A game plan is only as good as the players carrying it out. On Sunday at the New York Red Bulls, LAFC had a very good game plan. But individual errors and a lack of sharpness kept them from carrying it out.
Here are the takeaways from the 2-1 loss at Red Bull Arena:
In the past three seasons, the side with the most consistent identity in MLS has been the New York Red Bulls without a doubt. It's not even close.
They suffocate opponents with a high press, turn transitional moments into opportunities, and rely on the finishing of Bradley Wright-Phillips. And this season, it's had them second on points per game in MLS heading into this match.
So what does Bob Bradley do? He sets up his team to bypass Red Bulls' press altogether by changing up his side's burgeoning identity. I don't think I've ever seen LAFC play that many long balls in one match. But it knocked NYRB off their rhythm to the point that they weren't sure if they should press right away, on the first pass, or just wait for LAFC to come at them.
The result was time and space on the wings for the likes of Diego Rossi - who was excellent, more on him later - and a stretched match for long periods.
Sweeper Keeper Robles
If Red Bulls weren't quite sure what to make of LAFC's newfound direct style, their goalkeeper was quick to cover. Luis Robles had more than a few interventions in the match that were absolutely critical. If he sits back on his line on a couple of those, LAFC is running 1v1 on goal. And if he doesn't get his tackles perfect, even worse, LAFC is in on an open goal. He didn't have much to do by way of shot stopping tonight, but Robles was excellent.
Welcome Back, Diego Rossi
I missed this Diego Rossi. He was fearless against the Red Bulls.
Rossi had 1v1 opportunities and nothing but space ahead of him all night. I think one of the reasons he's struggled in matches recently is because he's been afraid to just go right at those open spaces. To start the match, he had Kemar Lawrence terrified, as the Red Bulls full back wasn't sure how to cope with him and still adhere to his side's game plan. But what really impressed me, was as Lawrence grew into the match and started to cope with what LAFC was trying to do, Rossi didn't back down. He just flipped sides and went back to work.
That's the part of his game that had been lacking. Bradley has said on occasion about the young Uruguayan that he can float in and out of matches, and as an important player on this team, LAFC needs him to be an aggressor on the pitch. And after hitting the post in the first half, Rossi deserved his goal with an incisive run between the fullback and center back. Not the most decisive of finishes, but calm enough in a big moment.
We've Got This Under Control.... Wait, Maybe Not
In the second half, I felt like we saw a lot more of the LAFC side we're accustomed to. By that, I mean we saw combinations through midfield and just an all-around better control of the match.
Even a goal down, LAFC didn't looked like they were panicking and did a great job of assessing some of the worries in the first half - sharper passing and find Carlos Vela more. The result was some really nice attacking movements through Red Bulls' press, instead of just over it, and this absolutely stunning pass:
Vela beat six players with that pass. And it all started with more sustained possession and LAFC's spreading of the opposition across the pitch, instead of up the pitch. At this point, LAFC look like they might get even more from this match.
Again, it's little things. A simple ball over the top beats the entire back line. Not everyone is able to get back and recover, despite Bradley Wright-Phillips not being the fastest of players, and Royer is there again to reap the benefits. There really was nothing on there, as LAFC were compact and in a decent spot. So what's the problem here? Well, its the response. Players raising their arms hoping to be saved by the offside flag and the commitment to getting back to cover for teammates is just not there.
That's a mentality issue. And I hate to say it, but as much as these players have worked to forge an identity and style of play on the pitch, its not yet a team if it they let each other down like that. With the Open Cup semifinal in three days, and teams in the Western Conference hot on their heels, these players have little time to fuss about. It's time for personal accountability from top to bottom.