Football Features

LAFC: Vela keeping his Messi promise as the Black and Gold continue to redefine MLS

By Chris Smith

Published: 18:33, 14 July 2019

Week 19 in MLS has rolled by with a healthy serving of goals and shock results.

We’re now beyond the halfway point in the regular season and while there is still plenty of time to go, teams who have been hovering just below the playoff line now have to start making serious claims if they are to continue into the post-season.

The margin for error is no bigger right at the top of the standings either, with the top six of the Eastern Conference separated by just eight points, while just nine points separate second-placed LA Galaxy and ninth-placed Sporting KC in the West.

So, get comfortable and sit tight as we take you through the best of the action MLS has thrown at us this week.

MLS week 19 snapshot

Week 19 kicked off in style on Saturday with a second Cali Clasico in a fortnight, with a familiar result at the Dignity Health Sports Park. Despite falling behind within two minutes, San Jose Earthquakes absolutely dominated LA Galaxy, firing 32 shots to the Galaxy’s five and, eventually, running up a 3-1 victory. That’s six goals and six points in two games against their biggest rivals.

DC United and New England Revolution played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Audi Field, while runaway leaders LAFC recovered from an early 1-0 deficit to beat Houston Dynamo 3-1, extending their lead at the top of the Western Conference to 12 points. More on them later.

Sunday’s busy schedule saw nine games in total. FC Cincinnati followed up their much-needed win over Houston last week with a 2-1 away victory over Chicago Fire, drawing them level on points with Columbus Crew, who lost 1-0 away to Orlando City. Toronto FC crept back into the playoff spots with an impressive 2-0 win at Montreal Impact, helped by goals from Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore, following his return from the Gold Cup. The USMNT international took his chance to troll the Montreal supporters in a heated all-Canadian clash.

Minnesota United closed the gap on LA Galaxy to just one point with a 1-0 home win against FC Dallas, while Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia Union crashed 4-0 at Real Salt Lake, Jefferson Savarino bagged a brace in that one. Sporting KC made it two wins from two, with two clean sheets, sinking Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 away from home, while an action-packed game at Providence Park saw Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids draw 2-2.

The weekend’s final games saw reigning champions Atlanta United fall 2-1 away from home to Seattle Sounders – although Josef Martinez grabbed his eighth goal in five MLS games for the Five Stripes – while New York Red Bulls came from a goal down to win a thoroughly entertaining Hudson River Derby. NYCFC had taken an early lead through Heber and will feel hard done by with a number of questionable calls from the officials going against them.

What they said

“We deserved to lose. We couldn’t stop them. After the first 20 minutes, the game was lost.”

Guillermo Barros Schelotto on LA Galaxy’s 3-1 loss to San Jose Earthquakes

“This club’s been on such a great run of making the playoffs. I don’t want to be involved where a group of players who break that tradition. It’s important for the club, for the players, and for the fans as well.”

Johnny Russell on SKC’s playoff chase

“I’m very happy for them. Like I said, we focus on ourselves. We knew we were going to go through a tough time the past month. Getting a second result in a row is big for them. I’m very happy this group is working so hard every day to get better but also to get results. They earned it and they deserved it.”

FC Cincinnati interim head coach Yoann Damet on a second consecutive win

“[I’m] so proud of the players. They were running on empty today. I spoke to my staff yesterday after training and I was really worried about the game because the group looked really flat. You could tell [FC Dallas] had had a week off. They came out nice and lively and sharp, as we expected, but I thought our resolve and determination not to lose the game was immense.”

Minnesota United head coach Adrien Heath on the win over FC Dallas

“I said ‘You made a mistake, and you know that. You decided the game and you know that. You decided the game. You are not brave, you decided the game.’

“What is the reason why? Maybe he made a mistake, and it’s not a corner. I accept that. But when you say corner, two, three seconds and tell my player it’s a corner, it’s a mistake.”

NYCFC coach Dome Torrent on the bizarre officiating in the build-up to NYRB’s winning goal

The LAFC steam train on course to tear up MLS record books

During the “We Are LAFC” documentary, Bob Bradley set out some very specific parameters in which he’d like his side to operate. He claimed he wanted LAFC to reach Barcelona-esque levels in both their results and style, saying: “I’ll talk a lot about Barca, not because they’re the only team in the world, but because there are little things there that can be good examples for us.”

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The cherry on top was his motivational speech to star man Carlos Vela during their first meeting together, calling on the Mexican to channel his inner-Lionel Messi. Many who misunderstood Bradley’s comments scoffed and scorned at him. How could someone compare Vela, any MLS player, or any other player in the world to the greatest of all time (arguably). But to those of a more rational train of thought, Bradley was setting the bar for his players to the highest possible level, meaning they could do nothing but strive to be better, no matter what.

Since then, it’s safe to say both Vela and the rest of the LAFC team have been, well, it’s hard to come up with a suitable description. Spectacular? Relentless? Revolutionary? Alone, each adjective doesn’t do Bradley’s team justice. Together, they barely scratch the surface.

Vela has kept his promise to aspire to Messi-esque performance levels, scoring 19 goals and providing eight assists in 19 MLS appearances so far, while he tops the league in terms of xG (14.75) and xA (6.82). In fact, his combined xG and xA sits at a massive 21.57, 5.51 ahead of his nearest rival, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

LAFC have scored a mind-boggling 53 goals in 20 MLS games during 2019 and while Vela, with his movement, intelligence and almost superhuman ability to finish chances, obviously plays a giant role in everything the Black and Gold do, they’re not all about one man.

Vela had a well-earned rest during Saturday’s 3-1 win over Houston Dynamo and while LAFC certainly had to ride out a tough first half, where they could have easily been two or three down, they rallied after half-time thanks to a mixture of Bradley’s astute changes and some of LAFC’s other big players stepping up. Lee Nguyen put in arguably his best performance of the season, with two assists, two tackles and two key passes.

MLS 2019 top assist providers

  • Carlos Vela (LAFC) – 8
  • Maxi Moralez (NYCFC) – 8
  • Eduard Atuesta (LAFC) – 7
  • Michael Barrios (FC Dallas) – 7
  • Nicolas Gaitan (Chicago Fire) – 7

Adama Diomande, who has largely had to settle for a place on the bench this season, grabbed two goals, while Vela’s partner in crime, Diego Rossi, came off the bench to add a late third goal, his 11th of the season so far. Without Nguyen and Mark-Anthony Kaye’s efforts in midfield, or Walker Zimmerman’s defensive solidarity, all of Vela’s efforts would be for nothing. Without Rossi’s runs into space, Vela’s movement to create the gap in the first place would be fruitless.

Bradley has his side set up to press and force turnovers like few other sides around MLS or world football right now. LAFC have won possession in the final third 124 times this season at a rate of 6.2 times per game – only NYRB outrank them here (125 and 6.6) in MLS. The league leaders simply won’t allow the opposition progression or possession in their half, forcing the ball to be played in your defensive third before winning it back with well-timed, cohesive and coordinated pressing patterns. One mistake and suddenly, you have Vela, Rossi and Co. baring down on your own goal, with your clean sheet and chances of taking any points from the game purely at their mercy.

This is just LAFC’s second season and they’re already on course to break Atlanta United’s points total throughout a club’s first two seasons in MLS. The Five Stripes, last year’s MLS Cup champions, reached 124 points, while LAFC have eight more than they did during their first 54 games. With just under half the regular season still to play, few have worked out just how to stop LAFC, while they themselves are showing no signs of slowing down.

NYRB set a new single-season record points total of 71 last term en route to their Supporters Shield win but after less than a year, even that record doesn’t look safe, with LAFC five points ahead of where the Red Bulls were at this stage last season. While they may not catch the 1998 LA Galaxy side’s record of 85 goals scored in the regular season, they might well beat their goal difference record, with LAFC currently on +36, while the Galaxy had +30 after 20 games in 1998.

But, of course, Vela remains the star man. Just as he couldn’t function without LAFC, with their high press and fast turnovers, they wouldn’t be able to punish teams so severely without his Mexican magic. Last season saw Josef Martinez break the record for goals scored in a single season, bagging 31 in the regular campaign and finishing up on 35 overall. Vela already has that record in his sights and if he continues as he has done, it’s only a matter of time before Martinez surrenders his throne.

MLS 2019 top scorers so far

  • Carlos Vela (LAFC) – 19
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) – 13
  • Josef Martinez (Atlanta United) – 13
  • Diego Rossi (LAFC) – 11
  • Wayne Rooney (DC United) – 10

LAFC pass the eye test, while all their numbers suggest they’re redefining what it means to be a successful MLS side. Now, it’s up to the rest of the league to catch up or, for the first time in recent memory, we may have a side which can dominate in North America, year after year.

Every MLS result from week 19

Saturday, July 13

DC United 2-2 New England Revolution

Houston Dynamo 1-3 LAFC

LA Galaxy 1-3 San Jose Earthquakes

Sunday, July 14

Montreal Impact 0-2 Toronto FC

Orlando City 1-0 Columbus Crew

Chicago Fire 1-2 FC Cincinnati

Minnesota United 1-0 FC Dallas

Real Salt Lake 4-0 Philadelphia Union

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-1 Sporting KC

Portland Timbers 2-2 Colorado Rapids

Seattle Sounders 2-1 Atlanta United

NYRB 2-1 NYCFC