By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Aug 26, 2020) US Soccer Players - Carlos Vela has quite a lot of talents. He is an outstanding finisher, one of the best in league history with an MLS-record 34 goals a season ago. Vela also has excellent vision as he threads passes and creates opportunities for his teammates. For 2020, his vision might save the season, even though he did not intend it that way.
Vela left in the 57th minute of the LAFC vs LA Galaxy match on Saturday with an injury. Later diagnosed with a sprained knee, the league's reigning MVP will likely be out for several weeks.
Of course, Vela could not have known he would last just an hour into his LAFC return. The injury was a fluke as most knee ligament sprains tend to be. Vela prepared his LAFC squad for such a possibility by skipping the MLS is Back tournament in July. LAFC played five games without Vela.
Life without Vela is not at all ideal. It ended up being not as bad as expected, but now the team must approach this situation with a slightly different task than before. LAFC can be a standout team without Vela, and the team must be that once more. Now, the challenge is to come through in clutch situations and to do so with more consistency from the entire roster.
MLS is Back was a mostly successful experience. LAFC scored goals, came from behind to draw, and dominated opponents. The team also suffered through moments of poor defending and failed to finish off a gritty rival when it mattered most. LAFC will not play in any do-or-die situations without Vela, unless the injury is worse than initially thought. Without Vela, the team can prepare itself to succeed in those situations.
The first test out of the gate was a red flag. That happened with Vela on the field and ready to go. LAFC came out flat against the Galaxy. The visitors seemed rather inspired to get a result against the club that has become the top MLS team in Southern California. The Galaxy looked like a completely different club than the one that LAFC rolled over in a 6-2 win in Florida. The Galaxy defended Vela and the rest of LAFC well, giving up little space and clogging up the passing lanes.
That ineffectiveness forced coach Bob Bradley to take Brian Rodriguez off at halftime in favor of Bradley Wright-Phillips. However, that move backfired once Vela exited. Rodriguez, who was nonexistent in his 45 minutes, would have been a much better option than Adrien Perez, who replaced Vela on the field when the captain injured his knee.
Without Vela, the team was flat, worn down just as much by the sweltering heat than the suffocating and ever-confident Galaxy. Already with Eduard Atuesta, LAFC's depth once again faltered. Of course, had Vela been out from the start, Bradley likely would have gone with the front line that created so much havoc at the MLS Is Back tournament. That was Wright-Phillips in the middle flanked by Rodriguez and Diego Rossi. With just two of those pieces there for the final hour, the team was unable to find a spark and went out quietly.
The schedule does not get easier. The Galaxy looked like the least challenging team on the slate. Now, LAFC plays at Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and at Seattle on Sunday, a combination that will continue to test the club's depth.
The short time span might seem to be a struggle. Under normal circumstances playing midweek games is not great. In Orlando, the club showed that it can do well with a large amount of games in a short amount of time. LAFC played five games over 19 days. Of course, the club was essentially sequestered during that time and not living normal lives. A tight window is not something new that this team has not faced before. It's simply another part of the test.
LAFC set itself apart from MLS during the 2019 regular season. The club has shown flashes of that brilliance in what has been the strangest year in league history. In order to set itself apart once more, the team must show it can succeed without Vela down the stretch.
MLS is Back was certainly encouraging, but the team needs that and more now. The attack is now under the spotlight, and all three starting forwards need to come through.
Rossi was a breakthrough performer in Florida, leading the tournament with seven goals. He needs to take the reins of the attack now, returning the danger the club showed in their run at MLS is Back.
Rodriguez is the wild card. He has great athletic skills and can do some amazing things with the ball, but he has yet to take on a key role within the attack. He is mostly a complementary piece right now, but he needs to be a go-to player at times and must be more dangerous than he has been. If Rodriguez can pick up some of the scoring slack, then the team will be as strong as it was in Florida.
LAFC cannot afford to feel bad about losing Vela. If the team does not get back to its July mentality, they're going to be short on answers over the next phase of this bizarre season.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com