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.
Imagine you created a football team. And you wanted to be as successful as possible right away.
But you started from scratch. No players. No coach. Not even a uniform. What’s one of the first things you’d do to be successful?
Sign the best players? A great idea, of course, but there are maybe thousands of professional level players. While I wouldn’t say each is unique, they at least fall into a few sets of basic characteristics.
Maybe you signed all the best no-nonsense defenders in the league - teams can’t beat you if they can’t score. But then again, you can’t beat them either because your defenders can’t get 10 yards down the pitch with the ball at their feet. Sign all the prolific attackers, and you’d have the opposite problem.
See where I'm going with this? You’d need not only the best players possible but a way to assemble those best players in a variety of roles that complement one another to overcome opponents. In other words, you’d need a philosophy of how the game should be played. For brevity’s sake, we’ll call it a style.
For LAFC, much of that style is based on the play of its midfield. In hiring Bob Bradley, the desire was to have a team that played thrilling football but was also a winner. To do that, you need a team that controls matches - or in other words, a team that imposes their will on the opponent. And to control matches, you need a lot of things.
See, when coaches want to control matches, it’s mostly a buzz word for a lot of things: dynamism, possession, execution, courage, speed of thought, fluidity, and even patience. Bradley’s source of that “control” in his team? I bet you guessed it by now.
Style Of Play
“The midfield three have a big responsibility in making sure there is balance on the offensive side and the defensive side. Being able to control the game is the big responsibility we have and Bob has given us the confidence to be fluid within the midfield three and interchange positions to keep the opposition guessing.” – Mark-Anthony Kaye
Let’s go back to control. Possession obviously stands out in this regard. If you have the ball, not only can you stop the other team from scoring, but you can score yourself. But the idea of maximizing possession at the sake of all else makes little sense. Even the most naive sides know possession will be lost at some point in a match - you can have 90 percent possession and still concede to an opponent that optimizes the leftover 10 percent.
So in addition to possession, you need to be in a position to defend when the ball is lost. And to really be successful, you need to optimize the two ideas simultaneously. That’s the ethos of LAFC’s midfield. It is both a possession-oriented, ball-moving engine driving the team forward and a sturdy foundation of defense out of possession.
It is that dynamic style that makes it so intriguing. And one of the reasons some pundits bend over backward in an attempt to stuff LAFC back into a rigid structure.
That’s not to say LAFC aren’t interested in some of the core concepts you’d expect most good teams to have in midfield. Again, they just do it in a more fluid way.
“We look to avoid the three of us in one straight line,” Peter-Lee Vassell said of the midfield’s understanding. “We need to find the right space between each other because we can’t defend compact in a straight line. It opens up gaps for the opponent to break us.”
For instance, the three midfielders can all pop up in different locations on the pitch depending on the situation, but there are positional parameters. In some cases, there’s a deep midfielder shielding the space in front of the backline with two midfielders ahead to connect with the pressure being applied on the ball further up the pitch. In other cases, that becomes a band of two midfielders, especially if one midfielder is pulled out to the channels to defend. The rotations depend on the situation, and all three midfielders need to be in sync to occupy the right spaces on the pitch, both in and out of possession.
In possession, the focus on fluidity and positional play is still stressed. Control remains the goal when LAFC have the ball. As the link between defense and attack, it’s the midfield’s job to know the spaces to attack, when to attack them, and when to recycle possession in order to keep the team from being exposed to dangerous transitional moments.
“That’s all part of controlling the match, knowing when to be patient, keep possession, and what for the holes to open up,” Lee Nguyen said. “There’s times when you win the ball and there are gaps exposed. Then, we have to go quick. And you have to be able to make the final pass and expose them to create that chance. All of that is in the realm of controlling the game.”
“Inside passes” is a term heard often at LAFC training. The emphasis on playing the match in the tightest areas of the pitch forces opponents to react. The quickest way to an opponent’s goal is through the center of the pitch. Teams know this and make defending this area a priority. But if you can move the ball in a way that makes the opponent move at your will, then avenues open up for your attacking players coming from wide areas of the pitch and into the spaces behind the defense.
And on the simplest level, inside passes provide LAFC’s midfield with the widest vision of the field. The more you can receive the ball in the center of the pitch, the more options you have. When you attack down the touchlines you might find less resistance from your opponent, but you really have just two options: forward and inside. Finding passes in the middle of the pitch opens up those options in a 180-degree arch, which forces opponents to defend wider swathes of the pitch at one time.
“The key is for the three guys that play in the middle to work as a unit. Don’t be just individuals, the three of us need to be a unit.” – Javi Perez
It’s no secret LAFC is always on the lookout for young talent that fits a certain profile. Players that like having the ball, comfortable playing in tight spaces, and, most importantly, open to new ideas.
The crop of midfielders brought in before the start of his season all exhibit those qualities, while also bringing their own unique interpretations of the position to the Club.
“The new guys bring energy, they bring a willingness to learn, and, at the same time, they all have the technical quality that’s required to play as a midfielder,” Nguyen said. “Hopefully, they gain the experience to get to the level that we expect.”
Peter-Lee Vassell, Javi Pérez, and Alejandro Guido joined LAFC at the start of preseason and were all quickly integrated into the team. Bob Bradley likes to say that after the first few days of preseason camp, the new guys’ heads are likely spinning with all the information the coaching staff is giving to them. But each player has shown a willingness to translate those ideas onto the pitch.
Vassell is a player with plenty of ideas with the ball at his feet. He hasn’t shied from implementing LAFC’s style going forward and he’s shown a willingness to work off the ball as well. Pérez looks most comfortable at the base of a midfield three. He’s not afraid to be on the ball close to his own goal and exhibits an innate awareness of his surroundings, allowing him to transfer the ball from congested areas to open space. While Guido is more of a combination of the two. The former Xolos midfielder is eager to close opponents but is just as adept at restarting the attack once possession is regained.
Returning The Core
“The midfield has to be able to control games, dictate the pace of play, and win the midfield battle.” – Lee Nguyen
One interesting wrinkle to LAFC bringing back the core of its midfield in 2019 is the return of Mark-Anthony Kaye.
After going down midseason with a fractured ankle, the midfielder returns as a core member and a new signing in a way. Last season, he was commended for his progress week in and week out. This year, Kaye has intimated he’s looking to take another jump up in quality.
He's spent much of the preseason building up fitness. Being without a competitive match for six months, its a process to get Kaye fit to go 90 minutes on a consistent basis. But in terms of football, from the matches he's featured, it's obvious the lessons of last sason stuck... and then some. Kaye looks primed to not simply be a component of LAFC's midfield but a catalyst.
Joining Kaye as returning members of the core are Eduard Atuesta, Lee Nguyen, and Andre Horta. Like LAFC’s midfield ideas, each brings a certain level of technical quality but also naturally leans to a slightly different profile on the pitch.
Atuesta is expected to fill the role of the deepest midfielder in matches once again. Much of the talk of LAFC’s lack of defensive midfielder in 2018 was overblown when you actually sit down to watch matches and notice the starting positions of Atuesta. That’s not to say he won’t get forward in certain situations. Again, it’s all part of the balancing act the midfield trio looks to accomplish against opponents.
Like Atuesta, Nguyen and Horta had their first full preseason with LAFC in 2019. The two midfielders both needed time to acclimate last season. Nguyen, at times, will be the furthest midfielder forward. His ability to create in tight spaces and move the team into the final third of play was important for LAFC last season.
Horta takes up a somewhat similar role. It will be interesting to see how he competes with Nguyen for the more attacking role in the midfield while complementing him at times when both are on the pitch. In preseason, he’s been asked to be more integral in the team’s build-up play. Horta’s goal against Toronto in the first preseason match – receiving the ball centrally in midfield, linking with the front line, and continuing his run to finish from the top of the penalty area – should be a blueprint for what is expected of him.
To add one additional caveat to all this, nothing has been said about Carlos Vela so far. While Vela played most of the 2019 preseason as a wide attacker on the right, there were numerous matches in which he was part of the midfield trio in 2018. A midfield preview would be incomplete if it didn’t mention Bradley’s option to use Vela as a true No. 10 if he sees fit.
What To Expect
“We did very well last year, and I think we can continue to help each other out in certain situations, to play for each other. We’re all technically gifted and we understand the game. The more training sessions we have together, the better we’ll get.” – Mark-Anthony Kaye
The quote above really nails it on the head for this midfield.
In terms of sheer talent, LAFC has a midfield that can drive the side to its goals in 2019. However, that talent is predicated on the players meshing as a unit.
The LAFC midfield needs to control matches with the ball and without. To do that, there needs to be a commitment and understanding between the midfielders that play on any given day. Technically, the players will need to be willing to play in the tightest areas of the pitch. They’ll need the courage and sharpness to execute ideas in the attacking third. And tactically, they’ll need the positional sense and patience to understand when the team needs a change of tempo or has to stifle the opposition’s advances.
It’s a tenuous balancing act. But on the days LAFC gets it right, the midfield will hand the team numerous avenues towards points. The new additions have supplemented the returning core in a very good way in preseason. The depth through the middle has to be one of LAFC’s strengths in 2019.
Win the midfield, and there’s a high chance LAFC will have secured three points at the end of match days.