Having already played a portion of their season without superstar Carlos Vela, Los Angeles FC must again make do without the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player starting with Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake.
Vela, who set a single-season record with 34 regular-season goals and 36 overall in 2019, opted out of the MLS Is Back tournament to be with his family as his wife was expecting. He made his return Sunday in the second installment of “El Trafico” but was forced off just before the hour of LAFC’s 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy with a knee injury.
The Mexico international suffered a Grade 2 MCL strain attempting to take a shot and is expected to be sidelined anywhere from two to four weeks. Given the compressed nature of the MLS schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vela could miss a substantial amount of playing time as LAFC (2-1-3) looks to defend its Supporters Shield and Western Conference regular-season title.
“Carlos is by nature a really positive guy. Somebody that comes in everyday with a smile, always really good with his teammates. Even with the difficult news, it’s the same Carlos. He’s always engaged with the players and what we need to be thinking about as a team – all qualities that make him so special to us all,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley told the team’s official website. “But the way we train and the way we prepare is to be a good team when Carlos isn’t on the field, and we have had some moments when that is the case.”
Los Angeles FC did not fare all that badly without Vela in Florida, losing on penalties to de facto host Orlando City in the quarterfinals and racking up a league-best 16 goals in five overall matches. The Black-and-Gold are 5-5-2 without their star striker in the regular season and 8-5-3 in all competitions since joining the team.
Vela’s absence again turns the focus offensively on Diego Rossi, who won the Golden Boot at MLS Is Back with seven goals. The Uruguayan has nine goals and three assists in 10 matches in all competitions and will likely lead the line with veteran Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has three goals in his first four matches with LAFC.
Real Salt Lake (2-1-3), which was run out of MLS Is Back in the round of 16 by San Jose, made good use of its idle time waiting for the restart and returned to action with a 4-1 pasting of Colorado on Sunday. RSL scored four unanswered goals in the final 33 minutes, with Damir Kreilach starting the fightback on 57 minutes before Maikel Chang – introduced at halftime — scored the go-ahead goal in the 76th minute.
Chang set up goals by Corey Baird and Justin Meram in the final five minutes to add some gloss to the scoreline as Real exceeded their entire goals output from the first five matches of 2020.
I told you guys in the lead up to Orlando that the whole team is training well and we’ve had intrasquads and they are hard games and guys looked sharp,” RSL coach Freddy Juarez said. “At any given time someone could be given the opportunity. Chang embraced the opportunity and he’s been working his tail off. It comes from him working hard and recovering and going the other way. It makes me proud that the team embraced the situation and let someone like Chang make a difference.”
Real is hoping its four-goal outburst is a sign of good things as it enters this match 1-5-0 in all competitions versus Los Angeles FC. LAFC outscored Real Salt Lake 7-1 in sweeping three matches last year, bracketing a 3-0 victory in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16 with wins of 2-1 and 2-0 in the regular season.
Los Angeles FC has outscored RSL 10-1 in winning all three matches at Rio Tinto Stadium.