A trip to the MLS Cup final hangs in the balance on Tuesday.
Looking ahead to this conference final, I reminded of something Bob Bradley told me once ahead of another semifinal. With so much on the line, semifinal can get ugly. One step away from the chance to play for a trophy, teams tighten up, players are afraid to make mistakes, and the matches aren't pretty.
In those moments, it takes a player or group of players that are not afraid to take the initiative. Sometimes you just need someone to grab the match and put it on their back, make that big play, and push the team over the top.
LAFC has plenty of match winners. Now the question is: how can the team put them into moments to make it count?
Here are the Toyota Keys to the Match for the Western Conference Final between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders:
All due respect to the likes of Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidíaz, and Cristian Roldan, but Nico Lodeiro is the player that powers the Sounders.
The Uruguayan is an engine for Seattle. He picks up spots all over the pitch, fights for every ball, and puts teams under pressure with his ability to put the ball exactly where he wants.
When the Sounders are playing well, they are able to get into dangerous areas and allow Lodeiro the freedom to make the final touch or set up the final touch. To do that, Lodeiro might start a play but he rarely ends in the same spot. LAFC will have to be cognizant of where Lodeiro is and communicate in passing off the playmaker as he floats around the field. He prefers to create from the left side of the Sounders formation but LAFC will need to keep close wherever he goes to not allow him the opportunity to assess his options.
Make The Most Of Advantages
This league is a chance creation and finishing league. Teams are going to get chances, it's how they finish that puts pressure on the opposition.
Against the Galaxy, LAFC took their opportunities well and finished when they created advantages. That forces the opposition's hand and opens spaces for a team like LAFC.
Seattle is a well-organized team with strong leadership. You can bet that if LAFC misses a chance or two, the Sounders are going to grow into the game. The Black & Gold will need to find the right passes and angles when they create space for attacking players. Find the best possible opportunities and be sure you don't miss the target. The more pressure you can put on Seattle via the scoreboard, the more comfortable LAFC can make the game for themselves.
Mind The Space
When you're a proactive team that likes to use the ball and defend high up the pitch, there's going to be space to play behind. All year, pundits have spoken about how exploiting that space is the key to beating LAFC.
Now, knowing that space exists and exploiting it are two very different things - if you're a coach in this league and you aren't aware of LAFC's high line, you probably shouldn't have your job much longer. In Jordan Morris, Seattle has a player with speed and a willingness to run from wide areas into the space behind defenses.
The way LAFC prefers to defend that is by getting tight to the ball the second it's lost. That serious limits the opposition's ability to play with a ball with the proper pace and angle to create dangerous opportunities through LAFC defense. But that may not always be an option, so it also takes players that are able to react well and make decisions based on the situation. Sometimes LAFC will need to drop to compact their lines, other times the team will need to step to compact spaces going forward. There isn't a correct answer for every situation.
The best thing is to be aware of the threat players like Morris present and react as a team to the match as it unfolds.