Back in March when the first appearance of preseason predictions signified the start of a new MLS season, LAFC and Atlanta United were heavily tipped as playoff locks, if not contenders. Now halfway through the year, two of the most expensive rosters in the league are lagging far from the top of their respective conferences and anything but certain to take part in the postseason.
LAFC has yet to find top form consistently ever since its’ record-setting 2019 season. The Black and Gold put together an average 2020, finishing seventh and losing to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Walker Zimmerman’s sale to Nashville was particularly devastating and LAFC never recovered in the defensive third from losing the American. To fix its’ issues keeping the ball out of the net Los Angeles brought in centerback Jesus David Murillo and fullback Kim Moon-hwan over the offseason. Those moves seemed to have the newest team from LA back on the right track but 2021 is yet to follow the script for Bob Bradley’s men. Its’ defense is still 5th-worst in the Western Conference, albeit now at 1.3 goals against per game compared to last year’s 1.7ga.
But whereas LAFC’s defense has taken a (small) step forward, the attack isn’t hitting anywhere near last’s years numbers. LAFC scored the most in the West in 2020, averaging 2.1 goals a game. This year Carlos Vela and Co. are down to 1.3 goals per 90. Diego Rossi and Vela haven’t been at their best despite leading LAFC with five goals each. Without that duo, however, LAFC would be in even worse shape; midfielder Jose Cifuentes is the only other consistent contributor in the final third on the squad. Corey Baird (who’s since left for Houston), Brian Rodriguez, and Daniel Musovski have all been peripheral figures. The signing of striker Cristian Arango is meant to rectify those concerns but the Colombian is still adapting to MLS and only made his debut last weekend. LAFC has talent but whether due to staleness under Bradley or the squad itself, performances and results are not up to standards.
Atlanta United’s thrilling win over Columbus re-inspired life into its playoff hopes but the road to the post season is far from a straighforward one. The Five Stripes, currently in 10th, are six points and three teams behind the red line. August and September are shaping up to be season-defining months for Atlanta with six of the next seven games come at home. The midseason arrival of Gonzalo Pineda throws yet another wrinkle into 2021. Buckle up folks, because the ride is just about to get bumpy.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 3-2 LAFC
After picking up its first win in three months last weekend, it will only take Atlanta eight days to repeat the feat. Goals from a fully rested Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco will seal three points for the Five Stripes, though a brace from Vela won’t make things easy.