Lots of style and sky-high expectations.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

LAFC, in Year 1, made the playoffs and set a new points record for expansion clubs along the way. LAFC, in Year 2, won the Supporters’ Shield and set a new points record along the way. LAFC, in Year 3, made it to the Concacaf Champions League final by cutting a swathe through some of Liga MX’s biggest and most successful clubs.

They brought that team back and padded out the roster with depth and… LAFC, in Year 4, sank below the line and missed the playoffs. What?

Formation and tactics

It was supposed to be a 4-3-3 – they came into the year, as usual, set up to play a 4-3-3. But via injuries and absences, underperformances and the continued lack of a true, elite center forward, Bob Bradley eventually had to switch out of the 4-3-3 into first a 3-4-2-1, and then eventually a 3-5-2.

Throughout they were a team that wanted to use the ball to break their opponents down, though they did it in a different way than the 2019 version of this team (the gold standard of the Bradley era). That team dominated possession and pressed as high as almost anyone; this team was much more content with drawing a lower line of confrontation, hitting in transition and exploiting space.

And they played a ton of good soccer that way. LAFC should not have missed the playoffs – they played some gorgeous soccer and every advanced metric in the world has them as one of the very best teams this year.

But, well, they did. You are what your record says you are.

Highlights

There were a couple of high points that came during unbeaten runs or sometimes, even, winning streaks. But it felt like they had finally gotten healthy enough, and finally turned the corner enough in terms of mentality with the seemingly-humongous-but-in-retrospect-actually-not 3-0 win over Seattle in late October.

They didn’t precisely dominate the Sounders – on balance, the chances were even in terms of both quantity and quality. But they out-Sounders’d the Sounders, ripping them apart from the half-spaces, gashing them in transition and capitalizing on any mistake the guests made.

There were champagne football moments in here, soccer of the sort that has made aesthetes enjoy LAFC so much since they first arrived in 2019. But mostly this was about ruthless execution:

It really, really looked like LAFC had internalized the lessons Seattle had brutalized them with over the past two postseasons. Even Brian Rodriguez scored!

Lowlight

Nope. LAFC came out the very next game in yet another must-win six-pointer and utterly dominated the ‘Caps, outshooting them 26-5 and winning the xG battle by 3-to-1.

But also, they conceded on the break within 15 minutes and spent the rest of the game throwing the kitchen sink at Vancouver trying to first find the equalizer, and then the winner. Obviously they got the first, and obviously (this is the “lowlight” section after all) they did not find the winner.

‘Caps ‘keeper Maxime Crepeau deserves a ton of credit for the 1-1 result, of course. But this was LAFC at home, absolutely rolling with 10 points from the past 12 on offer, and absolutely controlling the game… and just not finding the finishing touch they so desperately needed.

There were much worse performances throughout the year – the early heartbreaker against the Galaxy; the smashing they took at home against Sporting in August; a lot of goalkeeper and center back lowlights in general; everything that happened on Decision Day – but no combination of performance + scoreline better encapsulates this 2021 LAFC side than that draw vs. the ‘Caps.

Turning three points into one is just who this team was.

Revelation

Mamadou Mbacke Fall probably should’ve made the 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list this year. There just haven’t been a lot of quality 18-year-old center backs in league history – I’m struggling to think of even one, to be honest.

Fall hasn’t been perfect, but since coming into the team in the middle of the year he’s been much more good than bad, is an every-game starter and is one of the most dominant aerial threats in the league currently, with the potential to be one of the most dominant in league history. That’s really good!

Without Fall it’s hard to imagine they’d have made any sort of late-season run – even an ultimately futile one. He has the makings of either a long-term backline centerpiece or a future multi-million-dollar transfer to a big club in Europe.

Disappointment

“Without Fall it’s hard to imagine they’d have made any sort of late-season run.” That is just shocking. LAFC were supposed to be better and deeper than this.

Of course, they were hit hard by injuries all year, with their most important attacker (Carlos Vela) and their most important midfielder (Eduard Atuesta) missing huge chunks of time, while their most important defender (Eddie Segura) tore his ACL midseason and will be on the shelf until 2022. Meanwhile one DP (Diego Rossi) was loaned out midseason, while another (Brian Rodriguez) didn’t arrive until midseason, nor did talismanic TAM signing Cristian Arango. That’s a lot of churn.

But the simple fact is that a lot of the guys who were given minutes – the guys who were expected to be quality depth in case of something like oh, I don’t know, a rash of injuries – didn’t deliver. That goes from the goalkeepers all the way up to the strikers.

Teamwide, the whole thing was disappointing.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Fall (CB): He’s going nowhere in the short term, nor should he. Another 5000 minutes over the next two years, and who knows how good he’ll be?
  • Atuesta (DM): The classy regista has one more year left on his contract, and my guess is rather than sell him at a fraction of his actual value, LAFC will hold onto him – and maybe even try to re-sign him.
  • Jose Cifuentes (CM): A solid all-around midfielder who is more effective than spectacular, but can fit in any formation and add value.
  • Rodriguez (W): He still spends more time looking the part than actually providing goals + assists, but anyone with eyes can see his talent. He’ll be in his fourth year in MLS, has already had one European door shut in his face this past spring, and has a World Cup team to try to make. The only way to do it is to match potential to productivity.
  • Arango (FW): He is not as good as his goalscoring tally indicates – there are a lot of penalties in that 14-goal haul – but he is still quite good, and is entering his prime.

Offseason Priority:

The entire second half of the year there has been talk about whether either Vela or Bradley or neither or both will be back. Both are reportedly out of contract this offseason, though by all accounts it’s a team option with Vela.

Anyway my guess is neither, and if that’s the case, then wooooo boy. A new coach, potentially two new big stars (Rossi’s DP slot is still open), and an entirely new era awaits.

Sorting that out – one, the other, both, neither – is by far the top priority for the front office this offseason, though I think the fate of Atuesta is not very far behind that in terms of both the short- and long-term potential of this team. Figuring out if he’s going to stay, and if not, how much you can get for him is pretty damn important.