Two weeks ago, the Union knocked Atlanta United out of first place.
They could beat LAFC five times over and the Western Conference leaders would still be on top. Bob Bradley’s men have not lost points in more than two matches in a single month this season; they have already lost to Minnesota and tied Orlando in September. If the Union can knock off a team likely to have Carlos Vela back in the fold just as they ramp up for the playoffs? That’s a message the world — finally — could not ignore.
But how do you do it?
Vela’s injury certainly helped blunt LAFC’s attack the previous two matches. However, whether the Mexican international plays or not, there are some key principles that Bradley’s side will put into practice. First, counterpress and play direct after turnovers, particularly in the center. Mark Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta have become one of the most lethal pairs of transition passers the league has ever seen — they know exactly where the most dangerous angles of attack are and they are patient and brave enough to wait for them to open. As a result, LAFC go from compact, coiled spring to full-fledged blitzkrieg as fast as anyone in recent memory. Vela and Diego Rossi are wonderful players, but they are having great seasons because of how often they receive the ball in space facing a disorganized defensive shape. Just as Jim Curtin and his staff unlocked Borek Dockal’s class a year ago by putting him into tight spaces at the top of the final third with technical players around him, Bradley has unleashed Rossi and Vela by putting them in situations that allow them to max out their talent.
Be amazed by Carlos Vela on the ball, but spend more time floored by his movement off the ball. The LAFC captain has an uncanny ability to find space that few can match. Numerous times during a match, you will see LAFC hit a long diagonal out of trouble and find Vela cruising into a hole up the right to receive the ball. This is the trick in a nutshell: Unlike many wingers — Diego Rossi included, depending on the opponent — Vela does not need to hug the far touchline to find space on the ball. Instead, he draws opponents narrow then moves out to the wing when he sees that a teammate will have a chance to pick him out. This means that if the ball is played across the back, the fullback on Vela’s side will have space to advance, and Vela himself can remain in a dangerous central-ish position near the right channel. This may seem like a minor advantage for LAFC, but the difference between a defense sliding side to side as a unit to cover Vela on the wing and one sliding across while trying to account for Vela making movements against that shift? It’s big.
The LAFC soft spots are in back, and aren’t even that soft. Attack at speed and you may be able to sneak behind Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour, pulling Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura out of the center. Alternatively, trigger your press on Zimmerman and force him to go long, then make sure you win aerial battles against Adama Diomande, one of the stronger forwards in the league.
There is no perfect solution to LAFC, and that is why they are cruising to a Supporters’ Shield and making eyes at a single season points record.
But this is a Union team that has shown no fear at home and is coming off a match against Pumas in which their two best direct attackers, Fafa Picault and Sergio Santos, ran riot over a big club.
The Union welcome MLS-leading LAFC to Talen Energy Stadium on September 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The broadcast is on PHL17 but you want to feel the atmosphere at this one.