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Warshaw: Which MLS team could have an LAFC-type season in 2020?

Let’s have some fun for a Friday.

LAFC have… you know the numbers by now. They haven’t just set records, either, they have done so in style. It’s been an incredible feat for the second-year club – although it is worth mentioning they haven't won anything. Yet.

There were signs last year that the Black & Gold had this soccer in them, even if they weren't obvious. They finished fifth in the Supporters’ Shield standings in 2018, 14 points adrift of the New York Red Bulls, and whimpered out of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in the Knockout Round. They have clearly taken a step forward. So here’s the question for today:

Who could take that step in 2020? Who is poised to have an LAFC-type season next year? 

There are obviously a lot of factors that go into LAFC's success. But I boil their recipe down to four key ingredients:

  • Dominant midfield
  • Superstar attacker
  • Elite center back
  • Coaching

We'll use these as our criteria.

The obvious choices

Atlanta United 

  • Dominant midfield: We just saw in the Campeones Cup what Darlington Nagbe can do. Emerson Hyndman has a similar skillset as well. Eric Remedi was better than Eduard Atuesta in 2018, so it’s not a stretch to suggest he could make the same step Atuesta has taken this year. Ezequiel Barco might be more of an all-around midfielder than a true attacking midfielder, and could be the best option to fulfill the Latif Blessing role.
  • Superstar attacker: Pity Martinez probably isn’t Carlos Vela. It doesn’t feel like a stretch, though, to say that Pity Martinez, Barco, Tito Villalba and Josef Martinez have more total talent than LAFC’s front three.
  • Elite CB: They might have two – Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Miles Robinson.
  • Coaching: TBD. Frank de Boer started off shaky. The team struggled in Champions League and looked slow and lethargic for the first half of the season. They clearly underperformed for the talent they have, and at one point, the star player took to shouting at FDB from the field about his tactical choices. But de Boer has since found a winning formula, as ATLUTD took home the Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup this month, and they currently sit second in the East on points per game. How will it carry over into the playoffs and then into 2020? 

NYCFC

  • Dominant midfield: Alex Ring, Keaton Parks, and Maxi Moralez have the technical ability to break lines like LAFC. They would probably need some more athleticism in there, though, to replicate LAFC’s counter-pressing and transition ability.
  • Superstar attacker: Alexandru Mitrita is pretty damn good. He’s not Carlos Vela, but he’s got a chance to crack into the top five wingers in the league. 
  • Elite CB: It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say any of James Sands, Alex Callens and Maxime Chanot could step into the top group of center backs.
  • Coaching: Another TBD. NYCFC were 3-7-9 from last July to this April; Dome Torrent changed the formation, playing style and lineup on a weekly basis. It looked like Torrent couldn’t figure out Major League Soccer. In the last 20 games, however, they are 13-4-3 and have played gorgeous soccer. Which sample tells more about the manager? I just don’t know.

Toronto FC

TFC celebrate their 2017 treble triumph | USA Today Sports Images

Toronto were LAFC before LAFC came around. Not just in their dominance in the standings, but also in their style of play. They passed around and through everyone. They still have 7/11th of that team. It’s still Greg Vanney in charge, too; he’s fallen into hot water lately, but he shaped those 2016 and 2017 teams into tactically sophisticated and flexible juggernauts. Their inclusion in this list presumes that Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez can still play at elite levels and Alejandro Pozuelo can get near Sebastian Giovinco’s numbers. Maybe I’m living in 2017 by having the Reds on here.

There's a chance

Real Salt Lake

This takes some serious liberties but...

  • Dominant midfield: Move Joao Plata to center mid with Albert Rusnak and Kyle Beckerman. Get buy-in from Plata and Rusnak to do the work. Hope Beckerman’s legs can deal with the increased running. Then you have players who like to buzz around and can play in tight spaces. [Note: Jefferson Savarino is probably the better option than Plata for the Blessing role, but…]
  • Superstar attacker: Jefferson Savarino feels close, doesn’t he?
  • Elite CB: Justen Glad has taken a step forward in this career this year; he’s not quite in the 1A category, but it’s possible. 
  • Coaching: Aaron Herrera has called interim boss Freddy Juarez “the Pep Guardiola of MLS” (though surely he wouldn’t do it in front of Bob Bradley)

FC Dallas

  • Dominant midfield: Paxton Pomykal, Bryan Acosta, Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Servania have both the technical ability and the energy/athleticism to pass and press like LAFC. 
  • Superstar attacker: Yeah, this is the problem. They feel pretty far from having an elite attacker, and it might require selling two of the aforementioned midfielders to get that guy.
  • Elite CB: Matt Hedges (and probably Reto Zeigler).
  • Coaching: I’m not going to put the pressure on Luchi Gonzalez to say he’s the next Bob Bradley. But I will say this: In terms of the principles that make LAFC so good, Dallas are the nearest competitor. They play the soccer that closest resembles LAFC, and they control games through the middle of the field nearly as well as LAFC. Gonzalez has provided similar levels of detail and accountability in his coaching. He doesn’t have the trophies or resumé to match Bradley, but he’s been impressive in his first year as a professional head coach.

Philadelphia Union

  • Dominant midfield: The midfield of Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro is already dominant. They pass nearly as well as LAFC already, and control games nearly as well as LAFC already. For much of the year, Philadelphia were the second best team in MLS. The question is whether Medunjanin can cover enough ground defensively. He’s already exceeded expectations in the Union’s new system this year, but LAFC counter-press at an even different level. 
  • Superstar attacker: Same situation as Dallas. Philly swung big for Marco Fabian. It hasn’t worked out (yet?). Ilsinho can match Vela in moments, but hasn’t been able to do it for entire games.
  • Elite CB: One of Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, or Jack Elliott would need to take The Leap. It’s still two levels up for any of them. My best bet would be McKenzie.
  • Coaching: Jim Curtin knows how to Bob Bradley, as he played for Bradley in Chicago. The Union have played some pretty soccer during Curtin’s tenure. But can we put Curtin into Bradley’s category? Not until he wins a couple playoff games, at least.

Sporting Kansas City

Let’s end with this. Prior to the season, when Sporting played maybe the best game of soccer I’ve ever seen an MLS team play as they passed Toluca off the field in Concacaf Champions League, I thought SKC might do what LAFC are doing. Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez, Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Gideon Zelalem have the ability to replicate LAFC’s midfield. Sporting are at an inflection point in their history, and I have no idea if Peter Vermes will go for another run this group or rebuild. Add someone like Carlos Vela to this team (and an athletic center back), though, and it’d be fun to watch.

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