The 2019 MLS season is in sight. After a historic inaugural season, LAFC returns for Year Two with raised expectations and unfinished business. To prepare you for the upcoming season, we're taking a look at LAFC's squad from top to bottom, starting with the defense. From there, we'll move on to the midfield, the attack, and end with the most difficult position of them all... goalkeepers.
Building From The Backline
It was the hot-button issue of 2018.
Last season, LAFC conceded 52 goals. Despite finishing third in the Western Conference, the Black & Gold's goals against were 11th in MLS in 2018 - or in other words, second to last of the teams that qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
But the goals-against stat is just a piece of the story. In this sport, no backline is an island. Football is dynamic. Defenders, especially at LAFC, are tasked with playing a part in getting to the opponent's goal just as much as they are with guarding their own. And LAFC scored 68 goals last season - second overall in MLS. The resulting goal differential of +16, fourth best in MLS, is just as compelling of a stat in favor of the defense's ability to affect matches, as the 52 goals against are damning.
So what does that all mean? For starters, the baseline for which LAFC has to work from in defense is better than many might be willing to admit. And with the core of last season's defense returning for 2019, supplemented by a few key additions, there's optimism surrounding this team's ability to take its defense to an even higher level this season.
Here's a closer look at the LAFC's defense in 2019:
Style Of Play
"On defense, I would say we're very aggressive in the way that we press higher up the field." - Walker Zimmerman
Get the LAFC backline together for a chat about its style of play and the word "aggressive" will come up often.
There's not one way to defend, but there are really only two school's of thought in how to go about it. You can be either proactive or reactive. LAFC is firmly in the proactive camp.
We say it often, Bob Bradley requires a lot of his defense. In the system Bradley has instituted, defenders are pushed high up the field and tasked with keeping the squad connected. This insistence on compactness requires a group of players willing to leave space in behind, while being unafraid to push further forward in the right moments to recover the ball.
"We leave our defenders often times in 1v1 scenarios because we trust in our 1v1 defending, as well as our ability to get back and support our teammates," Zimmerman said of the style of play. "And so, it's very aggressive. It's a higher-press system, and it encourages, especially as a center back, us to really have to go out on a limb and make some plays."
As Zimmerman points out, it can be a high risk/high reward system. But what it really boils down to is containing the other team in confined spaces and reading matches to be apart of the flow of play at all times. Defenders in this system have to be aware of the balance they provide and potential dangers, while also being unafraid to step up when the opportunity presents itself.
"From my position, I think we have the most vision of the entire field. And it's up to us to bring a certain level of leadership and order to help the group's structure." - Eddie Segura
During the offseason, LAFC added two defenders it has high hopes for. Eddie Segura arrived on a six-month loan with a purchase option from Colombian side Atlético Huila. Left back Mohamed El-Munir, acquired in a trade from Orlando City, joins Segura as a newcomer to LAFC's squad.
Both defenders are very much in the mold of what is already in place for LAFC in defense. Segura is a center back that reads the game very well. He's not afraid to be left 1v1 with opponents and is active defending in space. El-Munir is at his best flying down the left side. He's comfortable with the ball at his feet, as both a link to the attack and provider of a final ball, but he also possesses the speed and willingness to track back in defense.
"As a defender in the system that we play here, there's not much difficulty for me. I have good speed. I have good technique with the ball. That's why I said in the beginning, I was very happy to be chosen to come to be a part of this Club and this system," El-Munir said of the upcoming season. "The only thing that I need to understand is the way that everything goes in this team. Sometimes you are going to have difficult times, you are to play against good teams, and how we should be acting and reacting, how we should be thinking. But I think I will pick that up very quick."
Thus far, both defenders have fit into LAFC's system and relished the challenges of the style of play. It's with these improvements around the margins, LAFC expects to reach its goals in 2019.
"The new additions bring a level of intensity and it brings something different. We have a lot of players throughout the backline that have different styles," Jordan Harvey said of the new arrivals. "It gives Bob options throughout each and every game, depending on how we want to approach that game. They fit the mold we are trying to create here."
Returning The Core
"It's always difficult getting used to playing with other people and really developing solid chemistry. I thought we got there last year and I think we are only going to improve in 2019." - Walker Zimmerman
Helping the new arrivals settle in and learn the system are a core of defenders getting another year of experience under Bradley's system.
Walker Zimmerman, Jordan Harvey, Steven Beitashour, Danilo Silva, Dejan Jakovic, and Tristan Blackmon all return for 2019. The group played a combined 120 matches last season.
While Beitashour and Blackmon were both signed for 2019, the Club had to actively re-sign the quartet of Zimmerman, Silva, Harvey, and Jakovic in the offseason. LAFC's readiness to bring back the group signals of a level of confidence in the players and points towards their understanding of what is required physically and mentally of the backline.
Zimmerman, in particular, is a case upgrade through retaining a player. The center back is seeing regular minutes with the U.S. Men's National Team and at 25 is entering his prime. Domestic center backs of his caliber are few and far between. His understanding of LAFC's game model and what it might take to replace him makes his re-signing one of the Club's biggest moves of the offseason.
Mainstays of the backline last season, Harvey and Beitashour are expected to provide a level of consistency once again to the LAFC backline. Both defenders played at a high level in 2018. Their steady play righted LAFC in times of turmoil in many matches and stages of the season. Off the pitch, they provide a level of MLS experiences and leadership in the locker room that is vital to the team's mentality and understanding of what it takes to progress in this league.
Rounding out the backline, Silva, Jakovic, and Blackmon all contributed at different times for LAFC last season. Jakovic filled in astutely while Zimmerman started the season on the sidelines with an injury. Blackmon came into his own, learning a new position as a center back and getting LAFC's Open Cup run off to a good start. And Silva slotted in seamlessly as LAFC cut ties with Laurent Ciman towards the end of last season. Seeing Silva dive into the North End after scoring LAFC's first playoff goal remains a moment to remember from the inaugural season.
What To Expect
"I think for the backline, our goals this year are more of a team effort. We discuss this all the time, we don't just attack with attackers and we don't just defend with defenders. I think as a whole, we can improve. And it's not just one side or the other, it's everyone together." - Steven Beitashour
Defend as a team, attack as a team, play as a team. It's the crux of the issue for LAFC and its backline.
To isolate one area of the squad, especially in this LAFC team, would be missing the point. The style Bob Bradley has put into place from Day One with the Club is to have a team that works as a unit in all aspects of the game.
In 2019, LAFC's backline will be a foundation going forward for the side, but it is on all 11 players on the pitch to control games. Bradley wants his players to challenge themselves in 1v1 situations, be proactive, and to take the match to the opposition. To do that, players on both sides of the ball need to be connected and in sync. If one player loses his 1v1 matchup, it forces another to shift in response. The system is both very much about a connected unit but relies heavily on individual contributions across the pitch and over 90 minutes.
That's a big challenge for any side, let alone a team in its second season. But after the success of last year and with the work that has been done in preseason, both to retain the backline's core and make necessary additions, LAFC's defense is poised to take the next step and propel the team to the next level in 2019.