For two consecutive years, Sounders FC has ended LAFC’s season with impressive victories in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. So, LAFC will be looking to exact some revenge with this early season matchup on Saturday (3:00 p.m. PT; ESPN, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM). Both teams are coming off opening weekend wins, and both are expected to challenge at the top of the West again. After breaking down the tape of LAFC’s 2021 MLS opener against Austin FC, let's examine the key areas that will decide Saturday’s fixture.
Considering Diego Rossi’s absence and Carlos Vela’s miscued substitution, it’s difficult to truly assess LAFC’s attack based on the match against Austin. But we still saw a general shape and identity that should remain when their star players return. Vela started on the right with Corey Baird on the left, with both wingers looking to come inside on their stronger foot. Vela really has license to roam and pops up in the No. 10 and No. 9 roles, too, presenting a difficult defensive match up.
Danny Musovski, operating as the No. 9, showed he can interchange with the wide players and drop deep. In fact, it was his slide-rule pass that almost set Vela through on goal before the Mexican international was substituted.
Diego Palacios also featured prominently in LAFC’s attack throughout the first half, showing he isn’t afraid to get forward and attack the space that Baird opens up when he comes inside. Baird was relatively quiet before his goal against Austin and could make way for Rossi in the lineup if the Uruguayan is available.
In midfield, Eduard Atuesta is still the player that sets the tempo for LAFC, but Austin did a solid job of denying him the ability to dominate, as the first-year franchise actually out possessed Bob Bradley’s side. Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing can attack space, making them the perfect complimentary pieces to Atuesta in central midfield. But as Austin showed in Week 1, if you can make Atuesta uncomfortable, you can completely disrupt LAFC’s high-octane tempo.
In LAFC’s high-pressing system, the front three start by getting narrow and working as a group to shift play to one side of the field. Both Blessing and Kaye are capable of covering a ton of ground, putting them in positions to jump opposition passing lanes. If you manage to play through the press, though, the LAFC defensive line can be caught high up the pitch, leaving ample space can be exploited.
Jesus Murillo looks like he will help stabilize LAFC’s center back corps, an area in which they struggled following Walker Zimmerman’s departure. Murillo played a handful of games at the end of last campaign but should be more settled after a full preseason. The LAFC center backs did struggle defending service from wide areas against Austin, presenting a weakness for the likes of Will Bruin to exploit. Pablo Sisniega, who has struggled for consistency during his time in MLS, will likely get the start in goal.
This game will likely be won by the team that dominates the wide areas.
Alex Roldan has to force Baird or Rossi to drop back and defend his forays into the attack while also denying Palacios the ability to get forward. If he can pin back the Black & Gold’s wide players, it will seriously alter the balance of LAFC’s attack. It will also be fascinating to see how adventurous Palacios is going forward when you consider Sounders FC utilizes two strikers. If Palacios is caught forward in a transition moment, it could really expose the hosts’ center backs, leaving them in 1-v-1 situations against Bruin and Raúl Ruidíaz.
On the opposite flank, the question becomes: who will take care of Vela? If Nouhou can do the job, freeing up Brad Smith to get forward and provide quality service for Ruidíaz and Bruin, then the Sounders should come away with a positive result.
The other key matchup will be Cristian Roldan vs. Atuesta. Roldan, who was excellent in Sounders opening win against Minnesota, boasts the ability to attack from an advanced role, potentially forcing Atuesta to defend outside of his comfort zone and requiring Kaye to drop deeper as well. Look for Roldan and his deep-lying runs to pull apart LAFC’s shape in central midfield.