It’s Gameday number Nineteen (but actually Eighteen)! The Vancouver Whitecaps (5-7-5) were afforded an extended break after Wednesday’s postponement and it couldn’t have come at a better time, as the club readies for a Saturday evening clash against Western Conference front-runners Los Angeles FC (9-5-3).
Where: BMO Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
When: Saturday, June 24th at 7:30 pm PST
How: Apple TV (Streaming), TSN1/TSN5 (TV), AM730 (Radio)
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I had a grand ol’ time posting on Twitter through the hailstorm that put a stop to Wednesday’s match against Colorado. Yes, watching the ‘Caps play would have been nice, but I had fun with it, even if the match wasn’t officially cancelled until six hours after it was supposed to start.
To that end, I’m certain there was a deep down sense of relief running through the Whitecaps’ locker room, knowing there was no longer an additional 90 minutes to run through this week. Sure, the travel to Denver was now pointless, but one less game in a cramped schedule is always welcomed.
The same can’t necessarily be said for our opponents on Saturday. From May 17th to now, LAFC have basically played a game every three days, save for an eight-day window between a US Open Cup loss to the LA Galaxy and a CONCACAF Champions League loss to Club León.
The good news is LAFC’s run of form over that period was pretty awful. The bad news? The club appears to be turning things around. Just in time for this weekend. Fantastic.
All-time, Vancouver has compiled a record 4-3-4 against LAFC in MLS matches. Yes, that’s a perfectly balanced win/loss ratio, but the Whitecaps’ goal differential across those eleven matches is -11. I guess we’ll either win small or lose big.
Speaking of which, Vancouver has never won away to LAFC, so I guess they’re destined to lose big? Not necessarily: the Whitecaps have earned all three of their draws against the Black & Gold in Los Angeles. It stands to reason there are points to be had! And why not? As long as Vanni Sartini learned a thing or two from his last trip to LA and isn’t suffering from some kind of CCL-related PTSD.
What Happened Last Time?
I’ll put it this way: there’s only so much time worth spent dwelling on back to back 3-0 thumpings administered by the same opponent. Learn from your mistakes and move on as best you can.
It’s not as though the Whitecaps weren’t game for their quarter-final draw, but the polish and form of the LAFC attack at the time was just too much to sustain over 180 minutes. Braces from Denis Bouanga (Leg 1) and Carlos Vela (Leg 2), along with goals from Kwadwo Opoku and Jose Cifuentes, were fine examples of pinpoint accuracy, quality ball control, and dogged determination that Vancouver couldn’t match.
First, no one on either team is suspended! However, Vancouver’s Mathias Laborda and LAFC’s Diego Palacios will need to be careful, as both are one yellow card away from an accumulation suspension.
For the Whitecaps, only Russell Teibert (knee) is out due to injury, but Javain Brown, Julian Gressel, and Ali Ahmed have all been called up to their respective national teams.
Potential Vancouver Lineup – Takaoka; Laborda, Veselinovic, Blackmon; Martins, Cubas, Schopf, Raposo; Gauld, White; Becher.
As for LAFC, Max Crepeau (leg), Jesus Murillo (lower body), and Sergi Palencia (lower body) are out with injuries, while Jose Cifuentes and Aaron Long are away on international duty. Midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Timothy Tillman, neither of whom have seen action since June 4th, are listed as questionable and either could see a return to the bench on Saturday.
Potential Los Angeles FC Lineup – McCarthy; Palacios, Chiellini, Maldonado, Hollingshead; Duenas, Sanchez, Bogusz; Bouanga, Vela, Opoku.
What’s Up With The Enemy?
It looks as though LAFC are finally through their mid-season funk. Unfortunately.
After crushing their early MLS schedule to the point where a repeat championship felt more inevitable than probable, the Black & Gold began to backslide in late May under the crush of too many matches. Starting on May 23rd, LAFC’s run looked like this:
- Losing their US Open Cup R16 match at home to rivals LA Galaxy;
- Losing back-to-back one-goal matches to Club León in the CCL Final;
- A scoreless draw at home against Atlanta United;
- Losing back-to-back, home & away shutouts to the Houston Dynamo.
That’s a record of 0-1-6 across all competitions, with games played roughly once every 3.5 days over three weeks. To paraphrase Bananarama, that’s a cruel, cruel start to the summer.
And yet, they appear to be through the worst of it. Wins within the last week over an in-form Sporting Kansas City and the always difficult Seattle Sounders has LAFC back at the top of the table. To be fair, two games is a small sample size, but it’s not unreasonable to think that LAFC are relatively back to normal and ready to run through the second-half of the MLS season.
Who’s Worth Watching?
Denis Bouanga and/or Carlos Vela
It’s pick your poison when it comes to dealing with LAFC’s scoring leaders.
Bouanga and Vela scorched Vancouver across both legs of their CCL quarter-final in April. Bouanga owned the match in Vancouver, with pinpoint shots, dizzying dribbling, and an absolute bulldogging of Andreas Cubas to set up a third goal for Opoku. As for Vela, he’s like the kid who knows where you keep the Oreos: once you’ve stop paying him the attention he deserves, consider your pantry already raided.
This isn’t to say those two are LAFC’s only means of winning a match, as there’s quality in the supporting players to whom coach Steve Cherundolo could turn, but more often than not the best place for a defense to focus is on where an opponent’s goals come from. That would be Bouanga and Vela: the pair have a combined 20 G+A in 2023, the same number the entire rest of the team have compiled.
Kind of Related & Kind of Hilarious
This week, we’re shouting out… The Third Sub! After hearing it’s Mateusz Bogusz who scored the first and only goal in the match against Seattle, how can we not throw out a reference to the campy 80s horror movie The Monster Squad?:
— The Third Sub (@The3rdSub) June 22, 2023
I don’t care if you hate self-congratulatory pats on the back, this was hilarious.
Who’s Going To Win?
This all comes down to whether or not the Whitecaps borrowed someone’s MLS Season Pass subscription. And by that I mean, did the Whitecaps watch how LAFC lost to Houston twice in the span of four days, and will they adjust their game plan as a result?
Of those two matches, it’s the latter 1-0 loss in LA that should be the primary focus for the Whitecaps. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone not following the Dynamo to assume Houston’s game plan on the night would be “Grit Your Teeth & Pray For a Goal” but, credit where it’s due, Ben Olsen & Co. knew what to expect.
Consider the following quote from Olsen, taken from Bayou City Soccer:
“…[LAFC] were sharp on the ball and had really good energy, physicality. It’s just a very tough place to play. We were ready for that. I thought the guys, give them a lot of credit for the mentality that they had, we gave them a lot of the ball. They earned a lot of the ball. Again, their ball movement was better than us on the night, but our defensive shape was well, it was just fantastic, the willingness to cover the next guy.”
LAFC fight for the ball, so there needs to be a desire to make that fight as difficult as possible, to the tune of 19 fouls in one match if need be. But LAFC also fight to maintain possession, which is why defensive shape is so important.
The goal should be to acknowledge and prepare for the inevitability that is LAFC’s strength in possession, but to make the game sloppy and slow in their end of the field when they have the ball. Clog the middle and contest everything as their progress through their usual left-to-right push up the field and, ideally, force them into contested shots from distance. Close down passing lanes and shooting opportunities as quickly as possible, particularly in the middle of the park and especially when defending the penalty area.
There’s a reason our ol’ friend Flexin’ Steve Clark was forced into only one save from 14 shots, so it’s an entirely possible this plan for battle can work.
But can the Whitecaps execute such a game plan, to govern the match without forcing the issue? It’s entirely possible, even against LAFC, though I’m uncertain if that level of resiliency can be sustained across a full 90 minutes.
That said, the fresh legs from not having played in Colorado on Wednesday may be the catalyst for a result. I’m not expecting an outright win, but I get the feeling the Whitecaps will be good for a 1-1 draw.
Referee: John Freemon; AR1: Andrew Bigelow; AR2: Ben Pilgrim; 4th: Sergii Demianchuk; VAR: Kevin Broadley; AVAR: TJ Zablocki.