More than just stars: Analyzing what makes LAFC trophy favorites

Quick Hits
  • After a dip in 2021, Los Angeles FC have returned to their perch on top of Major League Soccer
  • Big names like Giorgio Chiellini, Gareth Bale, and Carlos Vela have helped raise LAFC’s profile, but there are other key factors behind their success as well
Jul 8, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) celebrates with midfielder Ilie Sanchez (6) after a goal against the LA Galaxy in the second half at Banc of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Want more American soccer? We have you covered.

Ever since they joined the league in 2018, Los Angeles FC have been one of the best teams in MLS.

They finished third in the West in their expansion season, won the Supporters’ Shield in 2019, and made it to the Concacaf Champions League Final in 2020. Last year, they were once again right up there with the best of the league in a slew of advanced metrics…except for the one that determines the standings: points. LAFC finished 2021 in ninth place in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for the first time in their existence. 

But this year? This year, LAFC are back. Their revenge tour has pushed them back to their perch atop the table and put the rest of the league on notice. 

LAFC’s impressive record didn’t stop team president John Thorrington from jumping off the top rope to finalize his roster with two of the biggest names in European soccer – Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale. Factor in franchise cornerstone Carlos Vela re-signing and a new Designated Player joining from France and the hype train has appropriately accelerated to top speed. There’s a good chance that train is headed for a Supporters’ Shield and maybe even the club’s first ever MLS Cup. 

If the club wins a trophy or two, there will be plenty of focus on LAFC’s celebrity superstars. But don’t forget the multitude of other reasons why this team is so good. LAFC had the best record in MLS well before Bale and Chiellini arrived and while Vela spent the first half of the season in the worst form of his MLS career. 

The combination of strong coaching, savvy veteran acquisitions within the league, and a fruitful scouting and development program outside of MLS are the true drivers of LAFC’s brilliance.

Bob Bradley out, Steve Cherundolo in

Prior to 2022, Bob Bradley was the only coach LAFC had ever known. His identity was as intertwined with the team as a coach’s could be, but his team’s problems in 2021 spelled the last of Bradley’s time in Los Angeles. Despite how much the numbers loved LAFC last year, the front office still parted ways with Bradley. 

To replace him, LAFC hired Steve Cherundolo. 

There was plenty of doubt surrounding that choice, given that Cherundolo had just led the Las Vegas Lights to one of the worst records in the USL Championship. It was a risky decision, but the relationship between LAFC and Las Vegas, who function as LAFC’s developmental affiliate, eased many of the team’s concerns.

Fast forwarding to today, betting on Cherundolo has paid off. LAFC have maintained their lofty advanced metric rankings and re-cemented themselves as MLS’s best team. 

Cherundolo kept LAFC’s ethos, focusing on high defensive pressure and possession-based attacking play – and he’s improved both after some slight dips in Bradley’s final season. According to FBref, Los Angeles’ possession has jumped from 49.8% in 2021 to 52.5% in 2022 and their attacking third pressures have increased from 31.6 to 41.2 per game. That 41.2 attacking third pressures puts them second in MLS. Cherundolo also scrapped the 3-5-2 shape deployed in 13 of the last 14 games of 2021 in favor of a return to a dedicated, familiar 4-3-3.

Still, Cherundolo’s decision to maintain the status quo in recognition of the quality he inherited is his greatest achievement as LAFC manager. Keeping the team’s established principles in place has simplified his transition and helped his talented players shine. The expanse of talent in LAFC’s squad, rather than any major tactical changes, deserves the most credit for the team’s dominance.

Savvy veteran acquisitions

In Los Angeles, the coaching staff was far from the only thing that changed during the offseason. Players accounting for nearly one-third of LAFC’s 2021 minutes left the club, presenting Thorrington with plenty of holes to fill.

The first and most pivotal task came in the form of replacing arguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS, Eduard Atuesta, after his move to Palmeiras in January. 

Enter Ilie Sanchez, the Sporting Kansas City veteran. Sanchez joined LAFC in free agency and made Atuesta’s No. 6 role his own. He’s been one of most effective ball progressors in the MLS, ranking in the 80th, 89th, and 82nd percentile in progressive pass distance, passes into the final third, and progressive passes respectively, among qualified midfielders. 

LAFC further reinforced their midfield by trading for Kellyn Acosta from the Colorado Rapids in January. With some cap shenanigans sprinkled in, the Acosta move boils down to a delayed one-for-one trade for Mark-Anthony Kaye, who went in the opposite direction last July. 

The cost to acquire Acosta raised eyebrows given his pedestrian possession value metrics, but the USMNT regular has been a constant for Cherundolo and is only second to Sanchez in outfield minutes played this season. And he’s impacting the game in his time on the field. Acosta is producing the 17th most non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists among MLS central midfielders in 2022. He’s been a trustworthy box-to-box option while providing a critical right-footed counterpart to Carlos Vela’s left-footed set piece deliveries. Acosta’s 21 shot-creating actions from dead balls ranks 13th in MLS.

Thorrington also transformed the fullback rotation with a pair of moves. 

He traded incumbent left back Marco Farfan to FC Dallas for Ryan Hollingshead. Coming into this season, only Anton Tinnerholm and Julian Gressel had more goals added (g+) above average over the last three seasons than Hollingshead, per American Soccer Analysis. The MLS veteran has kept up that pace with LAFC, currently sitting second in fullback g+ per 96 minutes this season. Hollingshead’s ability to play on both sides of defense has been an asset for Cherundolo. In addition, he’s scored four goals and drawn one penalty in 2022. 

LAFC also traded for Franco Escobar from Atlanta United to fill out the wide defender group. The Argentinian hasn’t matched Hollingshead’s impact so far, but is slowly establishing himself as a regular in Cherundolo’s lineup, starting six of their last nine games.

Scouting and development

The club’s ability to develop talent helped compensate for the offseason exodus and underwhelming first halves from Vela and fellow DP Brian Rodriguez, who could be on his way out.

LAFC’s fullback turnover, which also included departures of Kim Moon-hwan, Raheem Edwards, and occasional fullback Tristan Blackmon, created a void for Diego Palacios to step into. Palacios increased his minutes percentage from 57.4% in 2021 to 79.7% this year. He is establishing himself as one of the best passing left backs in MLS. 

He’s seventh among all fullbacks in passing g+ per 96 minutes (minimum 800 minutes) and is setting career marks in nearly every meaningful passing metric. The Ecuadorian international has become a focal point of LAFC’s buildup: he’s increased his progressive pass distance by 41%, ranking second on the team behind only center back Mamadou Fall in that category.

Fall has blossomed in his own right and is one of the leaders among center backs in oh-my-did-he-just-do-that moments. Cherundolo gave Fall his debut with Las Vegas in 2021 but it only took eight USL starts to establish that he was ready for the prime-time. He suffers from the occasional defensive lapse, which is normal for any teenage center back, but those mistakes will become less frequent over time. Fall’s on-ball ability is already excellent and it’s hard not to think about how much more it could grow with Villarreal in La Liga.

The biggest gains under Cherundolo, though, have come from striker Chicho Arango and midfielder Jose Cifuentes. Both players were very good in 2021, but they’re now fully fledged stars.

Arango entered MLS like a wrecking ball, joining LAFC in the second half of 2021 and leading MLS in goals for the rest of the season. Somehow, though, he’s managed to get even better this year and is currently in the midst of one of the hottest runs you’ll ever see. Arango has scored 10 goals in his last 11 games and his impressive underlying numbers indicate that he’s not finished yet.

At just 23, Cifuentes is in his third full MLS season and is one of the best players in the league. His 13 goal contributions don’t even begin to describe his brilliance as he leads all players in g+ per 96 minutes. Cifuentes is genuinely good at everything, so enjoy him now, because he won’t be in this league for long.

If and when Cifuentes, Fall, and others leave for greener European pastures, don’t be surprised if there’s another group of talented players waiting in the wings to take their places. The fact that Cifuentes, Fall, and Palacios, along with winger Kwadwo Opoku, were all brought into the fold as teenagers highlights the extent of LAFC’s scouting prowess. Arango’s plug-and-play goalscoring hammers that point home, too. Cherundolo doesn’t have Bradley’s track record when it comes to developing talent, but the early returns have been great for LAFC. 

So as Bale, Chiellini, and Vela soak up the plaudits in Los Angeles, don’t forget about the roster moves, talented development, and coaching risks that have paid off for LAFC. The club had success well before their newest batch of European stars arrived – and it’s a good bet they’ll do so well after they’re gone.