Real Salt Lake and LAFC present to you: A match in three acts. (Or three matches in one, if you prefer.)
There was drama and plot twists abound in Utah as LAFC managed to grind out a 2-0 win. If I had to, I really could have written takeaways for each act of this one.
Act One, the energetic half with no reward and a less than convincing ending for LAFC. Then, Walker Zimmerman sees red and it's time to find solutions while down a man. And finally, the captain levels the playing field and then gives the Black & Gold the edge on the way to all three points.
Not sure there's been a weirder match this season for LAFC. But in the end, when presented with a new challenge, the team found the way to win. Just like all great teams do.
Here are the takeaways from LAFC's wild 2-0 win over RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium:
Bring The Energy
Agreed 100-percent with both red cards. But it was a bit of a shame this match ended 10v10 because the first half was pretty compelling on its own.
To my eyes, that was one of the more energetic performances from front to back by LAFC in some time. The away side defended high up the pitch from the start. LAFC's front three were pressing in unison and making it difficult for RSL to build out of the back. They also tracked back when needed. Numerous times Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Carlos Vela dropped back to maintain LAFC's defensive block and make it difficult on RSL the few times they held possession.
The backline kept the team compact and penned in the opponent for long stretches. Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura squeezed the space, making it difficult for Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino to be any kind of outlet. While Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour were so active going forward the RSL fullbacks had little chance of joining the attack.
While all of this was going on, the midfield trio of Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Eduard Atuesta were flying around the pitch. As the half wore on, the holding midfielders of RSL had to venture out towards the touchlines to get on the ball. And when LAFC had possession, they rarely got close as the Black & Gold trio picked spot after spot to receive in a way that allowed them ample space to turn and face upfield.
To put a finer point on it. By the end of the night, LAFC held a distinct advantage in duels won 53 to 36. That's usually a telling stat when it comes to how much energy a team brought to the pitch on a given night.
With nearly an entire half to play and the score 0-0, not sure there's anything tougher than having to decide how to adjust after losing a center back to a red card. Do you pull a midfielder? Or a forward? Go three in the back?
Bob Bradley chose none of the above.
Instead, the LAFC head coach opted to remove right back Steven Beitashour in favor of a center back in Tristan Blackmon. To complete the switch, he asked Latif Blessing to move to right back for the sixth time this season.
The move proved to be the right one in hindsight. As so often happens with these types of things, it either works or it doesn't and really the result is what determines if it was the correct decision. But bear with me, as I think I might be able to explain the reasoning behind the move - and if I get it wrong, I'll let you all know when Bob corrects me next week.
What I'm thinking Bradley had in mind in making the move was that he couldn't sacrifice what Blessing brings on both sides of the ball. It's not a slight of Beitashour, Blessing just has ways of being in two places at once. Put him at right back and you can count on him to also provide some thrust going forward and support in midfield.
With that in mind, Blackmon has also stepped up his game exponentially in the past few months. You bring the young defender in because you need his cover at the heart of the defense. Blackmon's aerial ability and recovery speed helps neutralize RSL's penchant for crosses and direct play in transition. And finally, keeping four in the back helps deal with attacks in wide areas without stretching the backline too much.
That's my best guess. And since it all worked out in the end, it really doesn't matter what anyone thinks. Just be glad it's Bradley making those decisions on the touchline.
Greatest Season Of All-Time
And there are still nine matches left to play.
Carlos Vela put a little bit extra on that penalty. Maybe it was because of the way the team had to grind to stay in the match and find an opening. But if a record-setting goal had to come via a penalty, that's the way I'd want to finish it.
Just Rewards For Dio
After the match, Bob Bradley made it a point to talk about Adama Diomande's contribution on the night.
The LAFC forward could have had a hat trick before the half. He was thwarted by Nick Rimando, a goal-line clearance, and the post. But the movement and intention were there. Diomande is at his best when he's pulling off the backline and facing up the opponent. He's so difficult to dispossess when he gets a full head of steam, he can make guys miss off the dribble, and he can finish plays all by himself. And if you defenders have to commit to stop him, there's space for Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi to slip through.
Diomande rolled with the match and his persistence paid off. His goal sealed LAFC's eighth away win of the season.
With teams selling out to stop Vela, that's the Diomande LAFC needs to see.
...and one more thing, a special shoutout to Lee Nguyen for the pinpoint assist. Numerous times, LAFC's attack came to a halt because the final pass was either too firm or not on time. Nguyen did everything right on the play. He drove right at the RSL defense and chose the right option at the right moment to spring Diomande.
It was game over from there.
Playoffs?! We're Talking Playoffs?!
Just going to leave this right here. "X" marks the spot.
Nine matches remain and LAFC have clinched a playoff spot. NINE! It's only August 17.
Ok, got that out of my system. It's unreal. But ultimately, it's just a footnote to this season. Not a single player in the LAFC locker room will put much stock into it. Only a step on the road to their ultimate goal and nothing more.
It'll be all business when the team returns to training on Monday. But enjoy the moment tonight. I know of about 400 or so fans that will be living it up all the way back from Utah.
LAFC Away Days are the best.
See you back at the Banc on Wednesday!