LAFC have had a roller-coaster 2023 season. After being hailed as possibly the greatest MLS team in history, they were shut out at home in the Concacaf Champions League final and lost twice to the Houston Dynamo in four days by a 5-0 combined scoreline.
Minutes have piled up, and the goals have dried up as Steve Cherundolo’s lineups have been forced to rotate. Still, SKC found out that a wounded beast is still plenty dangerous, as LAFC snatched a 2-1 victory in Kansas City on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Sounders are still seeking a result to prove that they have escaped their mid-season rut. The attack emerged from hibernation against Charlotte, but Gold Cup call-ups threaten to put it back to sleep. Let’s take a look at what worked in Charlotte, and how the team might get their first regular season win at LAFC.
Sussing out Seattle
Despite scoring three goals away from home, Seattle’s attack still looked like it had unlocked potential. Léo Chú was noticeably less effective in this match, particularly in the first half. Was Chú having an off-day, or were the players behind him failing to get him the ball? I believe it was a combination of the two, with the added factor that Charlotte was prepared for the Sounders’ typical patterns of play.
In the first half, we saw less of the common Sounders possession shape where a midfielder moves to the left wing ahead of Nouhou to provide service for Chú. Albert Rusnák stayed more central, and neither Nouhou nor Chú did much to create danger. This changed in the second half. In the following sequences, we see Rusnák move out to the wing to feed Chú. However, Charlotte’s midfield is aware, and moves smartly to cut off the one-two passing combination with Ruidíaz. Later, Rusnák releases Chú behind the back line, but he is caught just offside:
With a bit more deliberate practice, Rusnák and Chú will get these patterns right. The bigger story of the game was that Raúl Ruidíaz can still take over a match. If Ruidíaz can stay healthy, his presence might paper over the roster cracks from the Gold Cup.
Defensively, adjustments were needed at the half. As Brian Schmetzer explained in his post-game comments, Charlotte’s midfielders Ben Bender and Ashley Westwood were able to find pockets of space between Seattle’s lines, outside of João Paulo and Obed Vargas. Charlotte found it too easy to pass through the midfield and generate dangerous balls into the box from wide areas:
In this sequence, Obed Vargas tracks the run from Westwood out to the wing, but a clever curling run from Kerwin Vargas opens up space for a dangerous cutback pass:
In the second half, the Sounders adjusted, getting more men out wide to counter Charlotte’s numbers. Obed Vargas was noticeably tracking their midfielders’ runs, following them toward the wing and preventing easy passing options into the Sounders’ penalty area. Charlotte’s opportunities were more limited to transition moments in the second half.
Despite drawing yellows for tactical fouls, and rarely giving up a half chance in possession, Seattle conceded the equalizer late in the match. It was a sour end to an otherwise hopeful performance where the team converted their chances and solved Charlotte’s attacking formula.
If you have the LAFC of years past stuck in your memory, know that today’s LAFC has eschewed possession for transition play. They avoid building slowly out of the back, and instead favor gaining possession with a high volume of tackles — the most per match in the league. While LAFC’s attackers grab the headlines, defender Diego Palacios and defensive midfielder Ilie Sánchez are the engines of the team’s physical style. Even in the midst of a grueling stretch of games, the black and gold still found the energy to apply pressure and force SKC to move the ball quickly:
Once they gain possession, LAFC play quickly and vertically with short passes and through-balls toward their army of wingers. While LAFC lack overall passing volume, they take a high volume of touches where they count the most — the attacking penalty area. Young wingers Mateusz Bogusz and Stipe Biuk have yet to hit their stride, but their potential is there for all to see:
Over their last 10 matches, however, LAFC’s shortcomings have not been so readily covered by their Designated Players. Carlos Vela has fallen off from a landslide MVP selection to the level of a decent DP attacker. Workhorse winger Denis Bouanga has torched teams with 10 goals in MLS play and 17 overall, but has not scored at home in over a month. He will be available Wednesday despite starting Sunday for Gabon on the other side of the globe.
Keys to victory at LAFC
Control the game with possession
With León’s performance in the CCL final as a guide, teams can take the game to LAFC on their home field. Seattle gets to approach a game as the more rested side, and they have the ability to control possession and force LAFC to chase the game with tired legs.
With both Morris and Cristian Roldan out, Seattle is without two of their three best direct attacking threats. While it is a difficult call to displace a rested Lodeiro from the attacking midfield, Rusnák has the physical tools to get behind the defense:
Brian Schmetzer has been open to the possibility of Lodeiro and Rusnák switching positions, at least within matches. Even if we do not see a full-time swap, occasionally pushing Rusnák up a line to work with Chú may keep the Sounders’ attack from becoming too one-dimensional.
Level up the right side
Right-side options Cody Baker, Dylan Teves, and Reed Baker-Whiting have combined for nearly 1,000 MLS minutes this season. While Baker especially has surprised and impressed, the trio’s grade for the attacking phase of play is incomplete. Now with well-rested veterans around them, the Sounders need their young players to take the next step. That means more decisive passing, proactive off-ball movement, and any kind of goal-scoring threat to make up for the loss of Morris and the Roldan brothers.
The Sounders are well acquainted with the struggles of fixture congestion and CCL hangovers. The team has been on the wrong side of too many results in the last year under circumstances similar to LAFC’s. The Western Conference is wide open, and it’s time for Seattle to find their killer instinct.
Note: All statistics via FBref.com