By Eric Walcott (@ericwsoccer)
Los Angeles Football Club was, according to points total, the best expansion side in the history of Major League Soccer. They’re hoping to improve on that in 2019.
2018 in Review
LAFC’s 57 points surpassed the 56 earned by the 1998 Chicago Fire and the 55 by 2017 newcomers Atlanta United. They scored the second most goals all-time of an expansion side, with 68. By all accounts, it was a very good debut season.
Well, all except one. The Playoffs. LAFC entered the playoffs with high hopes after such a strong season, hopes that were shattered in a stunning upset by Real Salt Lake.
Maybe it’s just the early playoff exit, maybe it’s that LAFC came absolutely flying out of the gate, then settled into merely being very good for the rest of the year, but there was definitely a taste of disappointment overall. That’s harsh, but when you have the best 10 game start of any expansion team ever and have the team LAFC assembled, a first-round playoff exit is a significant blemish.
Check out just how good LAFC was in that first 10 games:
Offensively, LAFC were phenomenal in 2018, ranking in the top five in MLS in shots, goals, and expected goals. Defensively they were less good, conceding the 11th most goals in the league (52), though it should be noted their expected goals against (44) was good enough for 6th best in the league. Interestingly, their actual goal difference and expected goal difference were nearly identical: 13 and 13.1. That’s because as a team LAFC was either very good at or very fortunate in their finishing, scoring 68 goals on only 57.1 expected goals.
Carlos Vela was the star man for LAFC, contributing 14 goals and 10 assists. They also got significant contributions from Diego Rossi (12 G, six assists), Adama Diomande (12 G, four assists), and Latif Blessing (five goals, six assists), all of whom return for the 2019 season.
GK - Charlie Lyon (option declined)
GK - Quillan Roberts (option declined)
M - Nico Czornomaz (option declined)
M - Calum Mallace (option declined)
M - James Murphy (option declined)
F - Steeve Saint-Duc (option declined)
F - Marco Ureña (option declined)
M - Benny Feilhaber (out of contract)
GK - Luis Lopez (loan expired)
M - Aaron Kovar (loan expired)
D - Joao Moutinho (traded to Orlando)
There’s not much of note here except the departure of Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber played a key role in the midfield last season and leaves a hole to fill, but LAFC have talented young players at that position and probably won’t suffer too much.
Marco Ureña had a decent season but was pushed down the depth chart after the World Cup and they’ll be fine without him.
The other departure of interest is young fullback Joao Moutinho, who looked decent in limited opportunities last year. He was traded to Orlando for Mohamed El-Munir, who is also a fullback, so maybe Bob Bradley wanted someone a bit more MLS-ready.
D - Eddie Segura (loan from Atletico Huila)
D - Mohamed El-Munir (trade from Orlando)
F - Rodolfo Zelaya (transfer from Alianza)
GK - Pablo Sisniega (transfer from Real Sociedad)
That’s not a ton in, which isn’t entirely surprising given how successful 2018 was for LAFC and that a few of the players who look to be key contributors in 2019 arrived during the 2018 season. Still, it does leave room to question whether LAFC could fall behind some of their Western Conference competition simply by not doing as much as others to improve their squads.
LAFC also looks likely to bring in Finnish-American defender Niko Hämäläinen on loan from QPR. Hämäläinen has mostly played left-back, but also has some appearances at center-back, left midfield, and defensive midfield.
LAFC earned plaudits in 2018 for their style of play, lining up in what was mostly a 4-3-3 but without a real defensive midfield destroyer. They emphasized attacking soccer described by Bob Bradley as “good football.” It mostly was good football, and it’s tough to argue with the results overall, though their defensive record may lead to some questions over whether bringing in a pure defensive midfielder might have been a good idea.
There’s been nothing this off-season to suggest that LAFC will do anything differently in 2019. It seems they remain committed to playing quickly on attack and sticking to an attractive brand of soccer. If Eduard Atuesta can be as good as LAFC hoped when they signed him, or if Mark-Anthony Kaye can return to his pre-injury form, that may address the question in defensive midfield and let Bradley play the style he wants from his team without being weak defensively. If not, there may be questions.
Tyler Miller remains the starter. Pablo Sisniega was brought in this offseason and may push Miller for minutes, but it seems more likely it’s Miller’s job to lose. Miller was almost even in terms of goals conceded compared to expected goals against in 2018, solid, but unspectacular.
Defense was LAFC’s weakness in 2018. Danilo Silva came in midseason to replace Laurent Ciman and was mostly okay, but didn’t provide the boost that many at LAFC were probably hoping for. Silva probably remains the starter alongside Walker ZImmerman. That said, Eddie Segura comes in on a six month loan with an option to buy, so he figures to get plenty of opportunities early on if LAFC are going to decide whether to finalize that purchase. Segura has gotten a lot of minutes in preseason, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him replace Silva in the starting eleven. At fullback, Steven Beitashour remains the likely starter at RB. Jordan Harvey is the incumbent on the left, but the arrival of Mohamed El-Munir could mean change is on the horizon.
Lee Nguyen will start. After that, it looks like there’s two spots up for grabs between Andre Horta, Eduard Atuesta, and Mark-Anthony Kaye. Kaye and Atuesta started with Nguyen in LAFC’s final preseason tune-up this weekend, so my money is on that as the opening day starters, but expect significant rotation. Bradley showed a tendency to ride the hot hand in midfield last season, and that will probably continue.
The big question in midfield is the lack of depth. Josh Perez is the only other player listed on LAFC’s roster as a midfielder. Kaye is coming off a significant injury. If anyone in that midfield has injury problems, it could spell big problems for LAFC and force major changes to Bradley’s gameplan.
Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi will start on the wings. It seemed like Adama Diomande would be the starter at center forward, but Cristian Ramirez has spent a lot of time with the first team in pre-season and started LAFC’s final preseason game this weekend. That’s no guarantee for next week, but Bradley was asked about his lineup after the game and seemed to indicate that the lineup was unlikely to change in the next week. LAFC scored 68 goals last season, second most in MLS. With the addition of Rodolfo Zelaya, and a full season of both Ramirez and Diomande, who are both upgrades over Marco Urena, it seems likely this group will produce fireworks again in 2019.
Expectations in 2019
The expectation in Los Angeles has to be a Western Conference Championship. This team isn’t as good all round as Sporting KC, especially defensively, so delivering on that might be tough, but with the level of investment in this team and their success in 2018, a conference title is the next step. I think they certainly have the potential to deliver, and LAFC probably has more players capable of that moment of magic needed to win a game than any other team in the West. That said, there are questions about the back line, and the lack of midfield depth is a concern. If the back line isn’t improved, or if someone in that midfield gets hurt it could pose big problems.
Even if everything goes wrong this should still be a playoff team, but LAFC should be aiming higher. If everything goes according to plan and everyone stays healthy, this team is competing for first in the West and maybe even a supporters shield.