That felt like a playoff match.
The 1-1 draw between LAFC and the Philadelphia Union was everything we've come to expect from playoff football. Max Bretos and Heath Pearce made mention of it several times on the YouTube TV broadcast and they weren't lying.
It was cagey. It was fast. There were mistakes and responses. It was loud. It was nervy. And it was in intense.
I could go on but let's get right to the takeaways instead...
Not Ready For The Races
It's hard to know where to begin with this one.
Giving up a goal in the first three minutes of a match on the road is a near knockout blow for most teams. LAFC rebounded from it but you could tell the team was shook for the next 15 minutes or so.
From the kickoff, LAFC simply weren't able to get close to Philadelphia. There are almost too many instances in the buildup to the goal to point out the culprit. So let's just say the entire 11 needed to be better from the opening whistle and they weren't. It took a lot of focus and energy for LAFC to get back into the match as a result.
Direct, Direct, Direct
My rants on blueprints and teams figuring LAFC out are well-documented on the Max + Vince Podcast (give us a listen and subscribe!). So, I'll give you the abbreviated version here.
Teams have a pretty good grasp of how LAFC likes to play matches. I'd be surprised with all the tape on the Black & Gold this season if they didn't. That doesn't mean they have them figured out. They can devise tactical plans that can increase their chances of negating some of LAFC's strengths but at the end of the day, teams have to deal with certain trade-offs to make that happen.
In Philadelphia's case, they're a pressing side. They like to use the ball to get up the pitch as a unit and then get after teams in the defensive half to create turnovers. Against LAFC, the Union was a long-ball playing, second-ball winning side. Not many short passes in that first-half pass map.
It worked on the first goal as they went over the top to an overloaded side of the field, won the second ball, and created an opportunity in the space behind LAFC's backline. But it did very little to allow Philadelphia to play to their strengths and as LAFC started to get a handle on the match, the Union had very little rhythm going forward - Philadelphia had just one shot on target in the second half.
This is the same Philadelphia team that took the match to Atlanta United the last time out at home. The Union deserves credit for carrying out a game plan that attacked what they felt were LAFC's weaknesses but you've got to also say that if teams are abandoning what they do best to counter LAFC, that's a big tradeoff.
And I'm not the only one thinking all this. Taylor Twellman tweeted about it from a different perspective:
Few teams if any in #MLS history have throughout the entire season both home & especially on the road dictated games and how the opposing team plays. Philly was good and no doubt but Jim Curtin said it’s the most difficult team he’s ever had to prepare for and that includes ATL.— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) September 15, 2019
Carlos Vela made his return to the LAFC starting 11 after sitting out the last two matches. He scored his 28th goal of the season - the second-most goals ever scored in an MLS season.
The goal wasn't the prettiest but it came in a big spot for LAFC. And there were glimpses of Vela being back at his best. This is pretty filthy:
Vela did also look like a player that hasn't played in two weeks. He took some time to get into the flow of the match and his ability to go a full 90 minutes wasn't there. Which is why removing him just after the hour mark was the smart move.
There's no substitute for match fitness. Getting Vela a run out of just over an hour is the best sign for the LAFC captain with more important matches looming.
Players Back From International Duty
It was great to have the gang all back together.
Seven players were away from LAFC on international duty last week. Three of those players jumped right back into the starting 11 for the Black & Gold.
As much as it's great to have players return, it's never easy. While guys are away with their national teams they train very differently than they do with LAFC and most times play in different roles with their national teams. Integrating players back to LAFC's way of playing is easier said than done.
Not to mention there's the physical and mental wear that players face. Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye played 90 minutes on two occasions with their national teams and then returned to go 90 with LAFC. That can't be ignored.
Lacking A Bit Of Sharpness
Unfortunately, I've had to reference this takeaway a couple of times in the past few weeks. I know it drives people crazy because they look at it as an excuse. And I get it, it sounds like a cop-out or just coach speak.
But at the speed matches are played, things really can come down to just being a bit sharper. For one thing, at least LAFC is creating advantages in the first place. But for people that pull out their hair when I write "need to be sharper," I've pulled a couple of examples of what I mean and how it comes down to little things.
Example 1 - Diego Rossi is in a good pocket of space and a window is there to put him through on goal. Mark-Anthony Kaye plays a nice inside pass here but it goes out for a goal kick:
As you see the defender slide over, you kind of get an idea of what Rossi was trying to do here. But in the end, it's a case of the Uruguayan attempting to use the wrong foot to control the ball. He wants the outside of his right so he can control and cut in at the same time to have a shot. If he uses his left, he's able to get to that ball and probably still has an opportunity to cut in or even skip past the defender on the outside and get off his shot. Like I said, a little bit sharper.
But here's another one.
Example 2 - LAFC is basically 2v2 here with the two being Carlos Vela and Adama Diomande on the move and in space. You've got to like those odds. But a shot never materializes.
There's a clear window to Diomande there and Vela has that pass in his locker. He simply hits it a little too soft. And maybe if Vela hasn't missed the last two matches, he's able to get to the initial pass quicker to make the possible assist even easier.
Again, those are the small margins. And that's exactly what is referenced when Bob Bradley says the team needs to be a bit sharper.
While that doesn't soothe people when LAFC are winless in the last four matches, I want to again point out that the advantages are there. Scoring goals will always be the toughest part of the game, it's why they are so important.
LAFC has earned the benefit of the doubt through 30 matches this season with its 77 goals scored and +44 goal differential. It's a rough patch now but as long as those advantages continue to be created, there's going to be a patch when LAFC start hitting on all those chances once again.