LAFC Finally Win "Big Game" At The Banc: Clinch Supporter's Shield
In their short history, LAFC have a reputation of not getting the result in the so-called “big games”. The loss to Real Salt Lake in the playoffs last season, the Open Cup elimination to Portland this year and the inability to defeat the Galaxy all at Banc of California Stadium has supporters wondering if it is a self-built mental blockage that has prevented the Black & Gold from displaying their football ideas in moments of high pressure.
With New York City FC winning their respective game just a few hours earlier, the Supporter’s Shield was just one win away for LAFC as the stage was set at the Banc in front of the 3252. The match vs the Houston Dynamo was the one that every Black & Gold supporter was waiting to celebrate with a victory after the team had gone winless in the previous five games. Anything other than a win over Houston would be a disappointment with the amount of hype and expectation surrounding this match.
Let me start by saying that Bob Bradley is one hell of a football coach. Not only does he insist on the constant improvement of his team as a collective group and the players as individuals, Bradley coordinates intelligent tactical adjustments that benefit the team. In this case, outside backs Mohamed El-Munir and Tristan Blackmon were included in the starting line-up in an effort to give the midfielders additional options out wide in case Houston was to clog the midfield, which they did. Both El-Munir and Blackmon projected themselves forward on several occasions with speed and determination as their ability to get involved in attack forced Houston to stretch vertically and create spaces in the middle. Keep in mind that an adjustment is not a change, as LAFC were able to maintain their style of football by simply adding another weapon to their well-oiled machine.
The first half was mainly dominated by the Black & Gold in regards to possession and scoring chances created. Collectively speaking, the backline was solid in defense with excellent anticipation interceptions, the midfield trio of Atuesta, Blessing and Nguyen was recovering possession quickly through the counter press but the three DP’s up top were not quite on the same page as a group. The player that stood out to me the most was left-back Mohamed El-Munir. The 27 year-old provided quick, precise and direct passing up the field as well as excellent defending in covering for his teammates. LAFC’s build-up appeared more fluid with El-Munir in comparison with Jordan Harvey, who’s good with keeping possession but lacks the speed at which El-Munir plays with.
After 20 minutes of control in possession but with nothing to show for, the patient build-up that we are used to seeing at the Banc made an appearance with the special addition of the outside backs for LAFC getting wide as an outlet. As the ball was being passed around just outside the box in the middle for over a minute, it found its way over to the right side. Blackmon received the ball and fearlessly took his defender on before getting a low cross into the box where Rodriguez would get fouled by a Houston defender. In the 22nd minute, captain Carlos Vela converted the penalty kick into his league-leading 30th goal of the year and is now just two goals shy from breaking the single-season record for most goals scored with two games remaining in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Black & Gold, they would “shoot themselves in the foot” just five minutes later.
Off the top of my head, I believe it is safe to say that most of the goals scored against LAFC this season have been self-inflicted. Whether it’s a mental breakdown, a lack of communication a poor giveaway, etc., the point is they are preventable. The Dynamo took advantage off a corner kick after Tyler Miler’s inability to come away with the ball in the air created confusion inside the box and El-Munir’s initial clearance off the line consequently rebounded off Miller’s back for the own goal. LAFC’s defending of set pieces was not great in this match and seems to be a point of concern for Bradley and his side. Goals like these can be a cause of elimination in the playoffs if the Black & Gold don’t sharpen their communication and positioning in defense. It’s a shame that Miller committed such an error because if you take out that mistake, the 26 year-old goalkeeper had himself quite the game as his confidence level seems to be getting him back into top form.
After the halftime break, LAFC seemed to be out of sync for the first ten minutes of the second half with poor decision making and forced passes. In an attempt to regain control of the game and calm things down a bit, Bradley made another tactical adjustment that benefited the team tremendously when he brought in Mark-Anthony Kaye for Brian Rodriguez. The Uruguayan international had a frustrating night where he was dispossessed on several occasions and was unable to connect with his teammates. Give the kid some time; remember he is only 19 years old.
With Latif Blessing on the wing now, it created another worry for Houston Dynamo. The counter press with the addition of Kaye was forcing the visitors to play the ball long or risk losing possession in their own half. Blessing and Rossi were dribbling full speed at their defenders while leaving space in the middle for Vela and Nguyen to create. The passing in the midfield was sharper and quicker as it allowed for several shots on goal to be taken through the likes of Vela, Atuesta and even Blackmon. In the 69th minute, Atuesta unclogged the play at the top of the box by dishing the ball out wide to Blackmon, who then crossed the ball inside before it was deflected by a defender onto the crossbar. The rebound fell to Rossi and with a diving header scored his 16th goal of the season as well as giving LAFC the 2-1 lead. It was another example of Bradley’s genius plan to provide his team with more options and become less predictable.
In the dying moments of the match, Blessing would get fouled just outside the box after his defenders were unable to keep up with his speed. The play was a consequence of the counter press LAFC hold teams in their own half with as they have been doing all year long. The free kick was taken by Eduard Atuesta who finely curled his shot to the far post for his third goal of the season and the 3-1 lead with just a few minutes remaining. It was the perfect ending to a match that brought LAFC back to winning ways with good football ideas executed by the players but mapped out by the coach.
The Black & Gold had finally won one of those “big games” at the Banc and LAFC’s name had been added to the Supporter’s Shield list of winners. It was a great night of football that ended in celebration for the club, the players, the coaches, the supporters and the city. Los Angeles is Black & Gold and if this game was any indication of what’s to come, this won’t be the last time LAFC lift a trophy at the Banc.