As Carlos Vela has waged his yearlong assault on the MLS record book, his coach, Bob Bradley, has told anyone who would listen that LAFC’s success does not depend on just one player.
On Sunday night, with Vela watching from a club suite because of a hamstring strain, that argument took a big hit with Minnesota United riding a pair of first-half goals from Mason Toye to a 2-0 victory at Banc of California Stadium.
The loss was LAFC’s first at home this season, ending its regular-season unbeaten streak of 19 games at Banc of California dating to last season. That was tied for the seventh-longest such streak in league history.
It was also LAFC’s first loss by multiple goals in 31 games, and it cost the team a chance to clinch the Western Conference title and the first-round playoff bye that goes with it.
Bradley chalked most of that up not to Vela’s absence but to a Minnesota game plan in which its players hunkered down in front of the goal and absorbed everything thing LAFC could throw at them.
“When you become a good team, teams are going to come in with a good plan,” he said. “Would it help to have Carlos out there in those situations? Of course.
“But give them credit. They defended with a plan. They made [good] plays. And we weren’t quite there.”
Vela has missed eight games in his two MLS seasons, and LAFC is 4-3-1 in those games; it is 31-10-13 when he plays. Bradley tried to make up for the loss of MLS’ most prolific offensive player — Vela leads MLS with 27 goals and is tied for second in assists with 15 — by giving teenager Brian Rodriguez his first MLS start, pairing him on a wing with Diego Rossi. And while Rodriguez was impressive at times, leading both teams in shots (three) and chances created (four), he was also inconsistent before leaving at halftime.
Either way, it wasn’t enough to break Minnesota’s low block and the five-man backline it used to frustrate an LAFC attack that had the ball more than three-quarters of the time, outshot Minnesota 24-5 — including 11-1 in the second half — and made three times as many passes yet failed to score for just the fourth time this year.
“As we got closer to the goal, with that many people back there, your margin is small,” Bradley said. “That’s where the microscope looks at the all the decisions.
“We tried everything. To break down low blocks, what do you need? You need ideas. We try to have ideas. You need to be sharp and execute. That part, not so great.”
Bradley made a few other changes to his lineup, most notably giving goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega his first start in five weeks. And Sisniega, who had a rough night, was beaten cleanly on two of Minnesota’s first three shots, both quick-strike goals from Toye midway through the first half.
On the first, LAFC defender Eddie Segura mistimed a sliding try at breaking up a pass from Jan Gregus, taking himself out of the play and allowing Toye to dribble deep into the penalty area before bending a left-footed shot from a tough angle into the netting on the far side in the 25th minute.
He doubled the lead four minutes later, surprising Sisniega with a long-distance shot that curled in at the right post.
It was just the third time LAFC (a league-best 19-4-5) has trailed by two goals this season — but it’s the second time that’s happened in the last two games. And Minnesota keeper Vito Mannone made that stand up with a career-high eight saves.
The victory vaulted Minnesota (13-9-6) from seventh to third in the tightly bunched Western Conference standings. Bradley, meanwhile, has less than a week to find a way to win without Vela because it’s unlikely he will be back in time for Saturday’s game at Orlando.
“It would be too early [to tell] whether Carlos will be ready. But we’re not going to rush it,” he said.