How do you improve on the most dominant season in MLS history? For Los Angeles FC, the pain of having fallen short of its goal of lifting the MLS Cup title has added a clear-cut motivation, but for Bob Bradley, the aspirations heading into 2020 go far beyond winning a single trophy.
“The big picture for us is to continue over time to be a team that evolves plays good football and wins trophies,” Bob Bradley told SBI. “You have to win trophies to be part of it, but you don’t look back on on one that you didn’t win you know you feel good about getting the first one and now just continuing to see if we can get better.
“We felt like we had a good team, and that we we grew and we played good football we continue to evolve and and now we at the end we said you know whether we had won or lost in the in the cup the idea is just that this is something we have to keep building on.”
The reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield winners and holders of the record for most points in a season head into 2020 with a team that could very well be even better. That is a scary proposition considering how LAFC dominated the league in 2019.
“Coming off last year, we all realize we had like games slip that we had no business letting go,” LAFC defender Tristan Blackmon told SBI. “We’re humble about the progress that we’ve made and the season that we had, but we also know that we could have done better. We could have smashed the record if, if we handled things even better than we did.
“I think we set the bar really high, but that’s, that’s what you want as a club,” Blackmon said. “You want the bar set high, so you continue to push your team, you know, to reach the limits and surpass those.”
LAFC heads into the new year poised to try and make a run in the Concacaf Champions League, while also continuing to rule the Western Conference, with reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela back from his record-shattering 2019.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment by LAFC this past offseason was being able to keep together its nucleus of stars, with Vela, Diego Rossi, Eduard Atuesta and Brian Rodriguez all back for 2020 despite countless transfer rumors.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t changes in store for LAFC. The departure of Walker Zimmerman was the biggest surprise, but it was a calculated move made by a team that has confidence in being able to replace him, with Blackmon the leading candidate. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller also moved on, making way for Dutch veteran Kenneth Vermeer in goal.
Bradley Wright-Phillips’ arrival from the New York Red Bulls isn’t receiving the fanfare it should. The 34-year-old is coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season, but he could be a revelation playing in LAFC’s high-powered attack, giving LAFC a dream complement to starting striker Adama Diomande.
LAFC also managed to add some very enticing young prospects to the squad, a trio of highly-regarded South American prospects who Bradley will be looking to mold into his next generation of stars. Francisco Ginella, Diego Palacios and Jose Cifuentes could require some time to adapt to MLS, but they each have the talent to develop into starters, with Ginella the marquee prospect of the bunch.
The new year will also see players taking on new roles, with Latif Blessing coming off his breakout year as a do-everything central midfield and looking like he could be ready to master the right back position for his next trick.
2020 Los Angeles FC Preview
2019 Finish: 1st in West (21-4-9, 72 pts (Supporters’ Shield winners, lost to Seattle in Western Conference Final)
Key Acquisitions: Bradley Wright-Phillips, Francisco Ginella, Kenneth Vermeer, Diego Palacios, Jose Cifuentes
Key Losses: Walker Zimmerman, Tyler Miller, Steven Beitashour, Lee Nguyen
Newcomer to Watch
The Uruguayan midfielder was one of the more impressive MLS signings of the winter, and the 21-year-old has the dynamic quality to step in and start in LAFC’s attack. With Latif Blessing looking poised for a move to right back, Ginella could slide right in and emerge as a perfect complement to Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta in central midfield.
“He’s an intelligent player, a good passer,” Bradley told SBI. “We’re excited to work with him because I think his overall understanding of the game is quite good.
“He sees things. He does a lot of subtle things really well in terms of finding space,” Bradley said. “Defensively, he reads things well. He still needs to mature physically, but when you see someone whose awareness puts him in the right position, and when he reacts quickly to situations that are around him, those are things that fit so well with the way we try to play.”
Pressure Is On
LAFC’s decision to trade Zimmerman immediately put the spotlight on Blackmon, who impressed as a central defender in 2019.
“As the season went on he got more confident in his ability,” Bradley said of Blackmon. “He reads plays. He’s athletic. He’s not afraid to play high, and react and make plays behind him. I think he’s a good passer, so he’s got a lot of good qualities to keep pushing.”
Drafted originally as a right back, Blackmon played both centerback and right back in 2019, and while Zimmerman’s departure likely thrusts him into a regular role alongside Eddie Segura in central defense, his versatility should still come into play in 2020.
“In the long run (centerback) is probably the way it’ll go, but for the moment he still plays both for us,” Bradley said.
“Maybe my see my ceiling is a little bit higher for (centerback), which is fine with me. I’m definitely comfortable playing that position,” Blackmon said. “Obviously there’s things you need to refine for even for the highest professionals in the game, continue working on things to develop.
“I’m excited to see you know where my career goes at either position, and if it is centerback then I’m ready to run with it, and vice versa, if it’s at right back I’ll do the same thing.”
Carlos Vela grabbed the majority of the LAFC headlines in 2019, but the team’s record-setting exploits were down to much more than just the Mexican star’s heroics.
The evolution of the LAFC midfield was one of the underrated storylines of 2019, with Mark-Anthony Kaye rising to an all-star level and Latif Blessing emerging as a serious presence in the middle of the field. Their work alongside Atuesta helped LAFC dominate opponents and control play, which often helped set the stage for Vela to finish things off with his goals and assists.
One of the more intriguing storylines heading into 2020 is what does Bradley have planned for Blessing. Originally signed as a winger, Blessing blossomed in a box-to-box central midfield role, excelling to the point that it would seem counterintuitive to consider moving him again.
So why move Blessing? He has experience playing on the right side of the field. He has already shown an ability to adapt and learn a new role, and putting Blessing at right back could help Bradley turn the position into a hybrid role that allows Blessing to shift into midfield at times, while his tireless work rate will also help provide some defensive cover behind Vela on the right wing.
Left back is another position with a wealth of options. Veteran Jordan Harvey can play there or work as a back-up centerback, while Mohamed El-Munir is arguably the best defender among the left back options. Then you have Ecuadorian youngster Diego Palacios, who boasts the sort of attacking quality that could help make the LAFC attack even more dangerous.
At forward, Bradley has depth, with Vela, Rossi and Brian Rodriguez available to work the wings, while Vela can also be deployed centrally, as he was at times last year.
Diomande remains the team’s lead striker, but he starts the season on the injured list, with Bradley Wright-Phillips arriving to give LAFC the kind of depth few teams could dream of.
In goal, Dutch veteran Kenneth Vermeer has replaced Tyler Miller, and will be called on to use his experience to command what has the makings of a young LAFC defense. Vermeer’s ability to pass out of the back is superior to Miller’s, which could help LAFC be even better at building from the back.
With a revamped roster, and all of its top attacking stars back, LAFC has the pieces in place to have an even better 2020. The chase for the club’s first MLS Cup title will be a storyline that hovers over the team all year, but for Bradley and his team, the quest this year is to continue setting a high standard rather than about chasing a specific piece of silverware.
“We’ve not spend too much time looking back on records or looking back on things that didn’t quite happen,” Bradley told SBI. “We have a sense as to how we want to continue to grow in this thing and how to try to do it from one year to the next to the next and the next.”
Goalkeepers: Phillip Ejimadu, Pablo Sisniega, Kenneth Vermeer.
Defenders: Tristan Blackmon, Mohamed El-Munir, Jordan Harvey, Dejan Jakovic, Diego Palacios, Eddie Segura, Danilo Silva, Walker Zimmerman.
Midfielders: Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing, Jose Cifuentes, Bryce Duke, Francisco Ginella, Alejandro Guido, Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Forwards: Adama Diomande, Danny Musovski, Adrien Perez, Brian Rodriguez, Diego Rossi, Carlos Vela, Bradley Wright-Phillips.