Black & Gold: With Vela, LAFC has chance to dominate

Less than a month after becoming the first MLS team to clinch a playoff berth, the Los Angeles Football Club suffered its first home loss this season when it was shut out 2-0 by Minnesota United this past Sunday. Although many fans were distraught by the defeat, I contend that LAFC will move forward from the loss to end the regular season strong, especially when injured forward Carlos Vela returns to lead the team.

MNUFC’s 20-year-old striker Mason Toye was the difference in ending LAFC’s 19-game winning streak at Banc of California Stadium. Toye scored 2 goals within four minutes in the first half, stunning a dominant LAFC team and its passionate crowd. Toye’s goals were pretty — the first a curved ball from a difficult angle inside the box and the second a powerful left-footed strike from 25 yards out.

With Toye’s impressive performance, the Los Angeles Football Club definitely missed having Vela, its captain and a Golden Boot favorite this season, on the pitch. With the final games of the regular season still left unplayed, Vela has already broken the record for most combined goals and assists in one MLS season. Vela is also in the running to break the single-season goal-scoring record, needing only 5 more scores to surpass Josef Martinez’s 31 goals for Atlanta United FC last season. In just two seasons in the MLS, Vela has already shattered the record for most MLS goals by a Mexican player. As he consistently proves himself to be a frontrunner for this season’s MVP Award, Vela’s value to LAFC as the team looks for its first championship is undeniable.

Last week, LAFC tied the crosstown rival Los Angeles Galaxy 3-3. While continuing the team’s winless streak this season against the Galaxy is disappointing enough, Vela also suffered a minor hamstring injury and left the game early in the second half. Vela’s importance is further underscored by the fact that his team lost the following game against MNUFC 2-0 in his absence.

Maintaining 77% of possession and 87% pass accuracy compared to MNUFC’s 57.2%, LAFC had control of last week’s game. However, MNUFC’s ability to capitalize on its opportunities to score rewarded them with the win. Compared to MNUFC’s four shots on target out of five total shots, LAFC’s eight shots on target out of 23 total shots shows a lack of precision in its attack. 

Sunday’s game would have benefited from Vela’s otherworldly offensive abilities. Vela creates space for his runs, misdirects defenders and generates goal-scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates out of thin air. The team couldn’t replace his sharpness and expertise as an attacker.

Going against the team with the best record in the league is daunting for anybody. For Minnesota United, seeing Vela’s name in the injury report calmed a lot of nerves and heightened its confidence to be able to win against a dominant LAFC team. Knowing that it did not have to put multiple men on a single attacker all game, MNUFC stepped onto the pitch with more composure. 

Despite having other talented players on the team, such as forwards Adama Diomande and Diego Rossi and midfielders Lee Nguyen and Eduard Atuesta, not having Vela on the pitch must have impacted the mindset of other LAFC players as well. Without a player that has consistently shown his value to the team and frequently scored game-winning goals, it seemed as though the pressure negatively impacted the team’s poise. LAFC’s nerves were reflected in a sloppy attack, as evidenced by the lack of shots on goal.

Like all team sports, the quality of a soccer team does not rely on one player. While Vela’s leadership and spectacular abilities on the field are definitely worth the recognition they receive, LAFC’s dominant season has not only been due to the striker’s record breaking season. Without Tyler Miller in goal, the young and talented Eduard Atuesta in the midfield, Diego Rossi’s attacking prowess, and other talented players on the LAFC roster, the club would not be in the position it is now as the likely winner of the Supporters’ Shield and favorites for the MLS Cup.

Vela should be returning to the pitch within the next few weeks. However, this loss makes it apparent that LAFC — while impressive all season long — is not invincible with or without Vela. As the regular season comes to a close and the playoffs begin, the road toward an MLS Cup will not be a smooth one.

Nonetheless, with its talented players, winning record and passionate supporters, the dreams of LAFC bringing a championship to Los Angeles are not so far-fetched.

Johannah Suegay is a sophomore writing about LAFC. Her column, “Black & Gold,” runs every other Thursday.