If you wanted to pinpoint the pivotal moment of LAFC's 4-1 victory on Sunday against the Portland Timbers, you'd have more than your fair share to choose from. But in a match with five goals in total, I can't help but go back to one play.
And it's not a goal.
With LAFC holding a tenuous one-goal lead in the 56th minute, Walker Zimmerman denied Jeremy Ebobisse a golden opportunity from about 12 yards out.
Everything about this moment initially screamed a Timbers goal for me as I watched it live. Sebastian Blanco had the LAFC backline retreating and his teammates offering him multiple options. Zimmerman was basically in the deep end, treading water as Blanco slipped Ebobisse clear. It was the type of moment Portland lives to create with their ability to make teams pay in transition.
- LAFC 4-1 Portland
Zimmerman even looks like he gets his footing wrong at first, crossing up his step just a bit before turning to close down. But the LAFC center back doesn't give up on the play, works back to cut the angle, and makes the timeliest of tackles. In my notes, I simply wrote, "56' Walker saves goal."
It was that, and in the grand scheme of the match, so much more.
Here are the takeaways from LAFC's 4-1 win against the Portland Timbers:
Look, I'm not always right. I'll admit it. And I hope the coaching staff won't hold it against me, but I scoffed at the notion of Latif Blessing as a fullback. At the very least, I'd never have imagined it would work against a team of the caliber of last year's MLS Cup finalists and with Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco lurking.
But with the score knotted at one, Steven Beitashour had to make way for Blessing due to injury. And Portland would not score again on the night.
I think Bob Bradley said it best after the match when he said, "Latif is going to play that position in his own way and we'll work with him in terms of some positional details but you don't try to fill his head with the textbook." Sometimes we get so rigid in our approach to football, we forget that each player brings something unique to their position. Blessing was quick to close opponents, did an excellent job of dribbling out of the back, and was pretty tidy with his passing.
He definitely imposed himself on the match and brought his personality.
Shows what I know.
Eduard The Great
One of my favorite things to do after matches is pick my "low-key, hipster" Man of the Match. You know, the guy that didn't score the goals, didn't make the big saves, but through 90 minutes quietly went about his work so well you couldn't imagine the team succeeding without him on the night.
The honors on Sunday go to Eduard Atuesta.
He was a machine in the middle tonight, and all while playing with a yellow card for over 70 minutes. With Blessing bombing forward at times from right back, Atuesta diligently filled the hole on the right side on numerous occasions to balance the side. The midfielder was also quick to slow and delay Portland's runners on counterattacks.
His pass map (above) shows just how much he paced LAFC on the night. And that outside-of-the-boot pass to Carlos Vela that led to the second goal was all I could talk about after the match.
Speaking of pinpoint passes, it's a shame Jordan Harvey won't get an assist on this goal.
That's the epitome of a teasing ball. Plenty of full backs would have thoughts of grandeur in their head and try to strike that on goal. Harvey puts it into the most dangerous spot on the pitch, where any number of touches could have sent it into the back of the net. Unfortunately for the LAFC left back, a Timbers player directed it into the path of Christian Ramirez, so Harvey won't be credited with an assist.
We don't discriminate here though. I'm putting it down as an assist in my book.
He said it before the season started. He said it again after the match. And when Carlos Vela puts his mind to something, I wouldn't bet against him.
I'm referring to Vela's proclamation that he wants to be MLS MVP this season. We're just two matches in, but he's making a strong case so far.
Against Sporting KC, Vela was excellent but didn't play into the scoreline in the way most MVP voters like. His goal and two assists against Portland will have some people taking notice though.
Vela drew his normal crowd of defenders on Sunday. And once again, he found ways to get by and through the opponent. His corner kick opened the scoring when he found Mark-Anthony Kaye for a deft, flick-on header. He provided Adama Diomande with the simplest of tap-ins to make the score 3-1. And finally, he got in on the fun himself with a clinical finish to round out the scoring.
After the match, Christian Ramirez remarked that he tells Carlos the team will follow him as far as he goes. Thus far this season, it's been Vela going the distance.
Here To Compete
I've brought us full circle because I want to go back to that block by Walker Zimmerman.
To the eye, there really isn't a whole lot different with LAFC's approach to matches this season. But the way they're winning feels a lot different.
The football ideas are the same. And if I am being honest, they aren't executing to the levels they did last year in the final third. Yet still, the Black & Gold are walking away with three points once again.
So what's different? For me, it's that willingness to compete. After the SKC win, much of the talk of a last-minute winner was supplemented by the conversation of rising to adversity. On Sunday, LAFC once again found a way to meet its opponents level and exceed it.
It's all in that play with Zimmerman. Portland get their ideal situation, LAFC even stumbles just a bit, but they still fight through it to make the play.
We're just two matches in, so we'll see what happens as even more adversity comes their way. But so far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.