The last time Pablo Sisniega played in a competitive match, he nearly died.
Dramatic? I know. But it seemed a pertinent place to begin after we spoke with the goalkeeper before he started his first match for LAFC. If you haven't heard the entire story, check it out below:
For those that want the Cliff's Notes version of the story, here it is. Sisniega was playing for Real Sociedad B in Spain when he collided with an opposition player around the 80th minute of a match. He was bruised and bleeding but with around 10 minutes to go, he figured he should finish the match.
- Real Salt Lake 0-3 LAFC
After the match, Sisniega had to be rushed to the hospital after passing out several times. When doctors finally diagnosed the problem as a ruptured spleen, they rushed the goalkeeper into surgery. And even then, had he not been an elite-level athlete he might not have made it.
During the interview, I asked Sisniega question after question about the incident. I failed to ask one specific question about that day: Did you win the match?
It didn't seem relevant then. But after LAFC defeated Real Salt Lake 3-0 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, we can say definitively that Sisniega led his side to victory in his first competitive match since a life-threatening injury on the pitch.
Here are the takeaways as LAFC advances to the Round of 16 in the Open Cup:
Atuesta In The Driver's Seat
A couple of weeks back, Max Bretos and I had a chat on the Inside LAFC podcast about LAFC's best player not named Carlos Vela. We mulled over quite a few names, as the side really has been fantastic this season from top to bottom and the results are there to show.
But in recent weeks, you've got to say Eduard Atuesta is without a doubt the second most important player on this team.
He drove LAFC forward at every occasion against Real Salt Lake. The first goal comes from his dogged effort in the middle of the pitch. He dispossesses an RSL player as they look to break on LAFC. From there, he doesn't settle for the easy sideways pass. Atuesta powers into the heart of RSL's defense and plays a perfectly weighted pass into the path of Carlos Vela. The RSL backline is unbalanced and Vela finishes things off.
That's all the great things Atuesta does in one play. He's your ball-winner, he's always looking to go forward through the center of the pitch and into dangerous areas, and when the windows open, he has the quality to play the right pass.
Around The Outside
Playing at home, Real Salt Lake was much more adventurous than when we saw them at Banc of California Stadium in March. They pressed high up the field at times and brought their backline forward.
One thing that didn't change was their use of width and fullbacks.
RSL found a little bit of joy isolating LAFC's fullbacks in 1v1 situations before springing an overlapping fullback of their own down the touchline. It opened up the LAFC defense a couple of times in the first half but center backs Danilo Silva and Eddie Segura did an excellent job of sliding over to compensate and staying with runners centrally when RSL played the ball into the middle.
While they were able to find space out wide, RSL never got the right angle behind the LAFC defense to trouble them with their balls from wide areas. And goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega wasn't shy in cutting out as many crosses as he could get his hands on.
Up 1-0 less than 10 minutes into the match, LAFC still didn't really get a firm grasp of the match until about 38 minutes in.
With Real Salt Lake pressing up on them, LAFC went over the top early and often. Not that it was the wrong tactic, as they found Carlos Vela, Christian Ramirez, and Diego Rossi in some good spots behind the RSL defense. But they couldn't find the goal that would have really exerted the pressure on RSL.
With the ball going over the top often, LAFC didn't have the time to really get close to RSL when the ball turned over and influence play with the counterpress. As the match wore on though, LAFC settled into a rhythm on the ball and the reactions got better. The Black & Gold started to apply more pressure on RSL by winning the ball higher up the pitch and they negated almost all of the opposition's counterattacking opportunities.
RSL's dangerous moments were nearly non-existent from there. Aside from one big moment at the hour mark...
New Guys Don't Shy From Big Moments
Speaking of Pablo Sisniega. The goalkeeper put his stamp on this match, denying Real Salke Lake from point-blank range with the score just 1-0.
With four players away on Gold Cup duty, three of which are starters, there was a lot of wondering out loud if LAFC's depth would come through. Especially considering the Black & Gold's only loss of the season came in a match they rotated for in Vancouver.
The newcomers to the starting 11 silenced those fears with pivotal interventions in Utah.
After Sisniega held firm in the LAFC goal, Lee Nguyen found the back of the net just four minutes later to give LAFC a definitive 2-0 lead. Nguyen's recognition of the space opened up by Christian Ramirez's checking off the RSL backline made all the difference in a perfectly timed movement. Already mentioned was Danilo Silva's steady work with Eddie Segura to shift the LAFC defense when RSL broke down the wings. But his slide tackle to negate what was a dangerous moment in transition all but sealed RSL's fate.
A cup match, in the middle of the week, and a 10+ hour drive from LA and look at this:
That's passion. That's commitment. That's the culture that should never be taken for granted around this Club. And Bob Bradley said as much after the match:
"As a Club, we want to go into every Open Cup match understanding that it's really important to our fans. And you can tell that because we have traveling fans tonight that are cheering for us all game. Knowing that they're as committed as they are and hearing them every game, then certainly it's the responsibility on all of us to make sure that we treat the competition with real respect."
We hear you.
(And those that stayed back in LA to watch didn't let you down either.)
Tuesday night post Open Cup.— LAFCalex (@LAFCalex) June 12, 2019
I love this Club. pic.twitter.com/sWTG1dQ50t