LAFC Preview: I’ve Seen the Future, Baby, It Is Murder

Dome Torrent likes LAFC’s style. What does that tell us about where NYCFC is headed?

You ever seen L.A. drivers on an unclogged freeway? It’s rare but it does happen. Every three or four years traffic on the 110 will part fleetingly, like the petals of some ancient agave flower, and for a few minutes it’s practically The Purge out there. Accelerators mashed with the pent-up frustration of a thousand waiters late to a thousand commercial auditions. Turn signals abandoned. Cars careening across three lanes at a jump, dodging kamizaze motorcyclists, everyone desperate to shave a few minutes off their commute or die trying.

This, as it happens, is also how Los Angeles Football Club plays soccer.

The thing about Bob Bradley’s team is that they gun it right up the middle. Other teams will work the buildup out to the fullbacks, keep their wingers wide to stretch the opponent, check back to a free center back when the midfield’s under pressure. Not LAFC. Try to press Eduard Atuesta and he’ll pull a risky little half-turn and zip a slant to Lee Nguyen between the lines, who’ll whip it to Carlos Vela tucked all the way in behind the striker, and in no time flat you’ve got the scariest player in the league accelerating at your center backs like Vin Diesel in a souped up Charger.

LAFC’s favorite passes (left) show their central short-passing style.

This is not a team you need data to grasp—it’s enough to watch any highlight clip and feel your face melt into a sticky grin. Still, it’s interesting to see the precise ways in which LAFC’s attack is unique. When American Soccer Analysis’s Eliot McKinley and Cheuk Hei Ho studied which kinds of passes teams prefer, LAFC stood out for its short laterals in the attacking half. They don’t play long from the keeper (especially to the left) and they don’t do crosses (especially from the right). Bradley’s offense is all about breaking midfield lines with quick passing and keeping the ball central. Apart from last year’s Atlanta United, no one plays anything like it.

What will this mean for NYCFC on Sunday? For one thing, Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot will be busy. LAFC played more throughballs than any team in the league last season, and the most dangerous tended to come from midfielders in central areas. An open Nguyen or Mark-Anthony Kaye in Zone 14 puts NYCFC’s center backs at risk of being overwhelmed, as they have to choose between challenging the ball carrier and tracking runs from Vela, Diego Rossi, and the center forward. (Key stat alert: four players is more than two.)

LAFC’s league-leading throughballs create high-value chances from central areas.

But throwing all those bodies forward—it looks kind of exhausting, right? Off the ball LAFC tends to take it a little easier, defending in a narrow 4-3-3 that would rather not press all the way up to the center backs and which often leaves space between its flat lines. Vela’s noncommital attitude toward dropping into a more conventional midfield four should allow NYCFC to choose whether it wants to play wide like it did in L.A. last year or ask Callens to shoot the gaps to Maxi Moralez and Alexandru Mitriţă.

Which brings us to the interesting question about this game: how Dome Torrent will approach it. The coach sounded almost wistful talking about his weekly tape review. “I watch many games in MLS and I like especially the way they play,” he said of LAFC. “Because I know this way. 4-3-3, two attacking midfielders in their position, the wingers wide, sometimes when the ball is on your side, go inside and overlap. They respect the position.”

While the suggestion that LAFC features wide, positionally disciplined wingers is not, strictly speaking, even close to true, it might give us a clue about what what Dome wants for his own team. There’s always been a little bit of tension about Torrent’s stylistic aspirations: he wants wide wingers but he plays inverted ones who tuck inside, he wants to control possession but he complains his team isn’t direct enough.

There’s no perfect way to play soccer, but LAFC does a pretty good job handling those two particular dilemmas. Although Vela and Rossi do love to come in from the wings, the forward midfield pair in a 4-3-3 allows them to start wide without stranding a central attacking midfielder. And the team’s fast play through the middle balances direct transitions and short passing, taking advantage of a technical squad while keeping players close enough to each other to counterpress when they lose a ball.

Dome has hinted at tactical changes against LAFC’s 4-3-3, but it’s hard to say what.

If Dome wants his team to play like LAFC, he’s had a funny way of showing it. But this still feels like a young squad groping its way toward some new identity. In Keaton Parks, NYCFC has a promising candidate for Maxi’s attacking mid partner in a 4-3-3, and James Sands’ emergence as a smart, technical defensive midfielder may help quicken the buildup. Mitri’s dribbling and shooting bear some similarities to Vela’s game and Jesús Medina has always preferred the halfspaces and back post runs to his regular sideline gig. It’s possible to imagine, through a haze of wishful thinking and faraway SoCal smog, that NYCFC won’t just see the toughest test of its young season tomorrow—it might glimpse something like its future. ❧

Image: Karin Lindberg Freda, JR, Wrinkles in the City