MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United’s manager and players respect the quality of Los Angeles Football Club. But going into their Friday night game at Banc of California Stadium, the Five Stripes want to remind Major League Soccer why they won the 2018 MLS Cup.
LAFC (14-3-4, 46 points) has a seven-point advantage — with two games in hand over the Philadelphia Union — in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. Its goal differential is an eye-popping plus-35; Atlanta and New York City FC are tied for second in MLS at plus-10. LAFC’s 55 goals are 14 more than Philadelphia’s 41, and its 20 goals conceded are three fewer — in two more games — than NYCFC’s 23.
Like Atlanta in 2018, LAFC has the potential to make an argument as one of MLS’ best-ever teams. The hype surrounding Bob Bradley’s side does not seem to bother the reigning champions, who still are confident in their abilities.
“No, that’s fine,” Franco Escobar said through an interpreter Wednesday. “They are doing things very well and making people talk about them and being a serious candidate [to win the 2019 MLS Cup], because they are. We are coming off a year where we did things well.”
LAFC boasts a fantastic midfield trio of Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduard Atuesta, and disrupting those three is Atlanta’s top priority. The idea is to cut off service to Vela, though it must be acknowledged that Vela can hurt teams all by himself. With 21 goals and 12 assists in 20 games played, the Mexico international is on pace for a record-breaking individual season. Any time he is on the ball, Vela is a threat.
“He’s a great player,” Escobar said. “He played a long time in Europe and with the national team. He’s in great form and we have to be careful of what he can do from set pieces, or he can attack both sides, but you know he wants to get to his strong foot, which is his left. But players like that are dangerous and in any moment if you give them a meter, they’ll put it in the corner and score a goal.”
Asked how Atlanta hopes to contain such a talented player, Frank de Boer was coy Wednesday. The manager did offer an air of quiet, almost sheepish, confidence in the game plan he has devised.
“Of course we have respect for the opponent, but also we want to play our own game,” de Boer told reporters. “So we will see what we are going to bring on Friday. We are looking to our own strengths, of course with respect to LAFC.”
“Every team has their own approach,” he continued. “We are going to do it with our approach, which you will see on Friday.”
A team with Atlanta’s pedigree should be expected to exude confidence, no matter the opponent and no matter the growing pains under a new manager. Whether that confidence translates to a result is a separate issue entirely. It should take the Five Stripes’ best performance of the year to leave Southern California with all three points. Even a draw would have to be considered a success.
“This year, it was a little difficult in the beginning, but the team has come back and now we’re back fighting at the top of the table,” Escobar said. “It’s a very difficult game. This game won’t determine the season. There are still many games left, but it’s important mostly for confidence and to show that the team still has big aspirations to repeat what we did last year.”
The Five Stripes (11-8-3, 36 points) have been flying as far under the radar in 2019 as a defending champion can. If they do manage to pull an upset in L.A., they will have the league’s attention once again.
“Well, it depends on how good we perform,” de Boer said when asked if a win would change this season’s narrative. “A victory, like a sneaky victory to get the three points out of it, and they were much better, I don’t think so. But, if we are better and we deserve that victory, yeah, then I think they can say Atlanta is there to battle for the MLS Cup.”