Carlos Vela, LAFC vs. NYCFC, 5.13.18
Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | Nothing expansion about the talent Los Angeles FC will bring to Providence Park

Their most public moments have been their worst: the “Zlatan game,” as head coach Bob Bradley calls it, where they blew a three-goal, halftime lead to their cross-town rivals amid the debut of MLS’ newest icon; and their trip to Atlanta, where a late collapse produced a deceiving five-goal margin. Over the course of 120 clock minutes, Los Angeles FC was outscored by nine, failed to registered a goal, and suffered two humbling losses.

Around those games, though, LAFC has been the best team in Major League Soccer. That may seem like a hot take, but consider some of the standards we use to judge such things: the 2.5 points per game they’ve earned beyond those two losses would outpace Atlanta United FC for the league’s best mark; the seven goals they’ve otherwise allowed would make theirs the league’s best defense; while a plus-15 goal difference would be the circuit’s best mark. Even in terms of the advanced metrics, LAFC’s performance beyond those two hours makes a convincing claim, with the team’s Expected Goals difference, otherwise fourth in the league, passing Atlanta (third), Columbus Crew SC (second), and the New York Red Bulls (first) for the MLS’ best mark.

Of course, if you exclude any team’s worst results, their overall record is going to look better, but the way and the when LAFC has been bad makes this an easier case to make. Those nine goals and two losses didn’t come over a broad period of time, nor has that poor run of form been repeated since. Around those two losses (March 31 and April 7), Bradley’s team is 6-0-2, and while you could certainly argue their results will come back to earth, it’s more difficult to claim they’re as bad as their down moment. For most of this season, LAFC has performed like the class of circuit and they come to Providence Park Saturday to face the Timbers with momentum (12pm PT, FOX).

“They are one of the best teams we’ve faced so far in this league,” New York City FC’s Patrick Vieira said after his team’s 2-2 draw last weekend at Banc of California Stadium. “They’ve got the quality, the pace and the individual quality to create danger at any time.”

It would be too much to suggest nobody expected this from LAFC. After Atlanta United’s success last year, there seemed no limit on what MLS’ new, well-funded, ambitious franchises could do from their first kickoff. Though they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Knockout Round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, Atlanta spent much of last season hearing reasonable analysts argue why they should be mentioned in the same breath as the league’s eventual champion, Toronto FC. A roster with players like Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón will do that for you.

Impressively, LAFC has managed to put together an even more daunting collection of first-year talent, led by the first big name signed to the club. When Carlos Vela confirmed, last August, that he would be moving to MLS, Bob Bradley’s team was a blank whiteboard and a pile of cap space. By luring the former Arsenal and Real Sociedad attacker, MLS’ impending arrival acquired a cornerstone. One of a handful of MLS talents you watch and think ‘this guy is on a different level,’ Vela’s first 10 league games have produced six goals and five assists. Prorated to 34 games (which, because of the World Cup, Vela won’t play), that’s a 20-goal, 17-assist season.

He provides a presence that can determine games, and in Bradley’s approach, Vela has the freedom and space to dictate play from any place on the field. Though Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese prefers not focusing on single players, in talking around Vela, he provided the subtext to the Mexican international’s contributions. If he bends a game toward him enough, Vela can bring out the best in LAFC’s other talents.

“Their team is not only Vela,” Savarese explained. “We have to recognize that, also, because it’s important.

“They have more players that can contribute. And they’ve changed different things in every match, so we’re looking at everything. We’ve been analyzing their team, and then we’re looking to the right adjustments that we make in order to make sure that we consider not only Vela – who is a very talented player that has … freedom …, because he does appear from everywhere on the field, and brings his quality in every sector or area in the field – but also players who are talented in different ways.”

Put too much attention on Vela, and you create a platform for Uruguayan attacker Diego Rossi, who has four goals and six assists through his first 10 MLS games. Devote too much attention to them, and you can be exploited by veteran midfielder Benny Feilhaber and the industrious Latif Blessing, who have combined for four goals this season. Other players, like midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta, have also benefitted from the attention Vela can draw. When doing too much to eliminate one threat, you can leave new space for other threats to emerge, a worrying reality against a team that, in Lee Nguyen, has just acquired another elite attacking talent.

It’s a testament to the work John Thorrington, in LAFC’s front office, and Bradley have done to use the club's resources. Of course, a team with that backing is going to be able to lure talent, but getting that talent to mesh is another task, entirely. Getting it to mesh so soon? Well, there’s a reason why New York City FC and Orlando City SC didn’t see this success in year one.

Los Angeles FC has had their bad moments, but those swoons have already proven so uncharacteristic, it demands we look beyond them, to their greater body of work, to something that transcends first-year labels. While LAFC is an expansion team, better to just call this Year One, and recognize a new titan may be upon us.

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