Professional soccer has made a return to the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League returning in late June and Major League Soccer action starting today. However, the league has hit a rough patch early on with the start of the MLS is Back tournament.
Before FC Dallas elected to opt out of the tournament due to the high amount of positive COVID-19 tests within the team (10 players and one coach), LAFC winger and star Carlos Vela decided to do the same when he announced that he would remain with his pregnant wife, Saoia.
The Mexican National Team star is coming off an MVP season, breaking the league’s single-season scoring record with 34 goals while contributing 15 assists in 2019. He was also off to a hot start in 2020, when he found the back of the net four times for the black and gold against Club León, the Philadelphia Union and Inter Miami C.F.
With the MVP’s absence and no North End to support the black and gold nor jump for LA Football Club, the black and gold will have some work to do to excel in tournament play and the rest of the season (assuming it happens).
Focusing on Offense
While Vela’s absence on the field and in the locker room is a big loss for LAFC, head coach Bob Bradley has plenty of options rotation-wise for attack, which will fall into the hands of forwards Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez. Rossi has scored 37 goals in 80 appearances with LAFC, making him the second-highest scoring player for the black and gold, along the status as a prominent scorer. On the other hand, Rodríguez has yet to score a goal but has the opportunity to shine by seeing more action on the field and playing alongside Rossi.
In addition, LAFC has brought back forward Adrian Perez and acquired veterans Bradley Wright-Phillips and Danny Musovski to beef up the offense. Wright-Phillips is coming off a seven-year stint with the New York Red Bulls with whom he scored 108 goals, becoming the 11th player in MLS history to score 100 goals in his career.
The black and gold will also have forwards Adama Diomande and Latif Blessing returning to the squad. Both are versatile and quick athletes that can easily execute on the passing and attacking side for LAFC. Coach Bradley has plenty of options to rotate his players across the starting 11 and further game substitutions for LAFC to excel, even so with the leadership abilities across the team.
Defensive Capabilities and New Opportunities
LAFC has suffered in the offseason on the defensive side with the departures of defenders Steven Beitashour and Walker Zimmerman. Beitashour opted for free agency while Zimmerman was traded to Nashville SC. However, the black and gold re-signed young defenders Triston Blackman and Mohammed El-Munir; both demonstrated strong defensive talent during the 2019 season.
The black and gold may be known for its offensive powerhouse, but they are no slackers on the defensive side of the field. On top of setting an offensive league record, LAFC also set a defensive league record by allowing only 37 goals all season, giving the team a plus-48 score differential. The club also re-signed veteran Jordan Harvey and Dejan Jakovic for another year after testing free agency.
With midfielder Lee Nguyen departing and selected by Inter Miami in the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft, LAFC got to work and acquired Uruguay U-20 team member Francisco Ginella and Ecuador U-20 member Jose Cifuentes.
Goalkeeper: LAFC’s X-Factor
Of LAFC’s many free agency signings, the most crucial addition was veteran goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who has experience playing for Dutch powerhouse clubs Feyenoord and Ajax. With Tyler Miller struggling towards the end of the 2019 season and particularly the postseason, he was traded to Minnesota United following the signing of Vermeer. Vermeer, 34, brings experience to a young and hungry LAFC team and will likely play a bigger role in the locker room with Vela’s absence this year. Adding the Dutch veteran keeper increases LAFC’s chances to change their reputation of failed postseason runs.
MLS is Back Tournament Predictions
Overall, LAFC will be struggling without their team captain and league MVP on the field. They will also miss the presence of a strong, passionate fanbase cheering in the North End but still have a solid chance to win the tournament as long as rotations are consistent and all sides of the field execute in their roles. The black and gold will have times throughout the tournament where they’ll struggle with some chemistry issues and lack of consistent leadership with Vela opting out.
LAFC opens up the tournament facing the Houston Dynamo, followed by the LA Galaxy, before concluding with the rival Portland Timbers, all in Group F.
Vela’s absence means that the tournament results can go two ways: LAFC will arise and win all or two games, or they could struggle and start off the continued 2020 season playing from behind.