It was a goal that highlighted nagging problems, and created a new one, too.
Jeremy Ebobisse’s late equalizer snatched victory away from LAFC on Thursday night, securing both a draw and the top spot in Group F at the MLS is Back Tournament for the Portland Timbers. It also extended LAFC’s habit of defensive leakiness, and in doing so drastically affected their placement in the knockout round.
A win over Portland would’ve matched up LAFC with FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16. But conceding their seventh goal in three games at MLS is Back means they’ll instead face the Seattle Sounders, the side that upset them in last year’s Western Conference Final en route to MLS Cup glory.
“We've made progress," said coach Bob Bradley after the 2-2 draw with Portland. "I think we've had periods of good football, we're disappointed that we still in key moments defensively, failure to clear balls. We've had a couple of headers in all the games that we just didn't do a good enough job of clearing. We've not given up that many chances in the games, but we’ve still given up too many goals.”
LAFC are keen for revenge on the Sounders, yet also aware that their recent errors have kept them from reaching full flow ahead of the matchup with the reigning champs, who produced a clinical demonstration of how to beat them in that 3-1 postseason stunner at Banc of California Stadium last October. And there’s little time left to work out the kinks.
“We're excited to have an opportunity to play against Seattle, considering what happened last year,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye. “But we don't focus too much on who we are playing, really. We just are excited to have another opportunity to play our football. So yeah, it's disappointing today not winning the group, but we have to focus on the next game and make sure that we go into it better. So if it was Seattle or Cincinnati, it doesn't really matter.”
Another troubling trend: Slow starts that leave the Black & Gold digging themselves out of trouble. First it was a 3-1 first-half deficit to Houston. Then an early 2-1 lead spotted to the LA Galaxy. And against a well-organized Timbers outfit, Jaroslaw Niezgoda exploited a very high and shoddily-organized LAFC backline to net the opener just a few minutes after kickoff.
“Today I think we did a really good job when it came to being tight in our defensive transition. We were unlucky with the first goal,” said Kaye. “I just think we were a little asleep at the beginning but we had a good response and the second goal is just bad organization. So it’s just little things we got to fix.”
Their expansive, aggressive philosophy is enjoyable to behold. It also involves bold risks that can turn ugly in a hurry if all 11 players aren’t locked in and on song at all times – and it’s possible that opponents are figuring out how to better exploit them.
After his team’s previous two games, Bradley doubled down on his front-foot ethos and vowed to keep the tempo at full throttle. On Thursday, he sounded a bit more pragmatic.
“When you think about goals we've given up, failure to clear balls and own goals, those are the main things that we've looked at,” said the veteran coach. “And so it's always a part of how you start, the concentration early in the game – you don't just get a chance to start to connect passes. You’ve got to fight through early parts of the game until you can get a little bit more control, and in those periods of the game, we've made mistakes and we've paid.”
Kaye admitted that the season’s COVID-19-induced stoppage has disrupted his team’s momentum and suggested that scoring first could shift the squad’s mentality in a positive direction.
“Getting back to the football we were playing before the quarantine break, it's been a challenge. Starting on the wrong foot of games, that doesn’t help us, but as everyone can see we’re a very good team when we have the ball and our football ideas are good,” said the Canadian international.
“We need to figure out how to stop the goals going in, because I think that allows us to play our football a little bit better and a little bit more calm,” he added. “It's just something that needs to needs to change and I believe in the group. And I think as well, going into the next stage, everyone will be even more intense, and aware of situations that could arise.”
Further incidents of mental slackness now figure to become particularly costly: It’s win or go home from here on out.