The group stage of the MLS Is Back Tournament is over, and now LAFC moves on to the elimination round of 16 with 15 other battle-tested teams, facing the defending MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders on Monday.
The tournament is the MLS version of a World Cup style format, and from the start of the proceedings, LAFC head coach Bob Bradley has said they will approach it with a World Cup mentality.
Bradley has an advantage with that, as he is one of only two current MLS managers to coach in a World Cup. Bradley led the United States in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and a win in Group C. New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena has also led the U.S. in multiple World Cups, and has also helped the Revs out of the group stage of the MLS Is Back Tournament.
“The experience that we have had as a staff and players from the past, tells us you come out of a group phase hardened and with confidence and determination,” Bradley said.
Including Bradley and Arena, five other MLS coaches had experience in a World Cup as players: Montreal’s Thierry Henry (France), Chicago’s Raphael Wicky (Switzerland), Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes (USA), San Jose’s Matias Almeyda (Argentina), and Houston’s Tab Ramos (USA).
All of the coaches with World Cup experience, except Ramos, led their Club into the knockout phase of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“For the World Cup [in 2010] we tried to find a way that the days would flow,” Bradley said. “We settled into a situation in South Africa where we trained in the afternoon, we found a way where guys could sleep in a little bit, have a window for breakfast and a period for gym work, have a late lunch and then go to training, and then come back after training and have a late dinner. That just seemed to make the days flow a little bit better, so we are going to be on a schedule like that in Orlando, and use that as the best way to find a routine and keep everybody going.”
RE-WATCHING THE HORROR SHOW
It was one of the most painful defeats in LAFC history, the Seattle Sounders coming in to Banc of California Stadium in October 2019 and ending the Black & Gold’s unparalleled season in the Western Conference Finals, one game short of their goal of reaching the MLS Cup. Now, in another unique, elimination game, LAFC once again will face off vs. Seattle in the MLS is Back Tournament.
“I think we have all watched that game many, many times,” Bradley said. “We are starting off with a big, tough test with our rival Seattle.”
Looking back at the 3-1 defeat was difficult for Bradley and the team, but there were lessons to be learned.
“I don’t think we were aggressive enough in our attack,” Bradley said. “I think we had opportunities, dribbling into the box, getting more numbers forward in the box and I didn’t think we were aggressive enough and created enough. Then, there were a few moments when we needed to defend better as a group. We know they are still a team with talented attacking players and when we push the game, that still requires an ability to handle certain moments and make sure that if one guy gets beat, the next guy is ready.”
LAFC midfielder Mark Anthony Kaye has an eye on the Sounders and is ready for the challenge.
“We know we are playing Seattle and what happened last year,” LAFC midfielder Mark Anthony Kaye said. “You can call it revenge, sure. But I just look at it as another opportunity to play our football and to win.”
BREAKING DOWN THE DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWNS
LAFC has scored the most goals so far in the Group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, registering 11, but it is the seven goals they have let in that has reporters and fans talking.
The seven goals allowed is the second most in the tournament, and the most of any team that is in the knockout round. Another factor is when those goals have been allowed – many in the first few minutes of each game, immediately putting the Black & Gold in a hole. In their first three games, LAFC has given up the first goal in the 9th minute vs. Houston, 5th minute vs. the Galaxy and in the 7th minute against Portland.
“We’ve made everything harder,” Bradley said. “Because I don’t think we’ve started matches well and we have fallen behind.”
The early goals are partly a function of the aggressive mindset LAFC attempts to come out with for every game.
“We try as a team to take the initiative from the start and then see if we can get control that way,” Bradley said. “Early moments in games, sometimes it is a little more chaotic. It is not so easy to establish complete control and I think that in some of those moments we have mishandled plays.”
An example of this is the first goal Portland scored off a Jaroslaw Niezgoda finish in the 7th minute. Just as it appeared LAFC were starting to take control of the game, Portland played the ball up the left sideline from deep on their side of the field, getting it to Sebastian Blanco after a dummy from Chris Duvall, who had a late arriving Chiqui Palacios on his back. As the ball was played down the line, and Blanco slashed a ball into the middle to Niezgoda, Eddie Segura and Tristan Blackmon shifted towards the left, but right back Latif Blessing was too slow moving inside to neutralize the Portland forward.
“So, we got caught where the connection on the field between right center back and the right back in that moment was too slow,” Bradley said. “If you combine that with the positioning of the goalkeeper, that is a small error – but one where you can pay a big price, and we did.”
Against Houston, the small error was Memo Rodriguez punishing a defender with a shot from deep for leaping into the air too early, and vs. the Galaxy it was a poor clearance that led to an own goal.
“There is not one similar thing in those moments,” Bradley said. But they are difficult times that the Black & Gold is focusing on cleaning up.
“You still have to be able to handle different moments,” Bradley said. “But that is football. If you want to be a team that takes initiative in the game and plays higher up the field – these are things you have to work on. We believe in the way we play. Our football is still difficult for other teams to play against.”
WHO’S IN THE NET
After starting the first three MLS regular season games and two Concacaf Champions League matches, goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer has found himself on the bench for the last two games of the MLS Is Back Tournament, as Pablo Sisniega has stepped in.
With the round of 16 matchup vs. Seattle looming, Bradley said the Club was still deciding who would be in the net on Monday night.
“I think that [Kenneth] is still getting accustomed to the way we play and still developing an understanding with the guys who play in the back,” Bradley said. “So that was part of the decision to give Pablo his opportunity. We still we have two very good goalkeepers and moving forward the competition is important.”