Bob Bradley called it.
There isn't much the LAFC head coach hasn't seen in his many years watching football. And even though Sunday was the first time he managed a match at Yankee Stadium, he knew exactly what to expect.
"Certainly, on a field that's that size, I don't expect that the game is going to have a great flow," Bradley said after training in midweek. "So, there's the importance of quick reactions both in attack and defense."
Simply put, NYCFC's home pitch is the weirdest in MLS. We're talking about a haphazardly-configured, baseball field of a pitch dropped into a legendary stadium. And thankfully, LAFC likely won't see it again for another two years.
But despite the conditions and going down on two occasions, LAFC managed a 2-2 draw at NYCFC, keeping the Black & Gold's undefeated start to 2019 intact. There wasn't a ton of great football on display today, but in a tight contest of individual battles, there were more than a few takeaways from this one. So let's get right to it:
Equal Amount Of Positives And Negatives
After two emphatic victories at home to start the season, LAFC's first away match tipped the scales back the other way a bit.
This was the first time LAFC's balance sheet was equal with positives and negatives this season. Small pitch or not, you'd be hardpressed to say LAFC dealt with the conditions well in the first 45 minutes. Especially, when one of the biggest takeaways from the first two matches was how the team refused to get away from its identity under adverse conditions.
It's not a sin by any means to go long on occasion when the midfield is congested, but all too often it was the first and only option for LAFC. Those moments of control - when the midfielders link passes and push the team up the pitch - just weren't there. And NYCFC was all too happy to trade possession for field position by playing direct through the speed of Alexandru Mitrita.
Couple that with the conceding of too many set pieces in attacking areas, quick turnovers in bad spots, and some uncharacteristically passive defending in big moments, we might have seen a very different result had it not been for what's becoming the trademark resilience of this team in 2019 and Carlos Vela's individual brilliance.
Give it to NYCFC, they know exactly how to create advantages at home.
Coming into the match, second balls were going to be paramount with the tight confines of the pitch. NYCFC play a very vertical brand of football. They waste as little time moving the ball sideways as they can. NYCFC look to go forward at every opportunity and they are committed to swarming after the first pass.
Against LAFC, there was another nuance to this strategy. NYCFC was committed to playing to the feet of attackers that checked off the backline and towards the ball, laying off to runners coming from midfield.
Those quick interchanges going forward with short layoffs gave LAFC's defenders fits from the start. They weren't sure when to step to win the ball or sit back. We must have seen Maxi Moralez and Alexandru Mitrita combine at least a handful of times in this fashion and it opened up too many spaces in behind the LAFC backline.
As LAFC got more of a control on the midfield battle and made a conscious effort to track those layoffs, it became less effective. But for large swaths of this match, it was a strategy that was wreaking havoc for NYCFC.
Another Vela Gem
Speaking of the LAFC captain... Vela was LAFC's talisman once again. When LAFC couldn't seem to get the ball to stick to any of its attackers, it was Vela getting things going.
He has the ability to hold the ball in the right situations and teams simply have no answer other than to foul. His close control allowed him to find the angle for LAFC's first goal and he held his nerve to finish from the spot to bring the side level at the end.
Wayne Rooney's hat trick probably makes him a lock to take Vela's Player of the Week crown following Matchday 3, but Vela has clearly been the most influential player in the league through three matches.
More Versatility From Latif
Where's Latif Blessing going to pop up next week?
Against Portland, all the talk was his move from wide attacker to right back. In NYC, Blessing was deployed centrally in a No. 8 role for LAFC. And he made me look pretty smart on the first goal:
He's a very good passer, so you might be surprised. Missing Lee is real but if Latif can disrupt play high up the field and give Vela a short run in, that might be all the creativity LAFC needs.— Vince La Rosa (@LAFCvince) March 17, 2019
My little bit about Latif causing turnovers up the field and finding Vela was almost verbatim what happened for the first goal.
One of the things he doesn't necessarily get as much credit for is the ability to sense pressure and move into open space. We all think of Latif as playing wide and running at defenders, but he has a good way about him of position his body to shield the ball and turning into open space. He did that more than a few times in tight spaces against NYCFC. And while he's not as creative of a passer as Lee Nguyen going forward, as I stated in that tweet, he can use his ability to put players under pressure as a creative weapon to cause transitions.
All in all, we're learning that Latif offers a lot more than meets the eye.
We Can Hear You
From my couch more than 3,000 miles away, I felt like I was in the midst of an LAFC home match.
The chants of the 200-300 traveling supporters were loud and clear on FS1's broadcast for all 90 minutes.
Leading up to the first away match, I had numerous players tell me it's comforting to be able to look into the stands and see the familiar faces of LAFC fans and hear them when times get tough. When you consider that LAFC came back from two deficits, you have to give some of that credit to the energy coming from the stands.
Don't think I'd be going out on much of a limb in saying the players would readily admit to sharing the point earned with the road support on Sunday.