, to see him put in that those shifts night in and night out, that’s what I think is impressive about their team and makes them different because they can do it in in all ways. They're usually in control of games in every way.”
There’s big philosophical differences in the way the Red Bulls and LAFC approach the game. But when they meet Sunday (10 pm ET | FS1 in US; TSN 1/4 in Canada), the biggest thing they have in common is their ability to put defenders under duress.
The Red Bulls lead MLS with 10.79 possessions starting in the attacking third per game, per Opta. That’s no surprise, given high pressing is at the epicenter of the club’s ethos. But LAFC, purportedly built on possession, are second in the league at 10.43. No other team is above 8.64.
“In some ways, it looks like us, but the difference between them and us is always going to come down to the details and the nuances of the way that we press,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “They have the ability to press up high, they have the ability to win the ball in the final third, or in the middle third. And then they're compact in the back so that when they keep things tidy in the back and they play forward in transition, they’re very dangerous going forward.”
LAFC are also a team that is largely intact from their expansion season. That means another year together to jell, another year to work under Bob Bradley.
It’s a big reason why they are the runaway leaders to win the Supporters’ Shield, a title the Red Bulls claimed last season with a record 71 points. LAFC are within 20 points of breaking that mark with 11 games to play.
“You could obviously talk about individual players on that team. But at the same time, It just feels like they have no weakness in their team,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “And they seem like a real team. They're unified, a lot of things that we preach and a lot of the things I think we do really well — team identity, sticking together, having the right mentality, the winning mentality, doing whatever it takes to win — I think that they have all those characteristics. That's what ultimately brings out the best in individuals. And that's why they're doing so well, this year.”