Soccer Can Be Cruel: LAFC are eliminated from 2018 MLS Playoffs
In a game that could have gone either way, lady luck decided to go against us. LAFC hosted Real Salt Lake on Thursday Nov.1 at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference Knockout Round match. The anticipation for this game was high because it was the first-ever playoff match at Banc of California Stadium and for LAFC, who were looking to be the second expansion team ever to win a playoff match in their inaugural season. Unfortunately, that did not happen. No. 3 seed LAFC was upset by No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake in a 3-2 defeat that eliminated them from the playoffs and ended their season. It was the only the second loss at home all year for LAFC and by far the most painful.
Let’s get to the game. The first half played out as expected with LAFC having most possession and RSL playing the long ball due to LAFC’s high press up the field. RSL were a very physical team and disrupted play several times, especially when Carlos Vela had the ball.
Bob Bradley decided to give Latif Blessing his first start since Aug. 5th when LAFC were on the road to New York Red Bulls. This meant that Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen were the only two true center-midfielders the team had on the field. The duo lost the ball four times in the midfield during the first half and was fortunate that RSL did not penalize them for it as their teammates recovered the ball quickly for them. Nguyen and Feilhaber had less room for error being that Eduard Atuesta was not on the pitch to bail them out when a ball is lost.
LAFC were pressing RSL high in their own half and forced RSL to play long balls from their defense, giving the ball back to LAFC. Walker Zimmerman and Danilo Silva appeared to have good communication between each other, played well out of the back, and had good positioning and good clearances for the first 20 minutes of the game.
In the 20th minute, Jordan Harvey failed to intercept the dribble from defender Brooks Lennon, who then crossed the ball into the box from the right side. Silva misjudged the cross and the ball went over his head with forward DamirKreilach right behind him. Kreilach made Silva pay for his mistake and put the ball in the back of the net after a great effort from Tyler Miller to make a save. 1-0 RSL.
The goal was a wake-up call for LAFC as they were failing to finish their chances in front of the goal. Team captain Carlos Vela was very fortunate to not be ejected from the game after swinging his arm back in a battle for the ball and making contact with midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s face. Referee Mark Geiger issued a yellow card to Vela, who needs to be smarter and remain calm in those situations.
The grit was starting to show and LAFC responded very quickly after going down on the scoreboard. In the 30th minute, Vela hit an in-swinger free kick towards the box and Silva redeemed himself after his blunder ten minutes earlier. The Brazilian defender headed the ball past goalkeeper Nick Rimando for his first goal for the club. 1-1.
LAFC continued to attack through Vela as the Mexican international was playing great through balls, great crosses into the box and drawing fouls from RSL defenders. Almost half of the total fouls that RSL committed during the match were against Vela and for that matter, three yellow cards were issued when he had the ball at his feet. It was the only way to stop him.
Lee Nguyen had one last chance in the final minutes of the first half to put LAFC ahead but his goal-bound shot was blocked by defender Lennon to keep the game tied at the half. During a halftime interview, head coach Bradley said that his team needed to remain calm during the second half and “not make decisions at 200 mph”. I will come back to this statement later on.
AdamaDiomande was forced to come off the field at halftime with an injury and Christian Ramirez came on. Ramirez was a familiar foe for RSL as he scored a brace against them during the last meeting between both clubs.
The first ten minutes of the second half were all LAFC. The team appeared reenergized and focused on getting the goal the goal that would give them the lead. Wingers Rossi and Blessing were making good plays and creating chances for each other but were failing to finish due to Rimando’s goal-saving efforts.
In my opinion, the key moment of the match was in the 52ndminute. RSL defender Aaron Herrera brings Rossi down and stops a clear breakaway for LAFC in what should have been his second yellow card of the game. Instead, Geiger gives him a final warning and allows him to keep playing. Bad refereeing but Geiger will be Geiger.
A few minutes later, LAFC finally got their go-ahead goal through substitute Ramirez. Midfielder Nguyen received the ball in the center of the field as Ramirez loomed with the backline of RSL. Ramirez made his move and Nguyen picked him out. Ramirez made an oriented reception and with a left-footed strike put the ball into the back of the net for his third goal vs RSL in just two games. I am not sure that Diomande takes that shot so give full credit to Ramirez for being fearless. It was evident that Ramirez had better movement and chemistry with Vela than Diomande did during the first half.
Banc of California Stadium was louder than ever with the 3252 chanting and jumping higher than ever. The sold-out crowd of 22,000 were witnessing their team win its first playoff match ever and advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals. Then reality hit.
It has been LAFC’s problem all season long. For one reason or another, they let opponents back in games by not being able to control the tempo of the match, failure to maintain leads and seizing the big moments. Just five minutes after LAFC took the lead, Real Salt Lake equalized.
Benny Feilhaber recovered a loose ball in the midfield after Vela had won a header. However, Vela was pushed down. With Vela just getting back on his feet, Feilhaber decides to play a pass to him and it gets intercepted. Let’s be honest, it was a bad decision and a bad pass. Why does this matter? The turnover allows RSL to counter, leaving LAFC’s midfield flatfooted. The ball finds its way to the box and Danilo Silva has an opportunity to clear it. Instead, he lobs it out to Kreilach who scores from outside the box with a standing bicycle kick. 2-2.
Feilhaber attempts to make up for his errant pass and plays a beautiful cross into the box. The pass finds Zimmerman’s head and it beats Rimando but it goes inches wide of the goal. It was so close to going in.
In the 70th minute, RSL link good passes through the middle of the field. Feilhaber has an opportunity to bring down Lennon but instead lets him go by. As a veteran and leader of the team, Feilhaber has to make that foul and take the yellow card. This is where LAFC took the risk of not having Atuesta on the field. Silva then makes a slide tackle and eliminates himself from the play too easily. We all know what happened next. Savarino receives the ball inside the box, attempts to cross the ball to Plata and it hits Zimmerman’s face in the process. The ball deflects into the goal and there is nothing Miller could have done. 2-3 Real Salt Lake.
After the goal, Bradley makes two substitutions. Feilhaber out, Atuesta in.Blessing out, Kovar in. Both were made due to fatigue from the players coming out.
Vela was continuing to cross the ball into the box with danger but his teammates were not making the runs. Before Blessing went out, he made an amazing dribbling play inside the box and crossed it to a wide-open Diego Rossi. With no player five yards around him and the goal five yards away, Rossi rushes his decision and hits the ball first time with his weaker left foot. The shot hit the outside of the net to the disbelief of everyone in the stadium. I understand that it was a difficult angle to take a shot from but Rossi had time to control the ball and basically tap it in. The inexperience and youth from the 20-year old was evident as he failed to seize the moment.
With RSL defender Herrera on a yellow since the 30th minute of the first half, I do not understand why LAFC did not attack him more to force that second yellow on him, not to mention his youth and final warning he was on from Geiger. Blessing and Kovar should have gone at him directly a bit more in my opinion.
Eduard Atuesta did not look sharp in this game coming in as a substitute. He made three bad passes that led to three turnovers, which makes you wonder if Andre Horta would have been a better option.
In the final minutes of the game, LAFC went full-on attack mode. Zimmerman gets a header on a cross and it falls to Vela inside the box. Unfortunately, the ball fell to his weaker right foot and his shot went right to the hands of Rimando. LAFC had one final chance in the last minute of the match when Kovar sent in a cross to Harvey, whose header was goal-bound but Rimando was there for the save. The game was over.
Let’s go back to Bradleys’ halftime interview where he said that his players needed to remain calm and “not make decisions at 200 mph.” Why is this important? RSL played their perfect game and made thing chaotic for LAFC by frustrating them with physicality and not allowing them to play their football. The game got to the heads of the players and they were unable to seize the moments and make the proper decisions.
In an interview two days prior to the match, Lee Nguyen had said that the playoffs are about “the little details”. He was right. LAFC were unable to clean up their mistakes and paid for it.
The fans made Banc of California as loud as it has ever been and cheered them on even where they were down on the scoreboard. There are not many fan bases around MLS that do that as many will turn on their team. It was a great sight to see and the 3252 have nothing to be ashamed of this season as they did everything they could to push this team forward.
LAFC dominated all categories in this game except the most important, the score. It wasn’t the first time that this has happened but we hope it will be the last. LAFC had 65% possession with RSL only having 35% possession. LAFC outshot RSL 20-4, showing just how efficient RSL are as a team. Of the 4 shots they had on goal, 3 of them went in. LAFC had 10 corner kicks and RSL did not have any. Nick Rimando at 39 years old continued to impress with 6 saves during the match while Tyler Miller did not have to make any because all RSL goals were unstoppable.
It is hard to play football against Real Salt Lake the way LAFC want to play it. Why? RSL are a very physical team and they like to disrupt play rather than create it. In this game alone, they committed 20 fouls and were penalized with 5 yellow cards. Over the 3 games vs LAFC, RSL accumulated 46 fouls and 11 yellow cards. LAFC only committed 28 fouls over that span with only 3 yellow cards. It just goes to show the difference in physicality between both teams, something you must have as a team in the playoffs.
LAFC had a good run and have nothing to be ashamed of in their inaugural season in MLS. The team made the playoffs in something that not many people might have expected at the start of the year. They became a fun team to watch in MLS and along with their fans, have set a new standard in how to play the game and how to cheer on your team. LAFC are here to stay for many years to come. Los Angeles is Black and Gold and at this rate, that is not going to change any time soon.
Novermber 4, 2018
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