LAFC are attempting to fix their defensive problems this season. But their weaknesses go beyond just the personnel available.
There was one key reason why Los Angeles FC did not progress further in the playoffs last season and ultimately beat out Sporting Kansas City into the number-one seed in the West: Defence.
LAFC scored a staggering 68 goals last season, bettered by only Atlanta United. They boasted one of the most vicious attacks in the league, led by MVP candidate Carlos Vela, and could score two, three, four in quick succession.
And yet, for all of their attacking dominance, they still lost nine matches on the season and failed to win a playoff game, again, because Real Salt Lake were able to score three times against a porous defence.
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LAFC chucked away a winning advantage in that match. Holding onto leads was something that they struggled with last season, dropping 12 points from winning positions in the regular season, including eight second-half leads turning into draws or defeats in the regular season and playoffs. If defending period was LAFC’s Achilles heel, then defending a lead was an amputated foot. Conceding 52 goals in just 34 games is never a good path to success, and LAFC found that out. The hard way.
So now, as they prepare for their second season in MLS, looking to build on a tremendously hope-inspiring inaugural campaign, there is one clear focus for General Manager John Thorrington: fix the defence.
So it is odd, then, that Thorrington has done almost nothing to address the defensive personnel of the team. In fact, at present, it is expected that the same backline that ended the year will start the next. The two defensive signings that have been made — Eddie Segura from Atletico Huila and Mohamed El-Munir from Orlando City — are primarily for depth purposes, though they will provide competition also. LAFC are rolling with the same hand.
But that does not mean that their defence will be the same, sieve-like unit that it was last season. The defensive problems last year did not stem from lacking personnel. Walker Zimmerman is a very capable defender. Danilo Silva is calm and composed. Steven Beitashour is one of the better right-backs in the league. The problem was the system that Bob Bradley implemented.
Bradley likes his teams to dominate possession. He wants them to control the game in the middle of the park and take the game to the opposition by pressuring them into mistakes with wave after wave of slowly built attacks. It is predominantly the modern way of playing and it has proven to be successful across the globe. But it does sometimes expose the defence.
LAFC tended to play with ball-playing central midfielders. Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber are excellent passers of the football, but they are hardly the most industrious, biting of midfielders. They aren’t exactly going to snap into a challenge and ruffle the opposition’s feathers. They offer little screening and protection of the back four. And it is the back four that often looks foolish as a result.
LAFC have not made many changes to their defensive options so far this offseason. It looks as though they are happy to play with the same players as last season. And, in principle, that is not a problem. But Bradley will have to give them some help. It is what stopped his team from being truly elite last season, and it might again if he isn’t careful.