This week Bobby Warshaw took a crack at understanding the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference, where there’s relative parity among both the presumptive favorites and the pack of playoff contenders/bubble teams following at a distance.
Bobby based the conversation around the following questions: What makes each team MLS Cup favorites? And since failure is the final result for all but one club, what should each team be worried about come October?
I’m not above borrowing a good idea. Thanks go to Bobby for giving me a basic framework with which to think about the Western Conference. It’s just that in the West, you can’t be an MLS Cup favorite without getting past LAFC, the unquestioned class of the league this season. So far, at least.
So how do you get past LAFC? Here’s Bobby’s take, which you can consider a sort of baseline for this thought experiment: The No 1 thing is that you can’t pass through the middle of their counterpress. If you hit the channels behind their outside backs quickly, and then finish those opportunities, you give yourself some chance.
Here are the three teams I think are best equipped to knock off a full-strength LAFC before MLS Cup, ranked from most upset potential to least, what makes them a threat to LAFC’s historic hegemony and, conversely, what will keep them from spoiling the 3252’s party come October.
1. Portland Timbers
Why the Portland Timbers can knock off LAFC…
I guess this is a Timbers playoff prediction. Portland are in the midst of a hiccup fit – two straight losses at home, to Atlanta and Seattle – but home-road splits tell us they’re going to be among the top seven when the dust clears at Providence Park.
I’m going to give the Armchair Analyst the floor for this one.
I think if you go out against them toe-to-toe, you’re eventually going to get run over because you will run out of gas. We saw that in the Galaxy game – LA emptied their tank in the first 20 minutes and did exactly what you’re supposed to do as the underdog when they punched LAFC in the mouth, won every 50/50 and took a multi-goal lead. And then they held on for dear life and were lucky to get a point. Play that game 100 times, and LAFC win 80 of them
The better plan – the one they’ve struggled with a bit at times this year, including in the Open Cup – is to absorb and then hit them on the counter. You have to match their aggression and intensity, but you have to be smart about it and invite them upfield, then take the space they vacated. And I don’t think anybody’s better equipped to do that than the Timbers. Of course, Portland have to make the playoffs to do that. Not a given at this point – this weekend’s game is huge!
There might not be anyone better in MLS at exploiting open space than Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Brian Fernandez, with Diego Chara winning the ball, reversing the field and springing the Argentine trio into an even-numbers scenario. They already did it in the Open Cup.
That game Doyle referenced at the end of his blurb is on Saturday against Real Salt Lake, the latest team to climb to second in the West. More on them in a bit. You can’t beat LAFC in the playoffs if you’re not in the playoffs.
But the Portland Timbers won’t spoil LAFC’s party because…
They don’t make the playoffs?
Really, though, because LAFC will find a way to either get behind the Timbers fullbacks or isolate them in space. All it takes is one sloppy pass, one premature run forward, one moment of indecision. Think of the goals Jordan Morris created for the Sounders last Friday or the chances Atlanta United created the Sunday before or LAFC’s win in Portland earlier this year.
2. LA Galaxy
Why the LA Galaxy can knock off LAFC…
History. Psychology. Zlatan. And now, Cristian Pavon. I don’t want to reduce this to clichés, but there’s just something about El Trafico that LAFC just can’t figure out. They’ve played well enough to win a couple of the five games. They haven’t gotten it done. Until they do, that’ll be the story, and LAFC know it.
General manager John Thorrington used the term “games of consequence” in a conversation with David Gass this week on Matchday Central. So far, LAFC have fallen short in those games, whether it be against the Galaxy, in the playoffs last year or the U.S. Open Cup, where Portland picked up a rare road win at Banc of California Stadium in the quarterfinals. It’ll be a talking point until it isn’t anymore.
Zlatan, meanwhile, generally does not struggle in those moments. Neither, it seems, does Pavon. LAFC should have won last Sunday. They didn’t. The Galaxy can pull off the playoff “upset” because they believe they can and because they have Zlatan, Pavon and Jonathan dos Santos and a little bit of luck (a bad bounce, referee call or injury) on their side. In a win-or-go-home scenario, that’s more than enough.
But the LA Galaxy won’t spoil LAFC’s party because…
The Galaxy backline is a four-man slot machine. LA can play the game and win, but the odds are against them. Just so happens, everything has come up cherries and sevens against LAFC.
No goalkeeper has faced more shots his goal this season than David Bingham. Opta’s Expected Goals Allowed metric says LA should have given up nearly 50 goals this season. They’ve given up 41. Those are distress signals. Here’s another: The Galaxy are 6-10-2 since the start of May.
The Galaxy will fall short because Zlatan, Pavon or have no magic left to give – “I’m sorry, I was tired” – and LAFC match their intensity and focus from minute one. In other words, the Galaxy will lose because LAFC get over their mental block and do what they do against the rest of the league.
3. Real Salt Lake
Why Real Salt Lake can knock off LAFC…
Because they’ve done it before and they’ve got the right ingredients, depending on who you believe: wingers adept at exploiting space behind the fullbacks (Jefferson Savarino and Corey Baird), a playmaker to exploits those gaps and make late-arriving runs (Albert Rusnak), the potential for playoff Damir “Karate Kid” Kreilach to show up and a willingness/ability to play without the ball for long periods.
Just as importantly, Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, Nedum Onuoha and Donny Toia have the legs and instincts to scramble. LAFC are going to create chances, you’ve just got to do your best to weather the storm. Real Salt Lake have the fourth-best defensive record in the league. And while they’ve lost twice to LAFC this season, both games have been strange, second-choice lineups, red cards and last-minute winners depriving us of 90 minutes to judge objectively.
One red flag is that they’re inconsistent away from home (3-7-3 this year). Another way of looking at that is that they’d either win or force extra time in nearly 50 percent of their away games. Again, all it takes is 90 good minutes…
Why Real Salt Lake won’t spoil LAFC’s party…
Because even if RSL play their best, it might not be enough against this LAFC juggernaut. And if they don’t play their best? It might be 4-0 by halftime. There is a gap, and it’s significant. We’ll find out how much that matters when the calendar hits October.