Before you start any kind of knockout competition, there are a few things you have to come to terms with.
First and foremost, knockout competitions are rarely fair. And by that I mean, you can have a night when the opposition takes two shots and scores three times. While your side takes a boatload of shots, manages just two goals, and goes out. Them's the breaks.
Second, your best players have to be your best players. There will be matches in a knockout competition when nothing goes right. Space will be tight and nerves will be frayed. In those moments, it sometimes takes a flash of quality from a star player to get you through.
And finally, knockout competitions aren't fair. I know I already said that but it bears repeating. On any given night you can stack up every advantage in your favor and still a bounce here or a mistake there can be the difference. It's what makes these competitions so compelling to some and frustrating to others.
LAFC embarks on its second run at the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday at Real Salt Lake. With MLS regular-season play halted the next couple of weeks and country's oldest knockout competition firmly in its sights, here are the Toyota Keys to the Match for LAFC's fourth-round Open Cup contest with RSL:
Let's Get Physical
The nights in which a team is able to make LAFC from a technical perspective are few and far between. Teams find going the physical route not only more effective but more feasible when they line up opposite the Black & Gold.
However, the physical nature of matches seems to intimidate LAFC less and less as this season goes on. When Real Salt Lake met LAFC in the fourth match of the 2019 season, the visitors attempted to assert themselves on the match through physical confrontations all over the field. As LAFC grew into the contest, they slowly found space to play and deal with RSL's attempts to get slow LAFC movements.
Now more adept at dealing with physical sides, LAFC needs to match its opponents level from the opening whistle. The quicker the Black & Gold can acclimate to the type of match presented to them, the quicker they can impose their ideas on their opponents.
If RSL's match early in the season is any indication, LAFC is in for a battle for the center of the pitch.
Mike Petke will have his side drilled on shutting down any kind of avenues through the middle. Two tight banks of four, and sometimes five, will await LAFC as they look to find spaces in dangerous areas. LAFC will want to use width to draw the opponent to one side of the pitch and then quick combinations back towards the middle of the pitch to open windows through the RSL defense.
That means having an idea of what you want to do with the ball before receiving and orientating your body to create angles to play the next pass as quickly as possible. LAFC midfield trio will need to work in tandem with the wide players to link passes quickly and find pockets of space to supply dangerous runs going forward.
Don't Leave It Late
Just don't! We've already confirmed that these competitions can be so cruel. So don't leave anything to doubt.
Get on the front foot early and, more importantly, make your advantages count. It won't be enough to rack up chance after chance because anything can happen as legs get tired and focus is lost, especially on the road.
LAFC will want to seize control on the pitch and on the scoreline to secure passage to the next round.