When Carlos Vela made the expected announcement on Monday that he was not playing in the MLS Is Back Tournament so he could stay in Los Angeles with his family and pregnant wife, it left an MVP-size hole in the LAFC lineup.
The 2019 MLS MVP and league-leading goal scorer is the unequivocal star of LAFC’s vaunted record-breaking attack, so how will the Black & Gold deal with their matches in Orlando without their number 10?
“Certainly, Carlos is an important player,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. “But the way we train and the way we prepare is to be a good team when Carlos isn’t on the field, and we have had some moments when that is the case.”
The dependable Vela has only missed nine MLS matches in two seasons, and LAFC has gone 4-3-2 in those games, including a 3-1-1 stretch in 2018 when Vela was with Mexico in the World Cup. Including two U.S. Open Cup matches in 2018 that Vela missed, LAFC overall is 6-3-2 without their captain and has scored 19 goals in those nine MLS games.
“We train in different ways every day, we mix up line-ups, and make sure that guys get used to playing with different people.” Bradley said.
Of course, one of the most dangerous attacking players in all of MLS is Diego Rossi, and the mercurial Uruguayan has shown flashes of being in shape and ready to make a huge impact in Orlando with a little bit of an extra spotlight on him. An MLS All-Star just a year ago, Rossi has scored 29 goals in 68 MLS games.
“I’ve said over these last few months, Diego has really been in good form,” Bradley said. “He is really working hard with a very good mentality.”
Another Uruguayan National Team player, Brian Rodriguez, is also expected to continue his growth and become an attacking problem for defenders. Rodriguez became the youngest player in LAFC history to start a match, when he took the pitch vs. Minnesota on Sept. 1, 2019 at 19 years, 104 days.
“Brian is a talented guy,” Bradley said. “He is someone that we’re just trying to help. He is someone that puts pressure on himself, and right now we are just trying to take that away and get him to play as free as he can.”
The pressure has been building for Rodriguez, as has yet to score a goal for the Black & Gold, but the exciting winger has shown flashes of brilliance.
“We’re lucky, we’ve got a lot of talented attackers,” Bradley said. “Now when you take [Carlos] away, that does challenge others to step up. We’ve seen that happen before - we see other players raise their levels. That is how a team works, and we’ve had experiences over the last two years where that has been the case.”
An attacking player who has shown his talent when healthy for LAFC is Adama Diomande. Dio burst into MLS in 2018, joining LAFC in May from England’s Hull City and quickly making a difference, scoring nine goals in his first seven matches. His high level of finishing continued as he recorded the first hat trick in LAFC history, and in 2019 proceeded to net eight goals and register seven assists, including two dramatic tallies that sealed the Club’s first-ever win over the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals.
But Dio is still making his way back from a right foot fracture that sidelined him for the first few games of the 2020 season. Fully rehabbed and back in training, Bradley said that the striker is not quite fit to go a full 90 minutes.
Another dangerous striker battling back from injury is the newly signed Bradley Wright-Phillips. An MLS Legend in seven seasons in New York with the Red Bulls, BWP is the fastest player in MLS history to record 100 league goals and is the first MLS player to score 20 or more goals in three different seasons. He ranks seventh in the league history books with 108 total career goals, and is going to be looked to around the net to score some of his trademark tap-ins.
After an injury shortened 2019 season in New York, Wright-Phillips missed the first two games of this season recovering from hernia surgery and is poised to continue his assault on the MLS record books.
“Bradley [Wright-Phillips] has been back in training and showing some good things,” Bradley said. “Obviously, his play around the goal is still special. He’s not ready to play 90 minutes, but you can see the understanding that is developing between Brad and some of the other attackers. We are hopeful that he will be an important guy for us as we move through the season and we expect to see him in Orlando.”
Other attacking options for LAFC include Adrian Perez, who scored his first MLS goal last season and was enjoying a strong start to 2020 before being sidelined with a right leg injury, and the uber-versatile Latif Blessing.
Blessing, who has played nearly every position for LAFC except goalkeeper since his arrival in 2018, has the ability to slot into the attacking front three naturally.
“We stand behind Carlos,” Bradley said. “It is important for him to be with his family. But it doesn’t change our mindset at all, not having Carlos. For us we look at all these things as a package: the way we play, our fitness, our mentality and our ideas. So, it is not like we will go there and have a new way of playing, we will go out there and take the ideas that you have seen over the last few years. We want to use these games to keep building our team, certainly we want points and we want to win this tournament, but we want to come out of this tournament further along so we can keep pushing throughout the year.”