LAFC: The best regular season in league history.
LA Galaxy: The most accomplished club in league history.
Carlos Vela: The best individual season in league history.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The most dominant individual in league history.
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What would it mean for LAFC's record-setting regular season if they fail to win MLS Cup?
What would it mean for Zlatan if he plays two years in MLS and never makes it past the Conference Semis?
What would it say about LAFC, who have the most points in MLS over the last two seasons, if they fail to beat the Galaxy in six straight meetings?
Would it say about the Galaxy, who have the the most name recognition and championships in league history, get bounced by their little brother across town?
We haven't seen a Conference Semifinal like the one that's coming Thursday night (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS).
It's both the most anticipated game in MLS playoff history, and the hardest to predict.
As of right now, the get-in-door price for Tuesday's Clippers-Lakers game is $105 (on the secondary market).— Rich Hammond (@Rich_Hammond) October 21, 2019
It's $226 for LAFC-Galaxy on Thursday.
LAFC enter Thursday's meeting after setting the single-season points record, among others. In the five meetings over the last two years against the Galaxy, however, they have yet to win. LAFC are the better team – they have been for two seasons, and they would be if the regular season played itself out 100 more times. That doesn't matter now, though. Now, it's only about being better than the single team across for you. And so far, the Galaxy have been superior there.
How have the Galaxy, who failed to make the playoffs in 2018 and finished only fifth in the West in the 2019 regular season – 21 points behind LAFC – managed to take four points in two games this year from the Black and Gold?
It's come in three pieces.
The Galaxy have been able to bully LAFC's midfield. Bob Bradley has established a very intentional way of creating goalscoring opportunities for LAFC, and those patterns run through the center midfielders.
Eduard Atuesta gets the ball from the defenders and plays into Latif Blessing or Mark-Anthony Kaye (or Lee Nguyen, who might replace the injured Kaye for Thursday's game), who then play into the forwards. If you can disrupt that part of the chain – if you can make LAFC's midfielders uncomfortable – then you can put a wrench in LAFC's machine... and that's exactly what the Galaxy have been able to do.
The Galaxy have made two conscious decisions. One: They've man-marked Atuesta. In both games this year, Guillermo Barros Schelotto has used attacking midfielder Favio Alvarez to follow Atuesta and not let the Colombian, who has been the best midfielder in the league this year, initiate LAFC's attacks. Here's a tiny taste of how closely Alvarez's movements mirrored Atuesta:
In Thursday's game, Jonathan dos Santos will probably be the highest center midfielder tasked with sticking to Atuesta. To counter it, look for Atuesta to run toward the sideline to pull JDS out of position; LAFC will then have Blessing, Kaye, or Nguyen drop into Atuesta's space. If the Galaxy midfielder follows that player, it will leave a huge gap for Carlos Vela to get the ball in front of the Galaxy's defenders. LAFC will be able to turn a problem into an advantage.
The Galaxy's second midfield decision: They've turned the pressure meter all the way up. It hasn't been a high press on LAFC's defenders; rather, it's been constant pressure through midfield.
As a center midfielder, in the defensive phase, you always have to make a decision between protecting the space in front of the back four and getting pressure on the ball. If you go to put pressure on the ball and get bypassed, you leave your defenders exposed. It's a constant balancing act throughout the game. In some matchups, though, you make the pre-match tactical choice to stop worrying about the balance and go all in on one end of the spectrum. For the Galaxy, they have decided to get constant pressure on the three center mids.
The two meetings this season have been very reminiscent of Canada's win over the United States. You don't have to outplay the other team; you simply need to stop what they want to do and let them unravel. Like the USMNT, there's a harsh truth here for LAFC as well. Their three midfielders, all three of whom could very well make the MLS Best XI, have struggled against the Galaxy. They haven't been able to cope with the pace at which the Galaxy have forced them to play.
Watch how quickly this goes from LAFC possession in the Galaxy's end to a Galaxy goal. Specifically, watch Cristian Pavon's run across the midfield line:
Head down, sprinting as fast as he can straight ahead. That's it. That's the plan. Win the ball and go. The Galaxy have been so thoughtlessly direct – and let's be clear, "thoughtlessly" is the smart, correct choice here – that it's clearly a defined element of their plan. There's enough of a sample size from LAFC to know that they will be vulnerable in transition. That's when LAFC are at their most vulnerable. Trust the evidence.
Pavon is oh-crap fast; Uriel Antuna is oh-crap fast; Zlatan still has enough wheels to attack space when he wants. The Galaxy have scored six goals in El Traficos this year; five of them have come on transitions that started behind midfield. They've been quick and ruthless in their transitions.
The question for Thursday night: Will Bob Bradley adjust LAFC's style to protect against counters more efficiently? Tata Martino put the brakes on Atlanta United's attack in the 2018 playoffs in chase of a trophy. Will Bradley do the same?
Trust in the Altar of Zlatan
There have been five meetings between LAFC and the LA Galaxy. Zlatan has scored eight goals in those meetings. He has scored a hat trick in 40% of the El Trafico games.
This hasn't as much been a conscious choice by the Galaxy against LAFC as who they are as a team. They don't have a systemized way to create goals like LAFC do. They have a Shaq in the post, so they feed the beast. We ask star players to step up when they are needed, and Zlatan has.
Here's the truth that the Galaxy face and that Zlatan seems to relish: LAFC are so far superior to the Galaxy as a whole, even accounting for the two points above, that it's difficult to imagine the Galaxy have a chance if Zlatan doesn't pull off something crazy.
Although, what's crazy to most of us has become routine for the Swedish Lion.