Twenty-three other MLS teams would love to have LAFC's problems.
Sitting atop the table with the top spot in the Western Conference already secured and a historically great goal-differential, LAFC has hit a rough patch. They've gone the last four matches without a win - three of the four being draws.
And yet still, the Black & Gold have the inside track on claiming the Supporters' Shield.
Top-team problems, huh? What a nightmare.
All joking aside, the recent four-match "downturn" appears to be part of larger trend as of late for LAFC. In the last 10 matches, the team has conceded 16 of its 33 goals-against in 2019. You don't have to be a math wiz to see that's about half the season's total in one-third of the number of games.
That's, of course, not good. During those 10 matches, LAFC has more than managed though with a 5-2-3 record that included a season-high five-match winning streak at one point - again, top-team problems. But with four matches remaining in the regular season and the start of LAFC's quest for MLS Cup just about a month away, it's a problem that hasn't gone unnoticed.
"When we look at the defensive record in this last stretch, it’s not that we’re giving away many chances," Bob Bradley said recently after LAFC training. "In many games, still shots on goal are low. But there are key moments and it’s just the reading of a play, the decision, and being able to react to a moment. We’ve paid for a lot of little things that we’ve done wrong.
"Now we’re trying to correct some of those things. And defensively, we’re trying to really make sure we’re in a confident way in the last couple of games."
As it pertains to correcting course defensively, Bradley's use of "little things" isn't to belittle the point. LAFC has bested its opponents during this 10-match run in the shots battle in all but one contest - the San Jose match, in which LAFC won 4-0. So, the balance of play remains very much in favor of the Black & Gold. But when you defend and attack the way LAFC does, those little things in key moments can become pivotal.
The sense you get from Bradley is that the answers aren't black and white. Bradley has never instructed his team in systematic, binary reactions to problems on the pitch both in attack or defense. In other words, it's never "if this, then do this" with LAFC. That part confounds a lot of pundits and fans alike.
Take LAFC's last defeat, a 2-0 loss to Minnesota United at Banc of California Stadium in which the Loons defended in a low-block to stifle the Black & Gold attack and quickly hit on the break to exploit the space in behind the LAFC defense in transition.
Following the match, there was chatter of a blueprint to defeat LAFC. Many pointed back to the 3-3 draw against the Galaxy a week before, saying a similar disrupt-and-break in transition style buoyed the Galaxy to a 3-1 lead just 16 minutes into the match. Attempts to codify the blueprint narrow in on a small set of circumstances though in an attempt to reduce matches to a series of phases, forgetting that football is more fluid than that.
Here's an example. Take Minnesota's first goal on that night:
Judging by the clip alone, it looks to be a classic counterattack goal. Mason Toye runs at a retreating LAFC defense, beats a man, combines with Jan Gregus, and finishes from an acute angle.
What the clip doesn't show is this just moments before:
Eduard Atuesta reacts sharply to a loose ball that could have caught LAFC high up the pitch and turns it into a scoring opportunity with his dribbling ability. Vito Mannone makes a save that is in no way straight forward, getting down all the way on a shot heading into the back of the net. From there, the ball careens towards the byline and all Minnesota can do is clear towards midfield. That's when Toye gets on the ball and starts the sequence that leads to the goal.
LAFC could have been 1-0 up but instead, find themselves down a goal and up against a bunker at home. And again, despite conceding, it's a moment that could have been different.
Pick up the clip at 34 seconds. Lee Nguyen and Walker Zimmerman converge on Toye and look to have reacted in a way to snuff out the attack. Seeing Nguyen close down the ball quickly, Zimmerman elects to drop off. That decision not to continue to pressure the ball opens an avenue for Toye to escape and the play develops from there.
And even then, LAFC still has a chance to snuff things out. Eddie Segura tries to jump Toye's run to pull him offside before going to ground to cut out the pass. Neither attempt comes to fruition and credit to Toye, who shows he's got the quality to match his decision-making in carrying the ball and continuing his run right at the heart of the backline.
It's all a matter of questions in the space of about 15 seconds. None of which have definitive answers. And that's just one instance.
Here's the most recent example in LAFC's 1-1 draw at Philadelphia when Kacper Przybylko scores just over two minutes into the match:
There are multiple opportunities in the span of seconds to snuff out the opportunity. Can you win the direct ball or should you go with the runner as the Union overload that side? Should you sellout to close Bedoya or do you need to retreat to deal with Fafa Picault running free? Do you simply get tight to Przybylko or do you block a dangerous area and rely on your teammates to cover behind? At the asking of any one of those questions in that situation, you could have answers that would have changed the course of that play. But again, it's little details as LAFC is in positions to react differently to all of those situations.
Of the 16 goals conceded over the last stretch, there's no catch-all category to put them into. LAFC has conceded in transition, failed to convert advantages that led to opponents' opportunities, been the victim of some quality finishing, and even been downright unlucky with a bounce or two. There's no through-line between them all. Which begs the question when you remind yourself LAFC is 5-2-3 over this tough stretch: What's the actual blueprint to beating LAFC?
"I think we have been a little bit careless on some of the turnovers," Steven Beitashour said when asked what's changed over this last stretch. "Our reactions haven’t been as good to really get tight and decrease the gaps where teams don’t have as big of an opportunity to play through us. I think right now, we’re getting a little careless, we’re taking a couple too many touches, and when we lose it we’re a little bit too spread out. So we need to sharpen up as far as not giving careless turnovers but when turnovers do occur, which they will, we need to have better reactions."
It should also be noted that during this stretch, LAFC hasn't always had its choice of lineup options. Of the 10 matches, Bradley has been able to call upon the same starting XI only three times and not once in consecutive matches. An array of injuries, international call-ups, fixture congestion, and yellow-card suspensions has been to blame in that regard.
But with the regular season's finish line in sight, Bradley reminded his team once again that it's time to refocus and get back to form.
"We’re excited to finish the season in a good way. I remind the group always that when you look at the standings, when you look at the points, when you look at goals scored, goals given up, goal differential, there’s a lot of things that we can be proud of," Bradley said. "But now, we want to continue to the end to make those things better. So we’re positive and we yet continue to address small details so that we can continue to finish in top form."
Whether you believe there's a blueprint to beating LAFC or not. Whether you see this four-match run as a sign LAFC is vulnerable or not. If the Black & Gold can iron out those little details in the next four matches, there's no limit to what they are capable of in 2019.