Los Angeles FC and the Colorado Rapids couldn’t have gone into Decision Day with more differing objectives. On one hand, the hosts were looking to prepare for their MLS post-season debut while the Rapids, by contrast, desperately needed a win. With Carlos Vela on the hunt to beat Josef Martínez’s single-season MLS scoring record, it wouldn’t be easy for Robin Fraser’s men.
It would only take the Mexican international twenty-eight minutes to find the back of the net and notched his brace just three minutes later. While the Rapids would pull one back through Kei Kamara, Vela proved too much to handle and scored his third goal of the game early in the second half, putting the tie to bed and ending the visitors’ post-season hopes in the process.
This tactical analysis will highlight how LAFC’s tactics were able to overcome the Rapids and maintain their hot form going into the MLS playoffs.
Bob Bradley stuck with his preferred 4-3-3 and gave Walker Zimmerman the nod in central defence alongside Eddie Segura. Latif Blessing returned to the fold in favour of Lee Nguyen in the midfield alongside Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye.
As usual, the menacing trio of Brian Rodríguez, Vela and Diego Rossi rounded off the team.
Much like Bradley, Fraser stuck to his guns and fielded his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1. In the midfield, the American tactician fielded Jack Price and Kellyn Acosta in a double pivot with Diego Rubio in front of them in the hole. Veteran talisman Kei Kamara was tasked with leading the line and was flanked by Andre Shinyashiki and Sam Nicholson.
In defence, Tommy Smith and Lalas Abubakar got the nod ahead of Tim Howard in goal. This analysis will now demonstrate how these lineups played out.
Asymmetry reigns supreme
As evidenced by LAFC’s pass-map, certain players were deployed higher than their initial 4-3-3 suggested. Most interestingly is Tristan Blackmon’s positioning alongside Atuesta and Kaye in the midfield. The right-back was given the license to get forward and was a regular outlet for LAFC’s attacks placed higher than usual on the right-hand side. The 23-year-old benefitted from his newfound freedom, notching two assists on the night.
In addition to Blackmon, Bradley instructed Blessing to get higher than his two midfielders and link the midfield and attack. The Ghanaian enjoyed his advanced role and registered three key passes as well as his assist.
Otherwise, with much of the attention on Vela, Rodríguez drifted centrally alongside him. The duo often outnumbered the Rapids’ rearguard creating chances at will.
Initial caution does not pay off
For Colorado, on the other hand, it was the complete opposite. Rather than instructing his men to venture forward, Fraser maintained his back four and double pivot. If that weren’t enough, the tactician instructed winger Shinyashiki to drop into midfield to help with LAFC’s threat. After going down 2-0 however, the tune quickly changed.
With under twenty minutes to play and on the brink of elimination, Nicolás Mezquida came on for Acosta in a more advanced role. When that move didn’t bear fruit, Fraser introduced Cole Bassett who acted as a second striker. Unfortunately for the Rapids, it was already too little too late.
High risk, high reward
Much like it was the case all season, Bradley was unafraid to take risks and commit men forward. Against the Rapids, the American tactician used Blackmon to devastating effect, instructing the young fullback to get forward regularly. From the first minute, Blackmon made runs behind Sam Vines. Overlapping Rodríguez, the duo proved too much to handle for the Rapids’ left-hand side and looked the most likely to score.
Pictured below is Blackmon getting forward as LAFC’s deepest player beyond the Rapids’ defence. This was already in the first minute. A sign of things to come, perhaps?
With LAFC in the driver’s seat for much of the first half, Blackmon got forward regularly and often overloaded the right-hand side. In fact, on many occasions, the defender found himself beyond the hosts’ front-three on his own. As a result, he was often used as an attacking outlet in the first half.
Here’s a screenshot mere seconds before LAFC’s second goal. With both Rapids defenders looking inward, Blackmon makes a darting run behind them. Atuesta’s ball was timed to perfection finding the defender in stride. The 23-year-old would head the ball across goal into a welcoming Vela. And like that it was 2-0. Blackmon would pick up one more assist in similar fashion.
Bradley tests new shape
With the Western Conference all wrapped up, Bradley used this game to test out a new setup out of possession. As Blackmon joined Atuesta and Kaye in the midfield, Blessing pushed higher up the pitch in support of LAFC’s front-line. Alongside Rodríguez and Rossi, the Ghanaian was able to disrupt the Rapids’ first phase of buildup. Vela, on the other hand, was ready to pounce on any turnovers and awaited eagerly on his own up top.
Pictured below you will see LAFC’s 3-3-3-1 formation in action.
With this setup in place, the Rapids struggled to break through LAFC’s lines and were regularly forced wide. When they made their way into the wide areas, however, LAFC markers were quick to double up, closing down the ball carrier before he could progress the ball. While this defensive setup was only in effect in the first half, it’s a tactical innovation worth keeping an eye on going into the MLS post-season.
LAFC alternate between aggressive and conservative setups
After notching a third goal early in the second half and essentially putting the tie to bed, LAFC kept their foot on the pedal and implemented a high line. With the hosts closing down high up the pitch, the Rapids were forced to play long and abandon their footballing philosophy.
Pictured below is an instance where LAFC squeeze up the pitch forcing a Rapids turnover. This would be a pattern that persisted until LAFC decided to drop deeper and conserve energy.
While Bradley fielded a 4-3-3 on paper, it rarely played out that way in-game. When LAFC were out of possession, they often resorted to a hybrid 3-4-3/3-4-1-2, packing up the midfield. With Segura marking Kamara tightly, the Rapids had no offensive outlet and failed to establish a rhythm. LAFC’s high line illustrated both above and below would persist for another ten minutes before the hosts dropped deeper.
LAFC go in energy-save mode
With the result all but secured, LAFC decided to abandon their high line and conserve energy. As Zimmerman bowed out with a head injury, dropping deeper was a sensible decision for LAFC. Much like it was the case in the first half, the hosts employed a mid-block restricting any of the Rapids’ options through the middle. Forced wide, the visitors failed to muster any scoring chances of note in the last fifteen minutes.
This would allow LAFC to see out the game quietly and secure the three points, condemning Colorado to a playoff-less season.
The win didn’t change much in the standings for LAFC other than confirm their dominance in the Western Conference. For Colorado, on the other hand, a win wouldn’t have changed much as FC Dallas won their Decision Day clash.
While the result ended up being futile this game demonstrated LAFC’s tactical flexibility once more and highlighted their ability to use different setups both in and out of possession.
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