For LAFC, this is unfamiliar territory.
The authors of the best regular season in MLS history in 2019 suddenly find themselves in a bit of a rut in 2020. Coming off Sunday's 3-1 defeat to the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field, LAFC have lost back-to-back games for the first time in two years.
The injury absences of Carlos Vela and Eduard Atuesta haven't helped matters, but with a roster as deep and talented as they have, defender Tristan Blackmon told reporters on a Tuesday video call that he and his teammates both know that they're not currently performing up to their usual standards. Ultimately, Blackmon said, this tough stretch is an opportunity for players to show they can overcome the type of lull in form that they haven't had to deal with much over the past two seasons.
"It's just a matter of counting your blessings," Blackmon said. "We have a great opportunity here at the club, coming in every day in a great facility to do the job that we love. You make a point to continue focusing on the positives, even in tough times — especially the tough times.
"I think that's when you find out how you strong you really are, in tough times like this. It's just a matter of adjusting. We haven't had a spell like this as a club, so yeah it's been a little difficult. We set a high standard for ourselves and we're falling underneath that and we all know that. It's a time to test your character each time you step on the field. That's every training session, every game. We keep continuing to work on that every day."
Part of the issue has been some uncharacteristic defensive lapses that they had managed to avoid last season, when they allowed a league-low 37 goals.
"If you look at the league games we've played this year, we've given up too many goals," Bradley said. "And we do want to go forward, we do want to create chances, but we never do it in a way where we want to leave ourselves open. You make some mistakes and you have to be able to deal with the moments better. And so, we believe in the way we play, but we also are working hard to eliminate mistakes and now to make the defensive mentality of the team is strong.
"The defensive part of it, there are things that we have worked specifically on, worked harder on: Getting rid of some mistakes on defensive set pieces. We've been a team that has defended corners very well the first two years, and now this year there's been a couple slip-ups," he added.
"And they've come in different ways, so we've tried to make sure on the field guys are alert to different possibilities. Teams come up with specific ideas for games and so you can't always tell your group exactly what's coming and there has to be leadership on the field. The overall part of our game, again, the attacking part, the moving forward, the decisions about when to press, when to reorganize, in moments where we can't press, are we compact enough? Those are just things that fit within the way we play that can always be improved. So it's not back to the drawing board by any means, it's a challenge to the players and the staff every day to create the right environment and get as many guys back to their best level."
Bradley echoed Blackmon in that if there's anything positive to take from a rough stretch in form, it's that it can be a test of character. And if the players tackle it as such, knowing that they can overcome this type of adversity can prove beneficial down the line.
It's a challenge to be sure, especially given the myriad of external factors going on in the world that can make focusing on the game more difficult. Bradley referenced one of LA's other professional sports teams, the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and how Clippers star Kawhi Leonard recently publicly stuck by teammate Paul George amid a tough stretch, as something his team can use as inspiration.
"To become a really top team, you have to be able to go through tough moments," Bradley said. "You never get to the top where it's just nice and easy. And don't forget, we've had some other tough moments. So, it's not the first one. But, yes, when you consider the other factors in play this year, you can see that this one wears on guys a little bit more.
"There's a human element in all this. One of the best things I've seen so far was in the NBA playoffs when Paul George was struggling a little bit and he admitted that the bubble with everything that was going on was a lot. And I really loved the way that Kawhi [Leonard] as a teammate and a leader stuck up for Paul George and was there for him. Every day you've got to try and get a sense as to how guys are doing. Family situations, I mentioned also civil unrest and how that is so emotional for players for people around our country. So we're trying to find the right balance. We love to work on football, we love trying to continue to improve, but it's got to be done in context with everything else that's going on in the country and in the world."