Though the All-Star Game is annually a marquee event for Major League Soccer – with hype for this year’s friendly starting months ago and continuing straight through the final whistle at Exploria Stadium – it might end up being the second-biggest game of the week on the American soccer calendar.
Both teams enter the weekend with a large share of the spotlight.
Los Angeles has the league’s best overall record and is 11 points ahead of its closest threat in the Supporters’ Shield race. It had four representatives at the All-Star Game including Carlos Vela, who has scored more goals (22) than any other MLS player this season and also is tied for most assists (13).
New England has been a late bloomer but takes an 11-game unbeaten run in league play into Saturday’s match. It hasn’t lost since Bruce Arena was named head coach/sporting director May 9 and can set a record for longest unbeaten streak in club history with a win or tie against LAFC.
“Well, it’s always fun to go against the top team in the league and see where you are as a team,” Arena said at training this week. “We’ve come a long way in two months, but this is probably the most severe test we’ve had and it’s going to tell us a lot about our team as we move forward.
“They’re a very good passing team. They’re very attack oriented. When they lose the ball, they get after it. [LAFC head coach Bob Bradley] is a big fan of Barcelona, so they try to – however they can, to a certain degree – look at the qualities of the Barcelona team and try to employ that, in relative terms, for LAFC. They’re an attack-oriented team. When they lose the ball, they try to win it back in their attacking half of the field.”
LAFC may be the closest thing Major League Soccer has to Barcelona at the moment. In FiveThirtyEight’s global soccer club rankings, which are assembled based on an algorithm that takes into account league quality and match strength, as well as many other factors, LAFC ranks 117 out of 634 international clubs, the highest ranking of any MLS team.
The same website says Los Angeles has a 49 percent chance of winning in Foxborough, a traditionally inhospitable environment for visiting teams where New England is unbeaten since April 20.
Why are the odds so heavily in LAFC’s favor? Despite New England’s unbeaten streak, LAFC takes the league’s best road record, defensive record and most prolific attacking record into this weekend.
“They’re dangerous almost everywhere on the field,” Revolution attacker Juan Agudelo said. “That’s why they’re top of the table right now. We’re a hot team right now, and it’s going to be a good battle. Hopefully, a lot of fans come out and support us, because we’re going to need it. It’s going to be like a playoff game.
“Not really looking at [our] record,” Agudelo added. “I’m really excited to see how we compete against the number one team in the league, so just to see how we face up against a team like that. It’s going to be similar to a playoff team, so I’m looking to see what are our limit is.”
While the Revolution are second to LAFC in most categories and sit seventh in the Eastern Conference, their recent run of form doesn’t seem like a fluke.
They’ve navigated past tough tests in Colorado and at D.C. United and also won away at the LA Galaxy, one of just three teams to beat LAFC this season. New England boasts the top goal differential of any MLS team over the past two months, and many of its players, such as captain Carles Gil, are starting to garner more attention around the league.
Gil, in particular, arguably has been as instrumental for New England as Vela has been for Los Angeles FC and was seen by many as an All-Star team snub. He has scored and assisted in three consecutive games and has recorded eight goals and nine assists so far this season.
“It’s not that important to me,” Gil said through an interpreter of not going to the All-Star Game. “I think in the end, the most important thing to me is the team here and continuing the rhythm we’ve had over the last three months. Obviously, we want to put in a fight over the next three months and try to qualify for the playoffs.
“We know it’s going to be a very tough game. They’re the best team in the league and they’re having a really good season. They’re really dangerous up front and we’re just going to have to do our best to play against that. It should be a great game.”
This matchup has storylines galore.
Saturday marks Lee Nguyen’s return to Foxborough for the first time since being traded to LAFC last spring. Former head coach Brad Friedel and general manager Mike Burns refused multiple trade requests from Nguyen in a bitter disagreement that played out over many months last year.
It remains to be seen how Nguyen’s former supporters will greet him, though Agudelo seems to be excited.
“I was one of the closest guys to Lee [Nguyen] when he was here,” Agudelo said. “We put it down on the calendar. Excited to see him play on a different side of things at Gillette Stadium, and looking forward to kicking him a little bit.”
The match also brings together two former United States men’s national team coaches and arguably the two best coaches overall in American soccer history. Bradley coached the U.S. from 2006-11 and is in good shape to win his third coach of the year award this season.
Arena, who coached the U.S. from 1998-06 and again in 2016 and 2017, has been named coach of the year three times and has five MLS titles to his name.
He and Bradley are longtime friends and Arena’s son, Kenny, is an assistant coach for LAFC. Arena said this week that Bradley was also Kenny’s first babysitter.
With his team in fine form ahead of the biggest game of the week, is any of this fun for Arena?
“I don’t know if that’s the word: ‘fun.’ We don’t have ice cream and cake every day, and balloons in the locker room,” Arena said. “But, enjoy what you do for a living. That’s basically – we’re only playing a game. It’s not life and death. I’ve personally been around people over the last couple of weeks that have suffered a lot of personal tragedies, and when you look at what I do for a living and think that losing a game is the end of the world, it’s almost comical to me.
“Winning is fun, and it’s important. Everybody goes out every day and every game to try to be as good as you can be. At the end of the day, most people judge you on wins and losses.”