Nashville SC will take on Los Angeles FC for the first time in club history on Sunday, welcoming the league leaders to Geodis Park. For the last on LAFC, we turned to Alicia Rodriguez, who’s as plugged into soccer in Los Angeles as anyone around.
Ben Wright: LAFC have obviously been one of the most dynamic sides since they joined MLS, but they’ve managed to maintain that after a managerial change. What has Steve Cherundolo changed since he took over, and what has he done to make LAFC even better?
Alicia Rodriguez: The big change is Cherundolo has balanced the approach on both sides of the ball a little more. Rather than try to score five goals every game and hope the defense can limit the opponent to four, which was the de facto approach often with Bob Bradley, Cherundolo has made the team more defensively sound, while also still being capable of scoring goals. While Bradley’s approach was a rousing success in 2019, those of us who have watched the team the other years knew that the team’s defensive approach was detrimental, and a course correction was needed.
The other change has been with a deeper squad this season, Cherundolo is making great use of rotating lineups and bringing on impact subs. LAFC broke a club record for goals scored off the bench in a season in about the first 10 games and the success has been consistent so far. Given how many managers habitually wait too long to use subs and then don’t seem to trust them when they do feature, it’s nice to see a manager making use of his whole matchday squad and getting meaningful contributions.
BW: All the talk has been around their new marquee signings (we’ll get to those in a minute), but they’re getting consistent performances from MLS veterans like Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead. Is this just a wrinkle, or have they re-evaluated how they want to construct rosters?
AR: There’s no question they changed tack in the offseason. As mentioned, the squad depth had gotten thin, while LAFC’s ideal starting XI has been among the best in the league, in 2020 and 2021, many of those players got hurt or went on international duty or were out with COVID and the players waiting in the wings weren’t ready. So LAFC brought in a lot of MLS experience in the offseason. In addition to Sanchez (a deserved All-Star this season), Acosta and Hollingshead, they picked up Maxime Crepeau, to hopefully solve the revolving door situation at GK, and Franco Escobar to help bring solidity to defense. All in all, they addressed the problem areas and those players have been key additions.
In terms of constructing rosters, I think the “MLS experience” theme was specifically addressing a problem. LAFC have been pretty effective in using nearly all mechanisms to build the squad (the exception is the MLS Draft, which they appear to have sworn off altogether) and I think that will continue.
BW: Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Gareth Bale; do you expect him to play on Sunday, and how big a role do you expect him to play this season?
AR: I think there’s a chance he’ll play, and most likely off the bench. Since it’s early in Cherundolo’s tenure, I’m not sure how he’ll bring along midseason signings just yet. But Giorgio Chiellini, the other big-name addition this window, was in the squad for El Trafico last weekend but didn’t end up getting on the field in that one. I think there’s a chance he could make his debut as well, but I also think it’s pretty likely Cherundolo will pay attention to the game state in deciding whether or not to bring Bale and/or Chiellini in during the game, assuming they start on the bench in Nashville.
And I think Bale will play a good number of minutes this season, if he’s fit. The issue is that he may be super fresh considering he didn’t really play the last nine months, but he might have some rust, too. So it may take some time, but he’s too big of a player to not expect he’ll play a pretty big role down the stretch. That’s the hope, anyway.
BW: LAFC are one of the more consistent front-foot teams in the league and have plenty of experience breaking down a low block. They’ve never played Nashville before. How do you expect them to approach this one?
AR: They haven’t really been a team to change their approach dramatically depending on the opponent (for better and worse), and frankly, I don’t expect any major differences here. It’s a new opponent and a new venue, but LAFC look best in transition moments and will look to feast on fast break soccer as much as Nashville do with Mukhtar leading the way. However, if Nashville sit deep and really dare LAFC to beat them, the black-and-gold can be stymied at times by that, like pretty much all teams, but they’ve also shown some effective play on set pieces this year, a classic way to unlock a low block. They also aren’t a team that relies on long aerial crosses to get many goals, so it may not be easy for Nashville to pry the ball off them deep in their defensive third.
BW: This is the first time Walker Zimmerman has played against his old club. It seems like Nashville handily got the best of that deal. How difficult has it been for LAFC to move on post-Zimmerman?
AR: It was definitely tough. It still remains a mystery as to why LAFC traded him at all, and while there’s been whispers they were in cap hell and pretty much needed to for financial reasons, that doesn’t fully pass the smell test, honestly. LAFC were lost in 2020 without him, at least until Jesus David Murillo joined in late October of that year, and then a down year for Murillo and a torn ACL to Eddie Segura really sunk them in 2021.
I think this year, they’re in a good spot again, with Murillo back in form, Mamadou Fall becoming one of the brightest young players in the league, Segura just recovered and back in the mix, Sebastien Ibeagha putting in good minutes lately and (theoretically, at least) now Chiellini part of the group. It only took two full years, but with more depth now, LAFC are probably in a better spot, although I don’t think many would turn down Zimmerman still being with the team.
BW: Do you have a lineup prediction for Sunday?
AR: Maxime Crepeau; Franco Escobar, Jesus David Murillo, Sebastien Ibeagha, Ryan Hollingshead; Jose Cifuentes, Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta; Carlos Vela, Cristian Arango, Kwadwo Opoku
Thanks to Alicia for helping us out. Make sure to follow her on Twitter @soccermusings!