Chaos theory: How LAFC’s rotating attack crushes opponents
Granted, the sample size is only two matches, and early-season results are notoriously fluky in MLS. But it’s also a particularly impressive feat for the first-year team, considering the level of hype that surrounded its arrival. A three-year building process set the stage for inevitable early-season disappointment; how could anyone meet such lofty expectations?
And yet, LAFC has the chemistry of a core which has been together for some time. Expansion teams actually can compete from the outset in MLS, as Atlanta United proved in 2017. The Seattle Sounders proved that a decade ago. The 1998 Chicago Fire remain the gold standard, winning MLS Cup in the team’s first year. It is well known that current LAFC coach Bob Bradley was in charge of that Chicago side, which will continue to draw parallels throughout the year.
Bradley’s tactical wisdom and savvy roster-building is already evident in LAFC’s on-field product. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi have started the year as well anyone could have expected. Rossi, who turned 20 the day after his MLS debut, has three goals and three assists in his first two matches. Laurent Ciman shines as the general of the back four. Less heralded are the shrewd additions of goalkeeper Tyler Miller -- who has been excellent thus far -- and 2017 USL champion Mark-Anthony Kaye.
What makes LAFC tick, however, is the controlled chaos created by its front four. The combination of Rossi, Vela, Latif Blessing and Marco Urena is such a nightmare for defenders because there is little predictability in their movement. That was clear from the opening moments of the team’s history, with Vela finding Rossi for the 11th-minute winner against Seattle on opening weekend.
That play, which was mimicked in a late-game tally against Real Salt Lake in Week 2, exemplifies the problems that LAFC’s front four causes for opponents. Rossi and Vela are the stars, but Urena and Blessing are essential parts of the ecosystem.
How it works (and boy, it works)
LAFC lined up with the exact same starting XI in its first two matches: Urena was the lone striker in front of Vela, with Rossi wide left and Blessing wide right. Those are merely starting points, as Rossi and Blessing spent nearly an hour of play on opposite sides in the 5-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. Each player is capable of dangerous diagonal runs between center backs, and Rossi has been the most punishing so far.
In his second goal against Real Salt Lake, Rossi can be found drifting centrally. As Vela receives the ball underneath, Rossi recognizes the situation and bends his run slightly to stay onside. Urena’s movement to check to the ball and lay it off to Vela is crucial to that play.
And Urena again quietly helps create Vela’s tally for LAFC’s fifth goal against Real Salt Lake. Urena’s in-to-out run clears space for Vela to streak right down the middle of the park, and Rossi picked him out perfectly.
Granted, Real Salt Lake had pushed numbers forward at that point, but this type of rotation has been commonplace for LAFC in its first two matches. Urena is not a traditional double-digit goal-scorer -- he tallied five times for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2017 -- but much of what he is doing for LAFC will not show up in statistics. Vela enjoys a very free No. 10 role which allows him to orchestrate, often in that more advanced position but sometimes from deeper-lying positions when he feels the need to find the ball more.
That sort of movement -- Urena checking away and dragging defenders, plus delayed runs from fullbacks and holding players -- asks a lot of opponents’ midfields, a task too tall for Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach in Week 2. It demands that opposing midfielders track these runs and clearly communicate when they are passing off responsibilities to center backs or fullbacks. That all might sound simple, but in real time, it’s incredibly difficult. LAFC’s speed in transition is potent, having shown the ability to literally go endline-to-endline in two passes in the opening minutes against RSL.
That transition often also starts by winning the ball in high areas, with Kaye and Benny Feilhaber bringing an added layer of confusion from the deeper-lying midfield positions. They can frequently be found in more advanced positions than Vela. Feilhaber played the penultimate ball on Rossi's equalizer against RSL, with Vela filling in behind. Feilhaber finished one of his own, too, with service from overlapping fullback Steven Beitashour.
LAFC’s major worry is no secret: depth. Bradley hasn’t turned to his bench before the 80th minute in either match, and for good reason. Rookie Tristan Blackmon will not stoke fear into opponents the way Vela or Rossi does, but LAFC has notably decided to take its time in filling a third Designated Player roster spot, so that could be addressed in the summer.
Depth has already been tested at center back due to a nagging injury to Walker Zimmerman; Dejan Jakovic has been a suitable replacement thus far.
But this is a long season through the warm summer months. At some point, LAFC will hit the grueling mid-season stretch which makes or breaks all teams. A larger sample size is needed to see just how special this team can be in its first campaign, but there is no denying that, right now, its attack is an absolute menace.