It’s a story we’ve seen before: Bob Bradley taking an MLS expansion team and putting them among the team’s elite from the jump. First, it was the Chicago Fire in the late 1990s, who plucked Bruce Arena’s assistant from D.C. United and ended up reaching two MLS Cup Finals (winning one) and claiming two U.S. Open Cups in its first three seasons. Two decades later, Bradley’s at the helm of LAFC, where all he’s done is led them to a third-place finish in the West in year one and a seven-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield standings with 13 matches to go in year two.
It has the feel of the trajectory another recent MLS entrant has enjoyed over its first two seasons. And when Atlanta United travel to Banc of California Stadium for a huge Friday night tilt against LAFC, it has a chance to send a message to the league that perhaps it is shaking off a slow start and is ready to make a heavy push toward becoming the first back-to-back MLS Cup winner since the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012. Or, it could just as easily go wrong and see their backline get torn up by MVP and Golden Boot frontrunner Carlos Vela.
For some insight on LAFC, I caught up with Alicia Rodriguez, managing editor of our sister site Angels on Parade and league manager of SBN’s MLS sites. You’ve also seen her work over at MLSSoccer.com.
This is obviously on pace to be a historic season for LAFC on multiple fronts. Having covered the club since before their first game, did you foresee this much success in year 2? How do they sustain it throughout the remainder of the season and beyond?
As someone who formerly covered a team that was run into oblivion, I never had expectations on what would happen, to be honest. But that says more about my experience than LAFC, probably. In truth, I know that Atlanta won MLS Cup in their second season but I wasn’t necessarily expecting LAFC to be at the top of the standings, on the precipice of running away with the Supporters’ Shield if they can put another winning streak together. But here we are. I thought they would be good but for the most part they kept the same starting group together this season and gave them a chance to continue to build on what they did in a good debut season.
As for sustaining it, we’ll only truly know in hindsight. There is the recent form, with LAFC losing three of their last six games across all competitions, by far their worst run of the season. Atlanta could be facing them at the perfect time. But they’ve lost only four times total this season, twice with rotated lineups that clearly impacted the rhythm of the side. The main concerns are injuries, a constant worry in sports, and fatigue. It would be a shame if everyone was worn out a month too early. But again, we’ll see how it goes over the final months to see if they can hold on for the Shield.
The derby between LA Galaxy and LAFC last Friday went the way of the Galaxy at home, with LAFC remaining winless against the club from Carson. How much of a damper does that put on what’s been a successful season otherwise?
I hope for the team’s sake it’s a temporary damper that they snap out of quickly. The biggest concern to me in that game wasn’t the performance Zlatan Ibrahimovic put on, because he’s a player who can do that, but the team lacking the sharpness that has been their calling card all season. It’s like the Galaxy and LAFC switched bodies -- the Galaxy usually kind of glide along and hope they can get a goal to take the lead, then squeeze the life out of the game, while LAFC are all action and pressing and passing. Last week, they didn’t quite flip scripts, but the Galaxy were ferocious and LAFC were flat. That is a major concern until we see a few more games.
The top objective is to win a major trophy, that is clear. But below the quests for the Shield and MLS Cup, it’s getting a first win over the Galaxy, and now winless in the first four games, it really looks like the Galaxy are in LAFC’s heads to some extent, and that’s concerning.
The big matchup will obviously be between Carlos Vela (21 goals) and Josef Martinez (16 goals). As you’ve seen, Josef is on a bit of a hot streak of late (11 goals in his last 6 matches played), and we can’t forget what Zlatan is doing just up the road from you all. Where does this leave Vela and his prospects of winning the Golden Boot and potentially MVP?
Vela remains in the lead and his pace is currently better than a goal a game in league play, which is unprecedented. I think he’s locked in on getting golden boot and MLS MVP without being overly self-centered about it -- he’s passed up a few goals this season to get others, including Rodolfo Zelaya, off the mark. There are 13 games to go and while I don’t discount Josef or Zlatan whatsoever, they have ground to make up, and I think Vela is a good bet for both Golden Boot and MVP...as long as he stays healthy. He’s playing the best soccer of his career and it’s a pleasure to watch week in and week out.