By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 20, 2021) US Soccer Players – Things looked bleak for LAFC just a week ago. After losing three consecutive matches to close out September, making the playoffs began to look remote. The last LA derby match of the year, on October 3, seemed like the last chance to get things right. A listless 1-1 draw sent a message that the rest of the season was turning into a lost cause.
All it took was a 3-1 home win over San Jose for things to suddenly look brighter. That’s in part because LAFC looked urgent, playing the type of game that doesn’t allow the opponent much hope. Scoring three minutes in can do that, giving LAFC control. It comes at a time when rebuilding over the offseason has taken on more significance. If this turns out to be the last run for this version of Los Angeles Football Club, why not try to make it count?
“You keep everybody going in a positive way,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said during a press conference earlier this week. “We didn’t expect to be in this spot this year but we are. And so there’s no looking backwards. It’s keeping everybody alive. You can never be afraid of these kind of challenges. The most important thing is the mentality of the group.”
At least for the public, for much of 2021, LAFC has lived off of its reputation. That current results weren’t meeting the club’s high standards, but the expectation was that eventually they would turn things around. That didn’t happen. Instead, LAFC struggled to put together the kind of form that would keep them in the conversation for a playoff spot.
Making the playoffs every season since they joined the league, what happens if they don’t is now a major part of the narrative. Does LAFC hit the reset button on a project that put together the best regular season in MLS history? We’ve already got a partial answer to that with Diego Rossi off on loan to Fenerbahce. He scored at Trabzonspor last week, his second goal in eight appearances since leaving LAFC on September 1.
Rossi is technically on loan, but Fenerbahce has an option to buy. Without him in the lineup, LAFC once again adjusted. Over the last three years, many of the team’s major players have exited, but we haven’t seen a full-scale rebuild. The remainder of this season could certainly add pressure to that eventual necessity.
LAFC sits in 9th-place in the Western Conference table on 37 points, four back of 7th-place Minnesota United. LAFC plays at Minnesota on Saturday and hosts 8th-place Vancouver on November 2. While assuming the table stays the same makes no sense in a compact West, it should give LAFC a head-to-head opportunity.
In a season where LAFC isn’t scaring anybody, that’s going to require reminders of previous seasons. The club initially built around Bob Bradley as coach and Carlos Vela as its likeliest scoring threat. Trying to keep pace with Atlanta as an expansion team that started in contention, the plan worked.
LAFC made the playoffs as an expansion team that first season and won the Supporters’ Shield the next but fell short of reaching MLS Cup. 2020 was a wash for many teams, including LAFC. The club still reached the postseason and showed flashes of its previous dominant self. Reaching the final of the Concacaf Champions League last December spoke to meeting ambition.
Carrying that mindset into 2021 seemed like a safe assumption. For some reason, LAFC has never clicked this season the way it did in its first three. The team’s once-electric offense is now just okay. The team scored three goals against San Jose and has hit that mark four times now in the last nine games, but LAFC failed to score more than two goals in its first 20 games.
Vela’s injury-riddled season has been a source of frustration for the LAFC faithful. The league’s MVP in 2019 is unquestionably one of the top talents in MLS. His technical ability is superb, and his vision helps him create for others. In 17 games played this season, he has two goals and five assists.
During the first part of the year, LAFC was struggling to find its attack. Gone were the likes of Adame Diomande and Brian Rodriguez. The club tried to fill the scoring void with Danny Musovski and Corey Baird, but the offense sputtered even with Vela and Rossi around.
Now struggling to move into the playoff spots, this simply isn’t a familiar situation for LAFC. Vela could return against Minnesota United, potentially sparking the offense and with it the scope of the season. It’s another possibility in a season full of them. What happens if LAFC had been at full strength all along? Is it s different conversation if a handful of 50/50 chances fell their way? Is Western Conference parity and the top three all losing last week telling us more about all of the teams?
For LAFC, the future may already be here. Cristian “Chicho” Arango looks like he could be a force in the league. The 26-year-old has scored eight goals in 12 games and is a major factor for why LAFC’s attack woke up. Rodriguez is looking more in sync with the attack as well after rejoining the club following his loan spell in Spain. Rodriguez had a tremendous assist on an Arango goal against San Jose on the weekend. While Rodriguez’s future with LAFC is seemingly up in the air as well, he’s been key for this squad.
Arango and Rodriguez could usher in the next era, but there are still enough points to win right now. LAFC can put all of its problems behind it with a playoff run. That changes the scope of a season, showing that any team that comes together with enough time left can end up champions in this league. Say what you will about playoffs, but that possibility is already reclaiming LAFC’s season.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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