In one year of existence, Los Angeles Football Club have earned my respect, not my disdain. From the very beginning this club has seemed to do everything right, from their ownership group, to their colors, to their stadium, to their manager and then their roster construction -- everything has come together very well to this point. It’s difficult to hate on them for it. With that said, let’s talk about this LAFC team and their chances in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup playoffs.
The biggest concern for LAFC to start the season was playing their first six games on the road while Banc of California Stadium construction was being completed. Beginning with a scrappy 1-0 win against the Sounders, followed by a pretty 5-1 win against Real Salt Lake, they quickly began to turn the naysayers who thought they weren’t deep enough and their defense wasn’t going to be good enough. However, these two wins were followed with blowing a 3-goal lead against the LA Galaxy in the first MLS game for the Zlatan, followed by a 5-0 loss at Atlanta. The naysayers were back, but only briefly, as they finished that stretch with two road wins, then went unbeaten in six straight. Overall, LAFC have been a Good Soccer Team, often a Very Good Soccer Team, only losing back-to-back games once more following the loss of central midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye to a fractured ankle against the Galaxy on July 26. Since those two losses, Bob Bradley and his team have mostly figured it out, recording 6 wins, 1 loss, and 3 draws, while outscoring opponents 2-to-1.
With one critical game to go -- on the road against Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City -- Los Angeles FC could end up anywhere from a #1 seed to a #4 seed in the playoffs (with a tiny 0.4% chance on a #5 seed). However, they do control their own destiny in that a win against SKC would give them the #1 seed and a decided advantage throughout the Western bracket rather than just a knockout round game, and this is despite not being in first place in the conference since week 2.
Western Conference Playoff Seeding Probabilities
Even as far back as a couple months ago, with a playoff berth in sight, the biggest questions surrounding this team were:
1) What is their best formation?
2) Who should be in their midfield and winger configuration?
3) Which striker should they be playing?
A fourth question about who should play center back has pretty much been answered with transfer of Laurent Ciman to Dijon FCO of Ligue 1 on August 28th. Since then, the trio of Walker Zimmerman, Danilo Silva and Dejan Jakovic have done a mostly decent job anchoring the backline. Zimmerman has scored all four goals of his goals this season in the past month. If all three are healthy, Zimmerman and Silva appear to be the most likely starters.
What Is Their Best Formation?
This one is simple. While there have been suggestions of Bob Bradley adopting a somewhat more conservative 4-4-2 for the playoffs, he has only attempted that formation once this season in a home 2-0 win against the tired (from international duty) and hapless Quakes. Here are the formations he has used this season through week 33:
Without Kaye, the 3-4-3 hasn’t been used in several weeks, in fact, Bradley has almost gone exclusively with the 4-3-3 since Kaye’s injury. He doesn’t have the personnel for a true double-CDM pivot 4-2-3-1, and so it is almost certain that he will continue with the 4-3-3 for the playoffs. If it ain’t broke…
Who Should Be In Their Midfield and Winger Configuration?
…Bob Bradley will keep tinkering with it? He continues playing around with player positions inside of his 4-3-3. In fact, he has not featured the same XI in the same positions since mid-August. It may be the same players, but with their positions all switched around. Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Lee Nguyen, Aaron Kovar, and Benny Feilhaber all are rotated between the three midfield and two winger slots each game without much consistency. Only the youngster Eduard Atuesta seemed to have a consistent spot prior to his concussion sustained against the Chicago Fire early in October. Bradley has famously been content to not play a true defensive midfielder over this stretch, preferring to put three attacking-style central midfielders on the pitch at any time. Andre Horta pops in-and-out of the midfield lineup occasionally and Latif Blessing makes appearances on the wings at times. So then where does Bradley put all this talent for the playoffs?
Let’s take a look at their advanced metrics through week 33:
On an xG and xA basis, Vela and Rossi are top in this group, and Vela is #8 in xG+xA overall in MLS. While the ASA dataset considers them both forwards (wingers), Bradley has to figure out if that’s where he wants to play them. Given Vela’s and Rossi’s productivity, Bradley should prioritize where to put them above everything else. While it may seem obvious to play Vela on a wing, he very recently scored 2 goals and had 2 assists on a rainy mid-week SoCal night against an often-stingy Houston defense from a central attacking 10 spot, including demonstrating an improved connection with Adama Diomande.
Vela was so advanced in his positioning up the pitch against Houston that the formation was classified as a 4-2-3-1 in the ASA dataset that game, even though it appeared Bradley was using another 4-3-3 in the pregame. Most of Vela’s success in the Houston game came from the left side, and he had an assist to Rossi on Sunday against Vancouver playing as a midfielder mostly on the left behind Rossi.
Aaron Kovar is another question mark in this group. More recently he has been playing on the right wing Vela has occupied for much of the season. Eduard Atuesta had become a fixture in the central midfield area following Mark-Anthony Kaye’s injury, but he’s just now returning to the 18 and subbed in for Feilhaber on Sunday. If Atuesta is not in the starting XI against SKC, it’s anyone’s guess what his status will be for the first LAFC playoff game.
In case you have not been following ASA feature articles all season, we have introduced a new metric called Expected Possession Goals (xPG). xPG has four variants, one of which is called Chance xPG (originally called Positive xPG). Chance xPG evaluates possession quality and the likelihood that a possession will turn into a shot. Within a team, Chance xPG examines each player’s contribution to creating quality chances which can become shots. Consider this chart below showing average LAFC player contributions in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations since July 26 (since Kaye’s injury).
In the 4-2-3-1, Nguyen is the most important player followed by Silva and Vela and then the consistently-starting fullbacks, Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey. You can see how much this dynamic changes with the 4-3-3, with Vela, Feilhaber, Rossi, Nguyen and Atuesta next (ignoring the departed Ciman). The strikers don’t participate much in the buildup on either of the formations. Now that we’ve dissected the midfielders and wingers a bit, let’s get into the striker question.
Which Striker Should They Be Playing?
Back on August 6th, LAFC seemed to be playing with a roster cheat code by acquiring yet another quality striker in Christian Ramirez, much to the dismay of many in Minnesota, and the other teams in the Western Conference. This after acquiring Diomande, a known quantity from Bradley’s time in Norway, from Hull City on May 2nd. Diomande came in red hot while Vela was away for the FIFA Men’s World Cup, but cooled after Vela returned to the lineup. Marco Ureña, acquired through the expansion draft from the Earthquakes, started the season well, stretching the pitch to give space for Vela and Rossi to operate within, but soon was out of the lineup with facial fractures, making room for Diomande. The simplistic version of the argument says Diomande brings Ureña’s attributes plus goals, but the more nuanced take says that Ureña has shown more chemistry with Vela and Rossi than Diomande, even if he can't score. Ultimately Bradley will have to determine if Diomande’s chemistry has improved enough to trust him in a do-or-die playoff situation, because I don’t see Vela or Rossi coming off the pitch. Since August, Diomande has 3 goals, Ramirez 2 goals, and Ureña 1 goal, so that’s another plus for Diomande. On a per 96 minutes basis, Diomande as the advantage over Ureña followed by Ramirez and the same order applies when combining xG and xA.
Note: Ureña and Ramirez have not played in a 4-2-3-1 formation since August 1
How Will LAFC Do in the Playoffs?
A lot hinges on which seed they land on. Anything can happen in a knockout round game, so LAFC would obviously like to avoid this, but it will take a win in Kansas City or a bit of luck from other results, given FC Dallas is at lowly Colorado, to get a bye. Let’s take a look at some of their overall metrics:
xPassing For: 276 (5th in MLS, 2nd in West)
xPassing Against: 27 (6th in MLS, 2nd in West)
xGoals For: 55.3 (3rd in MLS, 1st in West)
xGoals Against: 43.6 (7th in MLS, 3rd in West)
xGoalDifference: 11.7 (6th in MLS, 2nd in West)
Top Expected Goals for: Carlos Vela 10.7 xG (14th in MLS)
Top Expected Goals assisted: Carlos Vela 9.3 xA (3rd in MLS)
Top Expected Buildup: Benny Feilhaber, 25.55 (8th in MLS)
Best xPasser: Walker Zimmerman, 62.9 (14th in MLS)
If the #1 seed: Host lowest seed remaining from knock-out round
If the #2 seed: Host highest seed remaining from knock-out round
If the #3 seed: Host knock-out round #6 seed likely either Real Salt Lake or LA Galaxy
If the #4 seed: Host knock-out round #5 seed likely either Seattle Sounders or Portland Timbers
Why Los Angeles FC Won’t Make MLS Cup
As I said earlier, LAFC are a Good Soccer Team, often a Very Good Soccer Team, but they are rarely a Great Soccer Team. They are not #1 on any advanced metric in MLS and rarely #1 on any metric in the Western Conference. For example, see this graphic on xPG Danger Zone trips (likely goals coming from strong momentum) both for and against:
LAFC are very meh here: good, not great, on offense, and below average on defense. This is exactly the problem with envisioning LAFC hoisting the MLS Cup. And I can’t shake the feeling that LAFC are more like 2017 Atlanta United than 2018 Atlanta United: a first year team that is very talented but not yet ready. Their records and points are eerily similar.
Why Los Angeles FC Will Make MLS Cup
Because Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber with Christian Ramirez and Latif Blessing coming off the bench. Tyler Miller in goal is adequate and unlikely to lose them any games. LAFC have a great MLS coach and several players who would be a top player on most MLS rosters. They absolutely have the talent to get hot and make a serious run through the playoffs, particularly if they can secure the #1 seed or #2 seed in the West. If they can make it through the Western Conference bracket, they are likely to face a better Atlanta United or New York Red Bulls team, but in a one-game situation anything can happen.