By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 21, 2020) US Soccer Players – The best thing to come of out LAFC’s trip to Mexico on Tuesday night may have been the traveling support. Roughly 800 LAFC fans made the trip to Leon to see their club’s debut in the Concacaf Champions League. The Black & Gold faithful partied it up in Guanajuato and made their presence felt across the 90 minutes of LAFC’s 2-0 loss. The passion for the MLS fans brought the best of Club Leon’s fans, boosting the Champions League in a round when the atmosphere and energy of matches can wane. No matter how disappointing the team’s performance on the field, LAFC’s supporters never wavered.
The fans will always remember their first foray south of the border for the Champions League, but they may not want to remember the game. LAFC played sloppy, disjointed soccer. They paid the price against one of Liga MX’s leading teams. Leon was happy to allow the MLS Supporters’ Shield holder to dominate possession while the Mexican side waited to jump on any mistakes they might make.
LAFC complied. Bob Bradley’s team should feel fortunate to be headed back to Banc of California Stadium down just two goals. Club Leon missed a number of other opportunities to increase the lead and effectively end the tie. LAFC missed a chance or two of its own, but the balance of dangerous attacking moment tilted clearly in the direction of the home side.
The loss prompted numerous questions about the MLS club’s preparation for and approach to the game. No American or Canadian team in the tournament received a tougher Round of 16 assignment than LAFC. While that might give the team an excuse for its struggles, it also opens the door to the possibility that the tactics didn’t work.
LAFC’s surprise decision to trade 2019 Best XI defender Walker Zimmerman to Nashville SC for a million dollars in allocation money last week raised an obvious issue about the defense. With Zimmerman gone, Bradley lined up Eddie Segura, a starter from 2019’s dominant regular-season team, next to Dejan Jakovic, a 34-year-old MLS veteran who spent time in Japan and the NASL before returning to the league in 2018. The decision to rest Eduard Atuesta and Adama Diomande out injured further complicated lineup choices for Bradley.
The lack of depth at the back exacerbated LAFC’s missing sharpness. It threw into question Bradley’s choice to stick to the swashbuckling soccer that he established as the club’s identity over the last two-plus years. Knowing that the task would be difficult enough, even with the full team that ran away with the MLS points title last year, could Bradley have taken a different approach and played to limit León rather than take the game to them?
First among the arguments for why LAFC took the correct tact in trying to take something positive out of the visit to Mexico is just how difficult it can be to get a group to play against its instincts. From the moment he took the job in Los Angeles, Bradley pushed his players to be aggressive, quick, and incisive when on the ball. A swarming approach to pressure keyed an attack that used superior numbers going forward to blitz opponents.
Carlos Vela scored plenty of goals through sheer individual brilliance over the last two seasons. Still, LAFC’s most notable moments always came through team moves.
Asking a team that played just one way and succeeded while doing it might be difficult, mostly because of the mental switch required. It’s not just about playing in a manner that is counter to their instincts. It’s about defying the deeply rooted belief in their version of soccer that Bradley worked so hard to foster.
Therein lies the bigger, philosophical question. It’s not an issue of pragmatism for Bradley. Play aggressively and go for goals or sit in and try to escape with a draw because one or the other might be a better way to win the series. Instead, it’s an issue of right and wrong. Whether his team is equipped to play ugly, grind-it-out soccer is beside the point. As one of the progenitors of MLS 3.0, LAFC is conscious of its status as the standard-bearer for “good soccer” in a league that often comes up short of that mark.
“In their stadium and in front of their fans they’re strong,” LAFC forward Diego Rossi said after the game. “But I think you saw an LAFC that pushed the tempo and tried to play good soccer. And I think that it was a nice game, an entertaining game.”
This is a phenomenon fairly new in MLS. It’s a team so committed to the idea of playing “good soccer” that it would rather lose while trying to meet that bar than win playing something people could call “bad soccer.” Bradley’s position is worth respecting, if only because it is so unique in the American game. That doesn’t mean that the club’s fans might want more.
If winning is the only thing that matters, nothing about Tuesday’s performance makes sense. Bradley submarined his chances by playing into the hands of a team known for being adept at the counterattack. Pushing numbers forward and opening up space for the Mexican team was risky at best. Identity is all well and good, but advancement should dictate tactics, not amorphous ideas of playing “good soccer” for a team that has existed for all of two seasons.
If it’s identity that counts, then Bradley got it right. Soccer is a sport that lends itself to deeply philosophical judgments of style and approach. While trophies matter, cultivating a character built on what is an objectively attractive style of playing matters more in the long run.
Soccer is perhaps the only team sport that has those questions at its core. Mature soccer cultures consider those questions. They debate them. They celebrate most those teams that can marry winning and style and diminish those that ugly their way to championships. In soccer, winning is often not enough, and immortality is hard-earned.
LAFC faces a difficult challenge to advance to the quarterfinals in its first trip to the Concacaf Champions League. Handed an extremely difficult draw, the best team from 2019’s regular season was always going to be underdogs. Bad timing saps ever MLS team heading into the Champions League. LAFC faced even greater odds because of injuries and the quirks of the MLS trade market.
That doesn’t mean LAFC would park the bus at Leon. They’re not going to suddenly become a different team. The gruff boss of the Black & Gold is known for saying he wants his team to play “our football.” That’s more than a catchphrase in Los Angeles. It has power.
Bradley and LAFC went to Leon and lost playing their football. If they’d changed who they were in the quest for victory, they’d have lost more than the game.
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Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com