Nothing short of epic.
After LAFC's 5-3 victory over the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinal, the phrase came out of my mouth over and over in conversation. It tumbled out almost without thinking. In sitting down to expand on my thoughts, I considered why it came so readily.
Every epic needs a hero - or in this case, heroes. And every epic is basically a simple story. One likely told over and over in a way that's memorable and malleable in order to convey some greater meaning of life, the human experience, or culture.
Joseph Campbell might not be familiar to you. He was a writer and professor that studied ancient myths across cultures and centuries. His seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces centered around the hero archetype. It was a major influence on George Lucas' crafting of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy.
For Campbell, the hero myth is a reoccurring theme throughout history. From Perseus to Gilgamesh to Hercules the core structure of these stories are oddly identical. The hero begins a quest as no hero at all. The hero is flawed and usually unknown. The hero faces the dragon and fails, sometimes repeatedly. The hero eventually prevails, usually with supernatural intervention, only to realize after intense introspection that the ability was within all along. And with that victory is knowledge the hero carries from that day forth.
In five matches, LAFC had never conquered the Galaxy and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Despite being within grasp, victory eluded the Black & Gold. But Thursday night was definitely a hero's journey for LAFC. They vanquished a dragon in the guise of a lion. And now hopefully will use that knowledge to push forward to MLS Cup.
Here are the takeaways from LAFC's 5-3 win over the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinal of the 2019 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs:
Sometimes Things Work Out For The Best
The start of this match was something we definitely weren't used to in this rivalry. The Galaxy had nearly all the ball early and LAFC sat deeper than normal.
Perry Kitchen split the Galaxy center backs to form a line of three, while the outside backs hugged the touchline high up the pitch. Knocking the ball from one side to the other, the Galaxy set up for overloads using inside to outside runs from Cristian Pavón and Uriel Antuna in order to send crosses to Zlatan Ibrahimović. They also wanted to send direct balls towards their big striker. With LAFC a bit passive, there was little room behind and plenty of bodies to deal with second balls.
To my eye, it appeared to be a conscious tactic from LAFC. There was little to no press and without the ball, there was no counterpress. Again, not what we are used to from LAFC. The high-level tenants of LAFC's game model: use the ball to create and win the ball back as quickly as possible when it's lost. But against a team that likes to play direct, maybe a cat and mouse, conservative approach makes sense.
But after the match, Bob Bradley said he wasn't happy with the way his team started. They didn't find moments to step forward as he would have preferred. However, LAFC was able to hurt the Galaxy in transition when the failed to pass through LAFC.
That reminded me of when Bradley once remarked to me that too many times people attribute a conscious decision of a team to something when really it was just the way the game played out. This is why sometimes tactics are overrated and teaching players how to read the game in front of them is so valuable.
In this instance, whether it was a conscious tactic or not, it worked out for LAFC.
LA Belongs To Vela
Only one player has scored all six matches between LAFC and the Galaxy. It's not the one that goes on TV proclaiming his greatness constantly.
Zlatan might have said he'd break every record this season but Vela actually went out and did it. The Golden Boot winner scored twice and added an assist on Thursday. Vela now has 10 goals in six matches against the Galaxy. He's gotten his name on the scoresheet of every single derby between the two teams.
Rossi Makes His Mark
Fourth in the scoring charts this season, Diego Rossi had been fairly quiet in derbies up to this point. He made a statement in the second half.
Rossi scored his first goal against the Galaxy following the team move above. The Galaxy have seven players in a 20-yard area. LAFC's spacing is perfect though and one of the things Bob Bradley preaches is coming off defenders and facing towards goal. Body positioning is key to all of this.
Vela comes off the backline to receive. He's nearly knocked off the ball but manages to keep his body between the ball. In the moment Vela pops back up, notice Rossi. He angles back onside and turns his hips towards goal.
Rossi's first touch following the pass from Vela is perfectly weighted towards goal, giving him the chance to arrow his finish into the corner. That's absolute precision from a wide forward in a tight space. We know Rossi can do damage with space behind a defense - which he reminded the Galaxy of shortly after when he raced onto a through ball from Lee Nguyen and squared to Adama Diomande for an easy finish for the game-winner - but when he gets his footwork right, he's able to unlock opponents in tight areas as well.
All The Right Subs
After the Galaxy leveled the match at 2-2, Bob Bradley immediately made a double switch. He brought on Walker Zimmerman for Steven Beitashour and Adama Diomande for Brian Rodríguez. Zimmerman was returning from a concussion on the final day of the season, while Diomande had recently been reinstated from MLS' Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program.
Big matches mean big decisions. Even when moves make sense, coaches are judged only by the result of changes. Bradley got it spot on.
Zimmerman gave Zlatan a new sparring partner and was commanding in the air. Diomande gave LAFC some extra thrust through the middle of the pitch and with Vela pushed wide, the Galaxy's backline of four center backs couldn't cheat inside. Which directly contributed to the goal that sealed LAFC's victory.
The Galaxy backline was narrow the entire evening. But with Vela wide to the right, Dave Romney has no choice but to go with him. With Romney pinned out wide, once Diomande turns Diego Polenta, it's a 9-1-1 drill for the Galaxy. Diomande keeps his nerve, Romney can't catch up, and Diomande finishes off the epic victory.
Shutting Up Shop
Bob Bradley added one more wrinkle with his final change of the night.
Not one to "shut up shop" and stop playing football throughout his two seasons with LAFC, Bradley did the closest thing to slamming the door on the Galaxy. He brought on a third center back in Dejan Jaković and pushed Eddie Segura into midfield.
Jaković had just three appearances all season for LAFC but his size and speed matched well with Zlatan. While Segura had a brief spell in midfield against Orlando City for LAFC. It's as close as we're probably ever going to get to Bradley "shutting up shop" for LAFC.