By Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)
Bob Bradley and the Los Angeles Football Club front office have created something few other MLS teams can replicate. They have formed a team that plays one of the more entertaining styles that MLS has ever seen and they are getting results.
LAFC’s brand of soccer is all about controlling the game through passing and dynamic attacking. They pass extremely well in every third of the field (they are in the top five in terms of passing completion percentage in each third), which leads to dangerous attacks pressuring opposing defenses from all areas. The only way this style can be sustained in Major League Soccer is if the team using it has enough players outside of the starting eleven capable of coming into the lineup and playing that style without a clear drop off. In the same way the New York Red Bulls need every single player on their roster to excel at closing down opposing players and cutting off passing angles in their pressing system, LAFC’s style demands that every rostered player is capable of playing their passing, attacking style.
With that fact in mind, there was real concern that coming into their first year, LAFC were not going to have enough depth to stay competitive in the notoriously long MLS season. Now more than halfway through the year, that concern has been completely dismissed. While Bob Bradley is still adding pieces to his roster, he has put together one of the deepest, most talented squads in Major League Soccer. This depth has proved hugely important for LAFC, who lost starters Carlos Vela and Marco Ureña for several weeks to national team duty at the World Cup. Most teams would have struggled to replace those two players; no other player in Major League Soccer can replicate Vela’s smooth skill on the ball or Ureña’s passing style. Isn’t that why Bradley made them two of his first ever acquisitions?
While it is clearly impossible to replace their styles, Norwegian striker Adama Diomande has come in and almost single-handedly replaced the production of Vela and Ureña. So far this season, Vela has 10.2 expected goals plus expected assists in 1301 minutes and Ureña has 6.3 xG+xA in 670 minutes. Diomande, Major League Soccer’s newest revelation, has 7.3 xG+xA in just 612 minutes. Per 96 minutes and among players with at least 500 minutes, Dio has the most xG+xA and the most xG of any player in MLS. He also has the most xG+xA/96 of any LAFC player by 0.28.
Still, as amazing as Diomande has been, the beauty of LAFC’s system is that one player doesn’t make or break any single result. Bradley has built a balanced, talented squad and it shows up in the statistics. We’ve looked at Vela, Ureña, and Diomande, but that totally leaves out two additional potent attacking talents. Wide players Latif Blessing and Diego Rossi have racked up 9.0 and 8.7 xG+xA respectively so far this season. Those numbers are both in the top 30 among attacking midfielders and forwards in Major League Soccer. Their production from out wide is especially crucial when hold-up aficionado Marco Ureña starts up top; both players can interchange wings and make intelligent runs off of the Costa Rican striker to frighten the daylights out of opposing defenses.
As a unit, LAFC’s attack has been one of the most lethal in all MLS: they sit second in goals per game (2.00), second in expected goals per game (1.85), and third in shots on target per game (5.8). Vela, Ureña, Diomande, Blessing, and Rossi have clearly impressed.
These attacking numbers are truly extraordinary, but none of them would be possible without a quality midfield to support LAFC’s attacking style. Bradley usually has LAFC playing out of a 4-3-3 formation that only holds three central midfielders at a time. As mentioned, LAFC has depth, so they have been able to rotate their four preferred midfielders in and out of the starting lineup to provide a balanced and fresh set of three at all times. Eduard Atuesta, Benny Feilhaber, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Lee Nguyen have been rock-solid passers so far this season; all four of them are in the top 50 players in terms of pass completion percentage among midfielders with 500+ minutes.
There are more telling statistics related to LAFC’s midfield. Atuesta, Feilhaber, Kaye, and Nguyen all have a Touch% (individual touches divided by total team touches) between 10.4% and 12.0%. This even spread of touches enables LAFC to move the ball through midfield in a balanced fashion, making it harder for teams to pinpoint one specific midfield weapon over the others.
Now as deep and talented as this midfield already is, imagine adding in a new designated player: Portuguese playmaker André Horta. LAFC will have a midfield quintet unmatched by any team in Major League Soccer.
This midfield’s impact on LAFC’s team passing numbers is clear. LAFC are among the top five teams in terms of passing completion percentage (82.4%), expected pass completion percentage (80.5%), and Score per game, which measures passes completed over the expected number (+10.13). There are only two other teams in the top five of all three of those statistics: Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC.
With their tremendous depth, LAFC have gotten tremendous results on the field. They are fifth in Major League Soccer in points per game (1.84), currently sit second in the Western Conference, and are well in the Supporters’ Shield race. If Bob Bradley can find a way to keep all of his players engaged and ready to play even when they aren’t in the starting eleven, LAFC are going to make waves throughout the rest of this season.