The Seattle Sounders and LAFC meet for the fifth time in 2020 when the Sounders host Bob Bradley’s team on Nov. 24 at CenturyLink Field. While the two teams are undoubtedly familiar with each other, it’s still probably worthwhile for us to take a quick refresher course on the only LA team in the playoffs. After all, it’s been a deeply strange season filled with absences through illness, injury and international duty, and that may well continue for this game (although there may be some relief in the works).
Regardless of who’s available to make the trip to Seattle, LAFC are who they are. Let’s take a look at what exactly that means.
What they do well
LAFC score goals, and in 2020 they were better at it than anyone in the league, to the tune of 47 goals in 22 games. Bob Bradley has set his team up to have a solid base and overwhelm opponents with ceaseless waves of attack fueled by an aggressive press to force turnovers and create and extend attacking opportunities. For teams intent on playing with the ball without the requisite sharpness in their passing, this pressing attack can be suffocating. They averaged a league-leading 162.5 pressures per 90 minutes according to StatsBomb — a hair more than the 161.9 pressures/90 that Philadelphia Union’s Red Bull-influenced system averaged — while also leading the league with a 35.9% pressure success rate. 71% of LAFC’s pressures came in the middle and attacking third of the field, evidence of just what a field of nightmares they’re able to turn the pitch into.
LAFC don’t press just because it’s fashionable, though. As with most pressing teams, they press to create shots and high-leverage chances, which they did to the tune of league-leading shots per 90 (16.05) and non-penalty xG (40.1 ) for the season (two expected goals better than Seattle’s 38.1 npxG). They take lots of shots, and even when they don’t get their shots off, they do a pretty good job of regaining possession and turning that into a shot. Eventually those shots do tend to turn into goals. Even when they don’t have Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi or 2019 MVP Carlos Vela on the field, LAFC’s system is capable of creating scoring opportunities.
What they don’t do well
As good as LAFC’s high-flying attack is at scoring goals, their defense and goalkeepers have been bad at preventing them. The 39 goals they allowed in MLS play was more than all but two other playoff teams (43 for Montreal Impact, 51 for San Jose Earthquakes), although their attacking prowess has kept their goal difference a respectable +8. There’s not exactly one thing to point to as the cause for LAFC’s leaky defense, although goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer has been one problem. Vermeer gave up an average of 2.00 goals per 90, which ranks as the second most among qualified goalkeepers. His replacement, Pablo Sisniega, has been an improvement but is still far from a top goalkeeper with 1.64 goals allowed per 90. Both players are also in the bottom half of starting ‘keepers in MLS in terms of save percentage as well, with Sisniega’s .635 a slight improvement over Vermeer’s .515.
Goalkeepers can’t do it all themselves, depending on the defense — and really the entire team — in front of them to make their jobs manageable. LAFC’s press and energetic offense are great for scoring goals, but the system puts a lot of pressure on the defense when opponents can find a way to beat the press. Especially with their fullbacks getting involved as the team moves forward, often finding themselves in attacking positions, there’s plenty of space for the opposition to make use of behind the defense. We saw this in the two matches in Seattle, when the Sounders scored a combined six goals and were repeatedly finding themselves in transition opportunities. A rotating cast at centerback has made it even more challenging, but the introduction of Jesús Murillo has provided some more solidity. Ultimately, LAFC struggle most when they have to defend in transition, and their ‘keepers aren’t the steadiest of hands.
How they can beat Seattle
Frustratingly, we’ve seen the blueprint for how Bradley’s side can beat the Sounders more than any of us would like. The last time these two teams met, LAFC punished sloppy passes and unfocused defending, while the Sounders struggled to put away their ample opportunities. There were factors in play for Seattle that should be alleviated by two weeks between games, but even a well-rested Seattle can little afford to miss passes the way they have in recent games, or to doddle on the ball in the face of LAFC’s press.
Last time around LAFC did the job with almost none of their stars, as both sides were missing players to international duty. It’s unclear to what extent that will be the case this time around, but Bradley will still have one more tool at his disposal with Carlos Vela back after an extended injury absence. The 2019 MLS MVP is more than capable of creating goals all on his own, and if Seattle’s defense does him the kind of favors they did his teammates back in October, he’ll have a fruitful evening.
How Seattle can beat them
The good news is that we’ve seen what it takes for the Sounders to come out on top against LAFC plenty of times in recent history. Assuming Seattle don’t pick up any new injuries this week, and even if Xavier Arreaga and Gustav Svensson aren’t available, the team’s in much better shape to match up against Vela & Co. The Sounders created plenty of chances even as they lost last time, and Raul Ruidíaz returning to the squad means they have significantly better odds of putting those in the back of the net. Add a fit Joevin Jones and the duo of Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris with adequate rest and any defense in the league would be in danger of giving up goals.
When this Sounders team plays at its best, their ability to create attacks in transition is almost perfectly suited to beating LAFC’s attack and press. With a midfield that includes Lodeiro, João Paulo and Cristian Roldan, Seattle boasts a trio all more than willing and equally capable of breaking up play and going the other way. João Paulo and Lodeiro are particularly adept at hitting the kinds of passes that are absolute game-breakers, especially when they put Morris into space behind an opposing right back and running at a CB or goalkeeper. Ruidíaz, among many other things, is one of the best players in the league at finding the cracks in a scrambling defense, and Jones, with his ability to simultaneously protect the ball and find and hit a perfect pass, is the kind of X-factor the team lacked during their recent lull.
Brian Schmetzer’s side can’t afford to relax or take a sequence off against LAFC, but the same has to be said going the other way as well. There won’t be fans in the stadium, but this is still a home game. This season that’s meant good things when these two teams meet, and if the Sounders are going to repeat as MLS Cup champions then they’ve got to make sure to keep the good times rolling at CenturyLink Field where they’re currently riding a 12-game postseason winning streak.