D.C. United’s extended trip to California is set up like any video game. The Black-and-Red got to play on Easy mode against San Jose, and the 3-1 scoreline actually flattered the Quakes given the chances United missed. Tomorrow against Los Angeles FC, the difficulty has been taken up at least one level, and winning this one will likely require United’s best game of the season.
Where the Quakes are a train wreck (honestly, they may be the worst team in MLS, and their inability to even diagnose their own problems is a huge red flag for Mikael Stahre), LAFC has a clear idea of what they’re trying to do and how to achieve their goals. Bob Bradley, so often seen as pragmatic to the point of being dour with the USMNT, has his team trying to put on a show. The new guys are here to entertain, and they’ve managed to win a bunch of games despite the amount of risk built into their gameplan.
The big news for LAFC is that half of their World Cup-bound players are sticking around for one last game. For United, it’s not ideal that Carlos Vela and Laurent Ciman aren’t heading off until Sunday. Marco Ureña and Omar Gaber are good players, to be sure, but Vela is LAFC’s best player, and Ciman is right behind him. They’re sure to give this one their all before they head off to join Mexico and Belgium, respectively.
With Ureña having missed the last few games due to a facial fracture, his absence isn’t really going to through LAFC off. They haven’t been as effective without him, which is strange to say about a striker with 0 goals, but they’ve still figured out how to make things work by playing out of a 433.
Tyler Miller has been a find in goal. The former Sounders back-up has been solid and reliable for the most part, and is certainly not a weak spot despite not being a Name Brand goalkeeper. If he has a flaw, it’s being a bit too willing to come off his line early for things, but given that LAFC is committed to front-foot soccer, that’s mostly just part of the job description rather than a glaring weakness.
Steven Beitashour didn’t make Iran’s final World Cup roster, so he’ll take up his normal spot at right back. Recently Bradley tried him on the left with Gaber on the right, but the latter is away with Egypt, so MLS veteran Jordan Harvey will be the left back. Beitashour has added a lot going forward, which is no surprise given his past career. Still, he’s not really a Harrison Afful type; look for him to overlap occasionally, and more generally support the attack so the right winger can cut inside, and so Benny Feilhaber has an extra passing option.
Ciman will captain the side at left-center back, and his role is key. With no real ball-winner in the midfield, Ciman’s zeal for stepping up early to make tackles and interceptions is the closest thing to steel LAFC has in that zone. He’ll be partnered by longtime United defender Dejan Jakovic, who has gotten plenty of reps as Walker Zimmerman (who will miss this one for USMNT duty) dealt with an early-season injury. Still, Jakovic isn’t a natural partner for Ciman, as both like to step high and take risks with the ball. One-touch passing between the lines is a hard thing to do, but if United can pull it off, they might catch this duo as they step up.
Since Ureña got hurt, his replacement has actually been Eduard Atuesta. It’s not that often you see an MLS team replace a striker with a defensive midfielder, but Bradley is basically choosing his best 11 rather than forcing them into a rigid formation. Without Ureña, the attacking midfield trio in what was a 4231 is now the front three in a 433, and Atuesta sits underneath Feilhaber and Mark-Anthony Kaye. He’s more of a tempo-setter than anything else, and might not be the sort of defense-first player we usually see MLS clubs use in this spot.
That lack of bite is compounded by the presence of Feilhaber and Kaye. Feilhaber has never been that focused on the defensive side of the game, and instead will pull the strings. Kaye has been effective in a linking role, and is the closest thing this midfield has to a battling presence. It’s an unorthodox approach, to be sure, and it’s not that different from what San Jose is trying. LAFC is better than the Quakes, as we said, but United should be able to create chances of their own by going right up the middle.
LAFC’s midfield and defense are good but have their iffy qualities. That’s not the case with their front line, which has been great. Ureña’s selfless, direct running and physical play has certainly made them a bit more predictable, but Vela and Rossi are such smart, talented players that they’re still finding ways to get their looks at goal. Both have had success playing inverted, with Rossi coming in from the left and Vela drifting wide right before cutting back in. Latif Blessing adds speed and a rambunctious attitude to the mix. The final product might not always be there for the young Ghanaian, but he does his job here as LAFC’s third man pretty well.
Off the bench, don’t be surprised if Norway striker Adama Diomande makes his MLS debut. LAFC brought him in right at the transfer deadline, and have used most of May letting him recuperate after his season with Hull City. Bradley knows Diomande very well, having coached him in Norway before the 28 year old moved to England. We might even see him get a start, in which case either we’d see Blessing move to the bench and Vela playing on the right, or a 4231 with Atuesta dropped.
Lee Nguyen is also a potential game-changer off the bench. LAFC usually brings him in for another midfielder, but in their midweek friendly against Borussia Dortmund he spent a lot of time coming in from the left wing. Either way, Nguyen is coming off of an 11 goal/15 assist season for a Jay Heaps-coached Revs team, so LAFC having him as a super-sub only serves to underline how stocked this attack is.
Aaron Kovar may see more minutes than usual on the right wing after impressing in that aforementioned Dortmund game, while Bradley has also shown a willingness to bring in fullbacks like Tristan Blackmon and Joao Moutinho as wingers when it’s time to lock down and protect a lead.