In recent weeks, we have seen the Bundesliga, Premier League and other respected top divisions in football get underway in order to conclude their interrupted seasons. For Major League Soccer, the current season came to a halt after only two game weeks. Because of a large number of matches still left to play, the hierarchy of the MLS had to be creative. Similar to how the UEFA Champions League will condense play into a World Cup styled tournament, the MLS is following in their footsteps. Starting July 8th, the MLS is Back Tournament will take place in Orlando, Florida.
All of the MLS clubs will be housed in hotels as they face each other during group place, then in a knockout tournament. Unfortunately, FC Dallas had to recently pull out of the tournament due to coronavirus concerns within their squad. In a similar fashion, the league’s headliner in Carlos Vela will also miss the tournament due to health concerns considering his wife is pregnant. This will be a huge omission for LAFC as Vela was the league’s highest goal scorer last season, setting a record for the most goals in a single season.
The tournament will have groups A-F, with Group F consisting of LAFC, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and the Portland Timbers. This tactical analysis will preview the two most recognizable names in the MLS: LAFC and the LA Galaxy. The star power in Hollywood is tremendous and both sides will be looking to come out of the group in first place.
LAFC got off to a decent start earlier this year as they registered a 1-0 win over Inter Miami and a thrilling 3-3 draw against the Philadelphia Union. Tactically, Bob Bradley likes to play attacking tactics and sets up his side extremely similar to Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool. The reason for this is because of the balanced 4-3-3 formation that Bradley utilises. It is similar to Liverpool because of the nature of the midfield three. The midfield three are incredibly balanced and are not attacking natured at first sight. While Mark-Anthony Kaye will sometimes push forward as the 8/10 hybrid player, the midfield stays compact in order to prevent lots of space from opening up. This is similar to how Liverpool have Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Jordan Henderson operating in the middle of the pitch.
Most of the creative attacking spark for LAFC comes from their front three: Brian Rodriguez, Diego Rossi, and Carlos Vela. These three players are incredibly quick, can dribble in one-on-one scenarios, and are capable of strong interplay. Again, this draws direct comparisons to Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, Mohammed Salah, and Roberto Firmino. These three players are key for Bradley as he looks to get the ball out wide in areas that his wingers can attack and create. This is incredibly important to note because as mentioned earlier in the tactical preview, Vela is not travelling with the squad for the tournament. Vela’s absence leaves a huge gap to fill. His ability is unmatched by anyone in the MLS after scoring 34 goals in last year’s campaign. He has match changing qualities which will be difficult to replace for Bradley.
While it will be a less productive attack, the dynamic nature of LAFC’s play will not change. With Diego Rossi being very versatile, it is possible that he can play on the wing to still provide the danger from the wide areas. Rossi will be a key player for LAFC as he can get in behind the defence, dribble, and score goals.
The analysis below shows an example of how LAFC can still be productive from the centre of the pitch. After Rodriguez dribbles the ball inward, bringing the opposing left-back with him, he passes the ball to Latif Blessing. At this moment, Rossi finds space in between the two centre-backs and makes a darting run into the space that Rodriguez left. These types of dynamic attacking runs and movement will be more likely as Vela is out of the squad.
One area that could cause concern for LAFC in this tournament is their defensive ability. Typically, LAFC can rely on their attack to outscore their opponents, but with the production of Vela missing, it becomes even more important for them to focus on their defensive shape. In LAFC’s last match, they conceded three goals against the Philadelphia Union.
An example of poor defensive shape and awareness occurs in the analysis below. At first glance, this shape is not terrible. However, it is the right-backs decision to pinch in and close down Ibrahimovic which is the big mistake. This allows Cristian Pavon to go unmarked on the left side of the pitch and almost score a goal. It is important that LAFC does not get drawn into the middle of the pitch while defending. As explained later in this tactical preview, this is something that the LA Galaxy likes to do, which will be a point of emphasis.
The other half of Hollywood got off to a slightly rocky start during their first two matches, but a long break and chance to regroup may provide the league’s most historic teams a fresh start. It is no secret that since the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to AC Milan, LA Galaxy have had to change tactics. Zlatan’s aerial and physical presence goes unmatched despite the arrival of the industrious Chicharito Hernandez. The ex-Manchester United star has been the focal point of this new LA Galaxy team that has not hit the heights yet.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s likes to set up his side in a 4-1-4-1 formation that focuses on possession of the football. By having a deep-lying midfielder such as Johnathan Dos Santos, it adds a numerical advantage in the midfield considering the roles of the outside midfielders in his tactical setup. It is common for the wide players like Cristian Pavon to pinch in while attacking to allow the fullbacks to get high and put service into the box.
Perhaps this tactic is still reminiscent of the ariel ability Ibrahimovic possessed, but with Chicharito being a valued poacher, Schelotto still has eyes on delivery into the box. In the analysis below, you can see an example of his tactics taking shape. As the LA Galaxy are building up play in the half-space, Pavon (circled) will pinch inside to allow for the channel to open up for the left-back. This space allows for Emiliano Insua to provide service into the box with less pressure and also allows Cristian Pavon to be further in-field to aid in the build-up.
Cristian Pavon’s role is incredibly important for the Galaxy. Despite all eyes being on the popular new arrival in Chicharito, Pavon is a true threat while attacking for the Galaxy. He has tremendous qualities such as pace and ability to dribble in tight areas. He is similar to the LAFC forwards in this regard. Pavon could be viewed as the main support player to Chicharito despite the Mexican being considered a lone striker on the team sheet.
Schelotto’s formation has the flexibility to change into an attacking 4-3-3 depending on the situation and match. Considering that they will have to face LAFC, it is unlikely we will see that change in formation. However, against the Dynamo and Timbers, it is more likely. The match against the Houston Dynamo will serve as an interesting rematch to the game that ended 1-1 earlier this year.
Defensively, the LA Galaxy have only conceded two goals in their first two matches. However, similarly to LAFC, their defensive shape is sometimes sloppy. In the example below, the Dynamo are in a fairly non-threatening position, but because the centre-back is not level with the rest of the players, it leads to a terrible defensive shape. The Dynamo forward is allowed to easily run into space behind a score, an action that should be unacceptable from this position.
Considering the amount of time that the Galaxy had to recoup since the coronavirus outbreak, it is likely that a lot of emphases have been on the defensive shape leading up to this tournament. Sides will want maximum points which means breaking down opposing teams and attacking quickly.
This analysis uncovers a lot of similarities between LAFC and the LA Galaxy. Both teams have incredibly gifted and proven attacking players that can change the match instantly. In the midfield, they are both fairly balanced. Where the main problem lies is their defensive fragilities. This is a huge reason why whenever LAFC and the LA Galaxy play each other in Él Trafico, it is always an incredibly entertaining match. Both clubs like playing expansive attacking football. These derbies have resulted in the most memorable matches and it will be one to look forward too as a part of Group F.
As the MLS is Back tournament gets underway, it will be interesting to see how the LA powerhouse clubs fare in this tournament-style competition.