Previous Year Recap
Any other team which had to endure a full season without its star might well have simply written the year off from the start, let alone when that player is the reigning Landon Donovan MVP. Yet 2020 was neither a full season nor did LAFC intend to write anything off between Carlos Vela’s absence from the MLS is Back Tournament or following his immediate injury in the return to league play.
The highlight of the year was the 6-2 drubbing of bitter El Trafico rivals LA Galaxy in the second game of the MLS is Back Tournament, where Rossi’s hat trick catapulted him to what would be a Golden Boot-winning season. Rossi carried LAFC to another statement victory over Seattle in the knockout round, but then, as has so often been the case with this team, the lowest moment came soon after in a bewildering shootout defeat at the hands of Orlando City just when everyone had begun talking up the team in a tier all their own, even without Vela.
The last memory of 2020 for this team is the bittersweet pain of advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League final against the toughest series of tests any MLS side has ever faced in the competition before squandering a lead entering the final 20 minutes of play. The record-setting 2019 Supporters’ Shield campaign was quite a spectacle for all MLS fans to observe, but the narrative that this team cannot win when the pressure mounts highest is quickly becoming a tough one to argue.
Fantasy Players to Watch
With very few matchup exceptions, if you are not locking three LAFC players into your weekly lineup it will be entirely due to budget concerns as price rises are imminent for the two-time defending MLS leader in goals scored. Bob Bradley plays a possession-dominating 4-3-3 that encourages the outside backs to overlap a central midfield trio and apply relentless pressure around the 18-yard box. This team is looking to win games 3-1 or 4-2 by virtue of both the most aggressive attacking stats and unmatched brilliance of Vela and Rossi, with everyone enjoying their moment in the spotlight at various points in the season.
Goalkeepers: Pablo Sisniega ($5.5m) and Kenneth Vermeer ($5m) likely will share starts early in the season as Bradley rides the hot hand, having commented multiple times this preseason that he expects the battle to sort itself out when games count. Given the defensive issues last year and how rarely this GK will be tested outside of breakaways and set pieces, save points won’t be plentiful enough to justify a selection over higher-upside teammates.
Defenders: Preseason miscues have many rightly worried about the back line once again after it proved to be the team’s undoing in 2020, but the permanent addition of Jesús David Murillo ($5.5m) cannot be overstated. Paired with occasional surprising set piece threat Eddie Segura ($6m), LAFC’s primary issues once again were regularly pushed out to the wings and particularly right back, where import Kim Moon-Hwan ($5.5m – M. Kim in game) could be exactly what the team has missed since Beitashour’s departure but will likely be a late substitute early on as he recovers from a minor injury (Tristan Blackmon $4.5m would be the expected fill-in after holding the most starts last season). Diego Palacios ($5m) is the pick of the bunch playing as an advanced wingback who is always eager to send a cross in toward the best attacking duo in the league, but this group is best viewed as a set of punt options in matchups where contrarians hope teams can successfully bunker their way to a shutout draw.
Midfielder: The rarest of exceptions to the platitude that defensive midfielders are cancer to fantasy MLS, Eduard Atuesta ($9.5m) is, with all due respect to the immortal Darlington Nagbe, the premier 6 in the league and a legitimate source of two-way points. Admittedly he is boosted in Bradley’s system by the combination of relentless attacking pressure and freedom to move into space anywhere shy of the 18, but he also is as capable as anyone threading a 30-yard pass onto the magical boots of Vela and Rossi or cracking the odd long-distance effort himself. The remaining two more advanced central midfield positions frequently reflect Bradley’s valuable insistence on rotating youth into the team. Mark-Anthony Kaye ($7.5m) and Latif Blessing ($8m) will see the majority of starts and rack up points every so often as do-everything engines, but are just as likely to give way randomly to a pair of 22-year olds in the absurdly talented and virtually unknown José Cifuentes ($6.5m) and defensive-minded Francisco Ginella ($5m), 20-year old Bryce Duke ($4m) and don’t be shocked if circumstances conspire to slot Corey Baird ($7m) – listed as a forward in the game – in a highly advanced role should other options become apparent at the center forward position. Of that group, Cifuentes would be the most intriguing for a late budget-enabling change.
Forward: Any Game Week 1 lineup that does not include reigning past two Golden Boot winners in Diego Rossi ($10m) and Carlos Vela ($10.5m) facing expansion Austin in the first game with fans in attendance again at Banc of California Stadium quite simply will be ridiculous. That statement will hold true for at least four of the first six weeks until the pair’s prices have climbed substantially, at which point a potential third boom-outing option would be welcome from the revolving door CF has been in this team since its inception. Twenty-eight goals in 65 irregular appearances between the departed Adama Diomande and Bradley Wright-Phillips, as well as five goals in just 629 minutes played by Danny Musovski ($6m), illustrate the spoils on offer if anyone can claim this coveted spot between Vela and Rossi, though we are in for yet another position battle entering 2021. Baird appears the favorite to get the first shot, though is expected to share starts with Musovski and both are likeliest to be first substitutes as soon as halftime in favor of late-game hero 19-year old Kwadwo Opoku ($5m) and Homegrown 16-year old starlet Christian Torres ($4m). While a tantalizing position to follow, be prepared for no clear answer to arise at any point this season, though keep a particular eye on the only outright striker profile on the roster in deep sleeper Cal Jennings ($4m), the 17th pick in the 2020 Superdraft whom LAFC acquired last month after the 23-year old former collegiate standout (46 goals in 64 games) banged in nine goals in just 14 appearances in the USL Championship.
*Brian Rodriguez ($8m) is on loan with UD Almeria in the Spanish Segunda Division through May; Almeria sits third in a promotion battle and reportedly hold a purchase clause between $11-19M depending on incentives. LAFC has one active DP slot available but are likely to wait until the loan resolves.
It is important to note that in Bob Bradley’s system, especially as executed by this squad, practically any player can make a Team of the Week appearance at the flip of a coin simply because of the staggering goal totals LAFC can post. Even in their disappointing 2020, the Black & Gold again led the league with 47 tallies in 22 matches, which was still down nearly a half-goal per game from 2019, when they scored a full 22 more than the next-highest competitor. This team is the prohibitive favorite to lead the league in goals once again, and it is not particularly close. While Bradley does not disregard defense, he pushes all his chips in on overwhelming attack and this team as constructed performs its best when pressuring constantly and across the entire field, even with a lead in hand. Playing in front of fans, both on the road but especially with the atmosphere generated by the 3252 in Banc of California Stadium, will be a major boon to have back even at reduced capacity early in the season.
Potential Starting XI
Vermeer can be considered a slight favorite to hold more starts in the early goalkeeper rotation. Blackmon would be expected to cover RB until Moon-Hwan is at full strength; though Blessing could fill in again if necessary, a strong preseason in midfield should convince Bradley to do all he can to keep him in the center of the field. Baird could solidify the CF spot or lose his expected starting position as soon as the second game vs. Seattle. Cifuentes is typically the first midfielder off the bench in a close game but won’t unseat any of the three incumbents unless injuries or rotation are factors.