By Chris Smith.
On Monday, Los Angeles FC star Carlos Vela announced he would not be participating in the MLS is Back tournament due to family reasons.
“I would like nothing more than to be with my teammates in Orlando,” Vela said in a statement released by the club.
“However it is in the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy.”
The Mexico international was Major League Soccer‘s MVP during 2019, scoring a record 34 regular-season goals as LAFC won Supporters’ Shield with 72 points — the highest amount in competition history.
Naturally, with FC Dallas already having to pull out of the tournament due to a high number of positive Covid-19 tests and Nashville’s participation in the tournament now standing on thin ice, there is the fear Vela’s absence could cripple MLS is Back even further.
#MLSIsBack will be without:
All of FC Dallas https://t.co/6zkthBbnit
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) July 7, 2020
Even more specifically, it has also made many question LAFC’s chances of winning the tournament. After all, any team would struggle to cope without the league’s reigning best player and most prolific goalscorer. Furthermore, it often feels like Vela is at the centre of everything Bob Bradley’s side do well in an attacking sense.
But to write off the Black and Gold at this point, before a ball has even been kicked, would not only be foolish, but it would also pay a huge disservice to the talent remaining in their squad, both proven and with a point still to make.
Largely thanks to their ferocious attack, it’s often forgotten that LAFC conceded the fewest number of goals (37) throughout the regular season in 2019.
That air-tight defence was so often the platform which allowed them to run free so effectively at the other end of the pitch and while the off-season departure of Walker Zimmermann will no doubt take some getting used to, Bradley still has Eddie Segura — arguably the league’s most exciting centre-back — at his disposal.
Segura scored 82 and 95 out of 100 respectively when it came to disrupting opposition moves and recovering a moving ball, according to Smarterscout.
Even more impressive is the cast that appears in front of the back-four. Eduard Atuesta is an incredible midfield talent and at this point, it’d be more of a shock if he didn’t get a move to a big European club.
As shown his Smarterscout actions map below, the 23-year-old Colombian was excellent at both progressing the ball from deep or linking play further forward during 2019.
Atuesta ranked second among outfield players in MLS last season for accurate short passes (1942) while he also completed over 55% of his attempted long passes. Add 69 tackles and 39 interceptions to the equation and you begin to sense just how much of an impressive all-rounder he is.
Alongside Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye was LAFC’s top interceptor last season with 42 and whether it’s dropping in to cover the left-back space or performing as a defensive screen through the middle, the Canada international as an incredible defensive force and one of MLS’ most improved players.
And completing the midfield is arguably the most improved player in North America, Latif Blessing.
A converted winger, Blessing calls upon incredible pace and fitness to inject energy into the LAFC midfield, while he completed the third-highest number of dribbles (76) throughout the league during the 2019 regular season.
The Ghanian is the perfect box-to-box presence for Bradley and these three midfielders combined, offer the precise blend of skill, precision, and defensive discipline required of a title-winning side.
Of course, as impressive as all this is, it would be nothing without goals and, yes, Vela did net 40% of LAFC’s 85 strikes during the 2019 regular season. However, even without the 31-year-old, Bradley is not without options.
Diego Rossi was the league’s fourth-highest goalscorer during the 2019 regular season with 16. The Uruguayan’s pace and directness on the left flank make him incredibly effective and he could be a potent weapon on the counter-attack — a tactic Bradley might now employ with Vela left at home.
With an $11.5m fee to live up to but, as of yet, no goals to his name, Brian Rodriguez arguably has the biggest point to prove of any player in MLS right now. The 20-year-old has scored three goals in his last five caps for Uruguay and was tied with Vela for the most successful dribbles (8) among LAFC players during the opening two games of the 2020 MLS season.
The signs of improvement are there and with a number of teams in Italy now showing interest, Rodriguez will be keener than most to prove a point in Orlando — especially with the league’s main attraction out of action.
It’s also incredibly important to remember that, alongside Adama Diomande — who has scored 23 goals in 49 games across all competitions so far for LAFC — Bradley had already planned further for this sort of eventuality with the signing of veteran forward, Bradley Wright-Phillips. Even if the striker does think MLS’ return approach is “stupid”, Bradley will be well aware of BWP’s goalscoring prowess at this level — his experience could prove vital in the big moments.
Sure, it would be ridiculous to say LAFC will be outright, undisputable favourites to win this tournament without Vela. However, as is the case with Atlanta United without Josef Martinez, the Black and Gold still have plenty of options to replace the Mexican, while the supporting cast around him is arguably the strongest Major League Soccer has seen in recent memory.
Count them out at your own peril.