MLS 2023 Preview: Can LAFC Become the First Back-to-Back MLS Winners since 2012?
Back in 2012, a soccer team from Los Angeles won back-to-back championships in Major League Soccer. LA Galaxy saw off Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup final for the second season in a row to lift the trophy in consecutive years. No team has done it since.
It is not so long in the past that it can be called a curse, though such labels are attractive in sports and no doubt add to the narrative. Houston themselves achieved the feat in 2007, as did DC United when the league took its first steps in 1996 and 1997. Now another Los Angeles team, the upstarts who only joined the league in 2018, Los Angeles FC, become the latest to attempt to defend their crown.
LAFC also lifted the Supporters’ Shield last season, demonstrating consistency to go along with their quality. The last team to top the overall standings in consecutive seasons were, again, LA Galaxy, in 2011. This gives LAFC plenty to aim for in 2023 and arguably plenty of motivation too. On top of that they will be looking to prove themselves on the continent in the Concacaf Champions League having reached the final of this competition in 2020 when lost out to Mexican side, Tigres.
Considering the various roster restrictions placed upon them by the league, it’s a difficult ask for any MLS team to compete on so many fronts and be consistent across so many games. But if anyone can do it, LAFC can.
Even during their relatively disappointing seasons in 2020 and 2021, LAFC still topped the Western Conference in terms of expected goals output. In 2021 they had the joint-best xG difference in the league along with New York City, but somehow finished ninth in the West, outside the play-off spots.
The underlying potential in 2021 was realized in 2022, but they go into 2023 without Cristian Arango – their 18-goal top scorer from their previous, highly successful campaign, after he moved to Mexican side Pachuca. This is the most obvious problem LAFC will need to solve if they are to repeat in the upcoming season.
Like many teams in MLS in recent years, LAFC have dipped into the transfer market for South American players. The departures in recent years of highly rated Uruguayan winger Brian Rodríguez, along with “Chicho” Arango and others such as Eduard Atuesta and Diego Rossi, has seen them become less about bringing in players from this region and developing them, as many teams do, and more about going down their own path of recruitment. This is perhaps most noticeably shown in their signing of Croatian wonderkid Stipe Biuk from Hajduk Split this year, and the emergence in recent seasons of Ghanaian Kwadwo Opoku.
That said, they do also have one of the potentially most valuable young South American players in the league in the shape of Ecuadorian midfielder Jose Cifuentes, and another Ecuadorian, Diego Palacios, who is a creative outlet from left-back and provided the cross for Gareth Bale’s memorable goal in the 2022 MLS Cup final. There are still South American players in the squad, but the general makeup of the team now feels more rounded and less intentionally South American.
Of course, the flagship player at this club since its first season in 2018 has been Carlos Vela. He remains both a goalscoring and creative force, finishing last season with 12 goals and nine assists, his best return since his MLS MVP year in 2019 when he racked up an unbelievable 34 goals and 10 assists in 31 games.
The previous other team in Los Angeles, Chivas USA (who are now defunct), was deliberately Mexican with its link to Chivas Guadalajara, but with Vela becoming their marquee signing and now club legend, LAFC’s links to Mexico are arguably greater. He is part of the club’s identity as well as one of its best players, as they push to be the LA team.
Even though he will soon turn 34, Vela should still be able to help the team absorb the loss of Arango, but it will be those around him who look set to play key roles in that. As well as individuals stepping up, the way the team play under Steve Cherundolo, the way they create their chances, should make the transition to life without Arango smoother.
It helps that one of the players who will support Vela has already shown promising signs during his time at the club. The upcoming season should provide an ideal opportunity for Opoku, or Mahala as he is known, to step in and really show what he can do as a trusted starter.
The 21-year-old has an off-ball work rate ideal for the way LAFC play. He also contributed at a decent level in attack last season, but though he totaled 1,850 minutes across the regular season and the play-offs, 17 of his 37 appearances were off the bench. Arango’s departure means he should get the chance to become a regular starter in 2023 and with regular games, plus the confidence that can come along with that, his attacking output should increase. On a per 90 basis, no LAFC player was involved in more open play attacking sequences than Opoku in 2022 (5.7), showing how more playing time could easily lead to a breakout season.
Another player to whom this applies is the Gabon international winger Denis Bouanga. The 28-year-old became a regular presence on the left wing for LAFC last season after arriving from Ligue 1 side Saint-Étienne in August and showed great attacking potential as he hit his stride towards the end of the season.
Bouanga’s xG per 90 minutes of 0.60 was on roughly the same level as Arango’s (0.62) and his xG and xA combined per 90 was actually higher, at 0.82 to Arango’s 0.78. The big caveat here is that Bouanga played fewer minutes and these per 90 numbers could drop as more games are played, but they also might not. Getting such high attacking numbers from the wing is also encouraging, and indicates Bouanga is more of an inside forward than a winger.
If a front three of Bouanga, Opoku, and Vela can hit the ground running in 2023, with Biuk eager for his chance to realize his potential, they have the potential to be the best attacking unit in the league, both in terms of output and in terms of fitting the way LAFC want to play. They’ll have their club legend Vela pulling the strings from the right channel, while Opoku and Bouanga fizz around looking to cause trouble with and without the ball.
Attack From Defence
This is where LAFC’s off-ball ‘creativity’ comes in. The team don’t really have one playmaker in the way many other MLS teams do, but they do have a bit of everything. As well as the aforementioned Vela, there is Cifuentes progressing the ball from midfield and Palacios delivering from out wide, but there is also the attacking threat provided by high pressing out of possession.
The benchmark in MLS for high pressing and counter-pressing is New York Red Bulls. It would be almost impossible for a team who don’t build everything around a pressing style to match the Red Bulls in this area, but in one area, LAFC almost do.
The Opta high turnovers stat measures the number of sequences that start in open play and begin 40m or less from the opponent’s goal. In 2022 the Red Bulls had 361 high turnovers but LAFC were second in the league for this metric with 325, and the only other team to break the 300 mark. It shows they are dangerous in the attacking third even without the ball, which often may have gone unnoticed by some fans due to their lack of goals following these high turnovers (three – the joint 20th highest).
Many MLS teams have a distinctive style, and though LAFC value a bit of everything in their play, which can make them difficult to define, they could certainly be seen as a high-pressing team who will attack swiftly and directly when needed. They led the league for direct attacks in 2022 and only Atlanta United (15.8) had more non-penalty shots per game than LAFC’s 15.6.
Last season’s champions combined quantity with quality. They combined high-tempo play with technical proficiency, and this eventually won them two trophies as they were able to overcome an impressive and equally ruthless Philadelphia Union side.
In many ways, they are the MLS equivalent of a top European side. Able to counter-press with the best of them but also possess enough quality to create chances in one-off moments within games. They can keep the ball if needed and have the defensive record to support their attacking quality – only the Union and FC Dallas conceded fewer goals in 2022.
They are also a threat from set pieces, scoring the most from such situations in MLS last season with 19, but they also conceded the joint second-highest number of goals from non-penalty set piece situations with 15 along with Atlanta, behind only DC United’s 17. So, there are areas to improve. It remains to be seen how new signing Aaron Long from New York Red Bulls fits into their defense, but he will at least be used to a high-pressing system.
It will be a tough ask for LAFC to retain their title, but they have the quality and the game plan to be able to give it a go. If the extra games in the Concacaf Champions League are a morale boost and extra motivation rather than a draining distraction, then they have a platform for another successful season.
Out to Stop Them…
Philadelphia Union came very close to winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2022 and it is worth pointing out that they would have done so were the MLS sorting for teams level on points based on goal difference, as it is in most leagues throughout the world, rather than wins. It then took a penalty shootout to separate themselves and LAFC in the MLS Cup final.
Heading into 2023 the Union have kept their strong team from last season intact and strengthened their depth. If they are able to continue their remarkable xG overperformance and maintain their direct, intense brand of football, they will once again be challenging LAFC come the end of the season, but they’ll also have the Concacaf Champions League to contend with.
Atlanta United?! While the Union’s xG overperformance may suggest a slight regression, Atlanta could view their 2022 season and potential into 2023 as a reason to hope they can spring a surprise. They are a team performing below their potential, and certainly below expectations since 2020, but it could only take a few things to click for them to see a marked improvement.
Atlanta averaged the most non-penalty shots per game in 2022 (15.8). Only LAFC (1.72) had a higher non-penalty xG per game (1.62), but the average shot quality of those shots was 0.103xG — 15th best among the league’s 28 teams. They also had the second-lowest shot conversion (8.8%) with only Chicago Fire (8.3%) worse.
Beginning to convert chances and improving the quality of those chances, could make a real difference, and there is perhaps a platform for them to improve more rapidly than other clubs in the league. They hope their new striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, signed from Celtic in the offseason, will be the man to make that difference, and in attacking midfielder Thiago Almada, they have one of the best players in the league.
New York Duo
Another team who will be hoping they have found the striker to propel them to glory is New York Red Bulls. Dante Vanzeir joins from Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise as what the Red Bulls hope will be the missing piece that helps them win a first MLS Cup.
Across the Hudson River, New York City FC are perhaps the most difficult team to predict in MLS this season. NYCFC is an organization that has the capacity to challenge for trophies and could be seen as the LAFC of the East, but they have lost so many key players in the past year that no one really knows what they will look like on the field in 2023. However, this might be as unsettling for their opposition as it is for anyone trying to predict how well they will do without the likes of Maxi Moralez, Alexander Callens, Sean Johnson, Nicolás Acevedo, Héber, Anton Tinnerholm and Taty Castellanos.
Back to the Western Conference, some xG regression could be expected by last season’s goalscorer extraordinaire Sebastián Driussi, but then again he could just continue to be brilliant and defy the xG. If he does, the side that lost to LAFC in the conference final, Austin FC, will challenge again.
Speaking of challenging again, reigning Concacaf Champions League champions Seattle Sounders suffered in the league in 2022 due to their exploits on the continent but, as a result, they have no such distraction this year and could surge back to the top.
Toronto FC splashed the cash on Lorenzo Insigne but are yet to see a return, though with such firepower they might still be the Canadian team most capable of mounting a challenge despite a miserable season in 2022. Meanwhile, CF Montreal (Montreal Impact) performed admirably on a much lower budget than their compatriots, finishing second in the East. A memorable season but one that will be difficult to repeat after losing their coach Wilfried Nancy to Columbus Crew and key players Alistair Johnston and Djordje Mihailovic to Celtic and AZ Alkmaar respectively.
On the quiet, Vancouver Whitecaps will be hoping to replicate the season Montreal had in the East last year in the West in 2023.
Way Out West
This brings us back to the team with whom we started. The last team to go back-to-back, and the team LAFC are looking to emulate – city rivals LA Galaxy. Greg Vanney’s side have one of the most talented players in the league in Riqui Puig, and their own Mexican marquee star in goal-getter Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. It could be a season they begin to return to former glories and seriously challenge their new(-ish) rivals, but the biggest threats to LAFC’s crown will likely come from the East.
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