Can we get some love for the LAFC defense? Jordan Harvey, Steven Beitashour, Walker Zimmerman, Eddie Segura and Tyler Miller have been putting in some serious work this season. But through 12 matches in 2019, the headlines have all gone the way of goal scorers.
No doubt, the Black & Gold have put together an impressive run to begin the season. Yes, LAFC's 19 goals through the first six matches bested the previous MLS record to start a season by two goals. And yes, LAFC captain and MVP frontrunner Carlos Vela is scoring at a historic pace in MLS - Vela matched the mark set by Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski as the fastest to 10 goals to start a season.
But that's only half the story of 2019.
LAFC's defense is putting up record numbers of their own this season with a league-low eight goals against thus far. Admit it, LAFC isn't on the tip of your tongue when you're talking defense. But at their current rate, LAFC's .67 goals-against average in 2019 has them on pace to best the previous mark for goals against in a 34-match season held by the Sporting KC team of 2012.
With LAFC experiencing minimal turnover in its squad from its inaugural season to now, it makes you wonder how the team went from giving up 18 goals through 11 matches last year to the league's staunchest defense, all while not surrendering production on the other side of the pitch. According to Tyler Miller though, the approach has been the same.
“We haven’t changed much [from last season]. We’ve really just stuck with what we know best and what Bob believes," Miller said. "And we’ve all bought in.
"We’ve been winning balls back higher up the field, which is taking a lot of stress and pressure off the defense. But when it comes time to make those key plays, key interceptions, and key blocks in box, guys are stepping up and they’ve been doing a great job. So far, it’s been a breeze for me to play because I know that I can rely on those guys. The few times I have been called into action this year I’ve felt like I’ve been able to step up for the team when necessary."
The addition of Eddie Segura and his burgeoning partnership with Walker Zimmerman has definitely contributed to the turnaround. In conjunction with Beitashour and Harvey, the LAFC backline and Tyler Miller have had far fewer emergency situations to deal with as a result.
Segura has been the perfect foil for Zimmerman. The two center backs cover one another and negotiate the high line demanded by Bradley. Zimmerman has heaped praise on his newfound partner on multiple occasions, saying Segura just knows the right time to cover for him and when to step up to challenge attackers on his own. In conjunction with Beitashour and Harvey, they undertake the task of providing LAFC with a steady foundation going forward.
That understanding along the backline sets the table but it's merely part of the equation. To pinpoint the LAFC backline as the beginning and end of LAFC's defensively solidity in 2019 wouldn't just be inaccurate, it would be reductive of the way LAFC's entire squad goes about its business on matchday.
“One of the best quotes of any of our players was Walker talking about the defending because he talked about how it involves everybody from front to back. Walker’s leadership has gone to a good level and now he sees how important it is that as we step up as a team, when guys close the ball down, that makes it easier for the guys in the back to push higher," Bradley said when asked about what's been the key to LAFC's defense this season. "We’ve certainly done a good job so far in terms of winning balls back, counterpressing, and trying to control transition. It’s still a part of the game that you have to keep working on. But we feel like that’s all been a part of the defensive effort.”
Fielding an all-action midfield trio of Latif Blessing, Eduard Atuesta, and Mark-Anthony Kaye a majority time this season, LAFC's front-to-back defensive style has been on point. While the midfielders are tasked with supplying the likes of Vela, Diego Rossi, Christian Ramirez, and Adama Diomande with an ample supply of chances, it's been their duty balancing the side when the ball turns over that has had the biggest effect in 2019. And the numbers show they've gotten significantly better at it.
Through 11 matches, LAFC is holding teams to just 8.29 passes per defensive action. In other words, opponents are averaging just over eight passes before a tackle, pressure regain, interception, etc. occurs from LAFC. That's a vast improvement on last year's average of 11.02. And to simplify it even more, LAFC is getting closer to its opponent during the run of play, limiting the opposition's ability to generate much on the ball consistently and for extending periods of time.
But it's not just LAFC's ability to quickly regain possession from opponents that's aided its defense. It's the location and result of those turnovers.
In 2019, LAFC's average shot total per match resulting from high press/counterpress events has jumped nearly a full shot from 3.62 to 4.45. The Black & Gold are winning the ball more often and higher up the pitch. Here's a great example of what that means:
Twenty-three seconds into the highlight, we see the moment LAFC loses possession and the team's counterpress goes to work. Atuesta's reaction to the turnover forces Nico Lodeiro in one direction, while Kaye - who is in a connected position, allowing him to work in tandem with Atuesta - slides over and cuts off the passing lane. The result is Kaye's deflection of the attempted pass less than 40 yards from the Seattle goal. Atuesta gets to the loose ball and has a reeling Seattle backline at his mercy. After that, you know what happens - do yourself a favor and watch Atuesta's cool finish one more time though.
Front-to-back, team defending has propelled LAFC to the top of MLS. In the space of less than a year, the Black & Gold look to have sorted what was the biggest talking point of last season. Couple that with a high-powered attack that has ideas in the final third and you've got one of the league's most complete sides.
As they say, the best defense is a good offense. In LAFC's case, a defense that can immediately turn into offense is even better.