Leave it to the MLS newbies to serve LAFC a timely reminder.
Consecutive victories by a 9-0 combined scoreline are not the norm in this league. As Bob Bradley so aptly put it in his postmatch comments: "When you're fun to watch, that's not automatic."
On Saturday, FC Cincinnati made LAFC work for it. As 2-0 victories go, this one was undoubtedly the gritty variety. Despite taking a lead in the 32nd minute through a header from Mark-Anthony Kaye, LAFC wasn't free and clear in this match until three minutes into stoppage time.
It wasn't for lack of trying. LAFC had 22 shots on the night. Were the Black & Gold wasteful in some instances? Sure. But FC Cincinnati arrived at Banc of California Stadium with a plan to make things hard on LAFC. And through a majority of the match, they succeeded. But unlike last season, when we'd likely be talking about dropped points, LAFC gutted out the match and got the timeliest of goals from their captain to finally put the match to bed.
Here are the takeaways from LAFC's 2-0 win over FC Cincinnati:
Mark-Anthony Kaye laughed off being called an "aerial threat" after the match. But his two goals from headers via corner kicks speak for themselves.
Everyone knows LAFC can be dangerous on set pieces through the usual suspects Walker Zimmerman and Danilo Silva. Now we can probably throw Kaye into that mix. Corner kicks are about timing and freeing players in a yard or two of space. Most opponents know the dangermen going in, so they'll adjust their schemes as needed to the runs of those players.
Add more guys that can find a yard or two and finish, and you've made life that much more difficult on the opponent. Kaye may not consider himself an aerial threat but as long as teams have to account for him going forward, his presence on set pieces and corner kicks will add serious value to LAFC that can't be understated.
Cincy Has A Plan
FC Cincinnati wanted no part of the middle of the pitch against LAFC.
Here's the pass map for their midfielders and forwards on the night:
Content to abandon playing through the middle, Alan Koch's team preferred to find players in the channels to force 1v1 situations or gain numerical advantages by getting numbers to one side of the pitch. That plan had multiple effects on LAFC. First, the Black & Gold had to try to get men around the ball in wide areas to help defend. The knock-on effect of that being that then players weren't in positions to quickly break after turnovers. And second, by not attempting to pass through the middle, Cincinnati guaranteed its central midfielders would be in a position to clog that area of the pitch when LAFC did recover the ball.
The result was a less than fluid match going forward from Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Eduard Atuesta. Cincinnati was able to get close to at least two of the three at all times. That made the extra pass that could have forced Cincinnati's backline to commit to stepping forward a futile exercise through most of the match.
Up To The Challenge
While Cincinnati had its plan, LAFC's defense wasn't afraid of a challenge.
Time and time again, we hear Bob Bradley talk about the demands placed on his defenders. With Cincinnati foregoing much buildup in attack, LAFC's defenders had to quickly go from the front foot to defending on numerous occasions.
Cincinnati did its best to get the ball into areas where defenders would be isolated and in high-pressure situations. A barrage of out balls to the wings saw the likes of Walker Zimmerman, Jordan Harvey, Steven Beitashour, and Eddie Segura having to deal with an onrushing attacker. In those pivotal moments, LAFC's quartet was at the top of their game.
Two plays, in particular, stand out. Zimmerman's standing up inside the LAFC area in the 58th minute against Kekuta Manneh and Harvey's poking away the ball from Roland Lamah just inside the area in the 75th minute. Both plays were made in high-leverage situations, where a foot wrong could have meant a clear chance for the attacker or even a penalty.
When you consider LAFC has now gone 325 minutes without conceding a goal, you look back on plays like those and realize just how pivotal individual moments can be.
Just A Bit Off
LAFC came out the gates flying. But as they failed to score on multiple occasions early in the match, you started to get that sinking feeling.
Things were just a bit off. While much of the credit should be down to Cincinnati's work rate, it has to be said LAFC wasn't sharp either.
When Mark-Anthony Kaye scored in the 32nd minute, LAFC could have been up two goals or more had the timing, pass, or touch been just a bit better. The ideas were there. Spencer Richey had to be on his toes on more than one occasion. But too often the shot was right at him. Or the cutback hit a defender's heel and bounced harmlessly to the keeper.
Like Bob Bradley said, putting together the eye-pleasing football they managed from the last two matches isn't always a given. It has to be earned through execution. Lucky for LAFC, they were able to find the net despite the lack of fluidity in the final third.
This Is Why He's Here
Carlos Vela was not exempt from the aforementioned lack of sharpness. He had his moments where his touch or a shot let him down.
But when LAFC needed him most, the captain arrived.
Every week, he's asked about his MVP comments. Every week he graciously responds. But really, he's answering the most important questions on the pitch.
On a day where he wasn't at his best, and neither were his teammates, Vela stepped up to put the match to bed. Cincinnati nearly equalized just seconds before. But once Eduard Atuesta found him on the counterattack, Vela turned a half-chance into the dagger to end the match.
Vela now has goals in three straight matches. His eight goals through seven matches lead MLS. With an assist on LAFC's first goal, he's also the top of the league in assists.
Right now, there's nobody better in MLS.