The New England Revolution travels coast-to-coast Saturday to take on LAFC on one of the fiercest home-field advantages in the league.
For both teams, the match will be vital for postseason positioning. In the Eastern Conference, the Revs sit three points back from the cutoff for the playoffs, trailing D.C. United by a point and the Montreal Impact by a single win. A win on the road could bolster the final stretch of the team’s bid to make the playoffs for the first time in two seasons.
Meanwhile, LAFC continues to jockey for a top slot in the Western Conference, remaining neck-and-neck with FC Dallas and Sporting KC as it maintains its third place position in the conference. To earn a top seed in the playoffs in its inaugural season, the fledgling club must defend its home field four more times to close the season.
To break down the matchup, Pro Soccer USA’s Revs beat writer Julian Cardillo and LAFC beat writer Julia Poe weighed in on the toughest questions facing both clubs.
What is the greatest threat each team has to offer?
Julian Cardillo: For the Revolution, it’s Cristian Penilla. The Ecuadorian winger is dangerous in all facets of the attack and is a huge factor in the offensive success this year. He has pace, vision and a nose for the goal. He’s contributed nine goals and seven assists to the Revs this season.
For LAFC, it’s clearly Carlos Vela. With 11 goals and eight assists this season, the Mexican forward has been Los Angeles’ main producer in the attack. In fact, he’d likely have more goals and assists to his name had he not missed five games this season due to World Cup duty.
How will each team protect themselves against those threats?
Julia Poe: For the Revs, the best advice I can offer is to not focus on Vela too much. Obviously, he requires a huge amount of attention, but the LAFC side brings a lot of weapons that are well suited to playing off Vela, especially when he’s overmanaged. The Revs will need to be prepared for a widespread offensive threat, especially from Diego Rossi, Lee Nguyen and Adama Diomande.
On the LAFC side, the Revs’ high press could offer a more concentrated level of pressure than the team is used to defending. With Penilla at its head, LAFC will need to bolster its defense around Tyler Miller and prepare to exploit that higher offense on turnovers.
It’s been four months since LAFC acquired Lee Nguyen from the Revs. Is he poised to torch his former team or will they be ready?
JC: LAFC is starting to see some production out of Nguyen, who has two goals in his last three games after producing very little in his first 12 league appearances with his new team. There’s no reason to suspect Nguyen won’t have an impact against his former team, even if it doesn’t materialize in a goal or an assist.
Nguyen played with New England from 2012 through the start of this season, so he’s well aware of most Revs players’ tendencies. What’s more, there’s likely an emotional component to this game for Nguyen, who went through a bitter contract dispute that lasted almost a full year before the Revolution granted him a trade to LAFC.
The Revs have a history of former players beating them up in matches. Look no further than Shalrie Joseph, Seth Sinovic, Benny Feilhaber, Andy Williams and Alexi Lalas.
JP: Like Julian said, this will be an emotional matchup for both teams. Nguyen has grown into a different role with LAFC and expectations are different now than they were when he was with the Revs. Although he’s shown he has starpower and the ability to find the back of the net, he’s also acting more as one piece of an attacking arsenal.
That being said, I won’t be surprised to see Nguyen score — and early — against the Revs. One of the strengths of this LAFC club is its ability to work together and adapt to situations, and with the history between Nguyen and his former club, I expect to see his teammates set him up early and often.
How do teams win in LA, and are the Revs capable of doing it?
JC: LAFC have just one home loss all season and it came on Aug. 11 in a 2-0 decision to Sporting Kansas City. LAFC peppered Kansas City’s net with chances throughout the game, out-shooting the visitors 19-13, but to no avail.
It’s worth noting that home losses for LAFC have been just as rare as shutout losses. They’ve scored at least once in all but two of their seven losses this season. That means teams that have success against Los Angeles do a ton of work on both sides of the ball. They’re constantly creating and able to stay resolute at the back. Unfortunately, that playing style does not suit the Revs.
JP: It’s hard to win in Los Angeles. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. This is an imposing atmosphere, and the team takes a lot of comfort with the North End at its back. That being said, Sporting KC proved that it can be done, and several other teams — including the Galaxy, which continues to get the best of LAFC — have fought to a draw to some success.
The main challenge is keeping pace with the LAFC pace of attack, which as Julian said, involves taking a ton of shots on goal. If the Revs want to find success, they’ll need to expect a flurry of attack and be ready to not just defend, but transition out of defense quickly. Putting pressure on Tyler Miller will help to wear him out, but it takes a lot to get by the keeper.
The Revs like to high press. Is that a good strategy against LAFC?
JP: The best way to slow down the LAFC attack is to keep it from happening at all, and forcing the team onto its heels in its defending third is a good way to start. The problem here is the gamble — all it takes is one misstep, and you have a slew of black and gold players flying the opposite direction.
The one positive of a high press against LAFC is the opportunity to score goals. If the Revs are already entering the game worried about defending this LAFC attack, the best counter is to commit to a shooting match. As Julian said, this team is rarely held scoreless; if the Revs can shift their focus from a clean sheet to an approach of outscoring, they might have a better chance at success.
JC: As I mentioned up above, teams need to have a balanced approach to have success against LAFC.
The Revolution employ the high press as their go-to attacking scheme. The good news here is that they have plenty of players capable of producing scoring chances and finishing them off. The bad news is the Revs still haven’t figured out how to properly defend when so many players are pushed forward.
The defense, which already features a makeshift left back, becomes over-taxed and is prone to mental lapses which lead to goals. Teams like LAFC feast on defensive lapses. So while the Revs will surely be able to create chances, their method for recovering and shifting back to defending is flimsy at best.
Rossi and Vela have combined for five goals, three assists the last four matches. How long can that continue, and how will the Revs slow down this duo?
JP: This has to be one of the main focuses for the Revs from the get-go. Vela and Rossi have had an uncanny chemistry since their first few games on the same pitch, and that bond has only strengthened over time. They’ve gotten hot connecting in the box over the past two months, but this pair is always going to work as a one-two punch to build the offense. If the Revs are looking to build a plan to disrupt this LAFC attack, getting in between these two is going to be key.
JC: Why should Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela’s paces stop? There’s obviously no guarantee a given player will score or assist on a given night, but there’s no ignoring that both Rossi and Vela are key contributors. For the most part, the LAFC duo has been producing whenever on the field. The longest Vela has gone without a goal or an assist when he’s been available for selection is two games. For Rossi, it’s been three.