When an MVP candidate goes down because of an injury, teams almost always suffer setbacks in filling the void left behind by that player. A team’s depth is tested in situations like this and it may not be easy to replicate the impact and production of an MVP candidate through role players and substitutions.
Atlanta United lost star forward and 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez for the season to an ACL injury back in March and immediately felt the setback of his absence from the starting lineup. Through 20 games, Atlanta is tied for the second lowest amount of goals scored this season with 19, according to MLS stats. In 2019, when Martinez was fully healthy, Atlanta had scored 28 goals through the first 20 games of the MLS season.
Similarly, Los Angeles Football Club had to play without reigning MVP Carlos Vela as he opted out from the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, missing the team’s three group stage matches that counted as regular-season matches, and then suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain during a derby defeat to the LA Galaxy that kept him out for extended time.
But the absence of Vela did not present a major drop in team performance like Martinez’s absence did to Atlanta’s overall team performance. Atlanta is sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 19 points through 20 games.
Instead of crumbling to a state of mediocrity, LAFC turned to its depth, particularly through savvy veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, to fill the goal-scoring void, which the team has done admirably. Vela scored 34 goals while grabbing 20 assists for LAFC, putting up video game-like numbers en route to his first MVP honors.
And while Wright-Phillips is not putting up similar stat lines, the production the team has gotten from him has been consistent enough to maintain a playoff spot while Vela nursed the injury. LAFC head coach Bob Bradley admired Wright-Phillips for coming into the team with adaptability.
“We were always trying to help him understand that there are certain things he’s done his whole career and we don’t want to get in the way of that,” Bradley said of Wright-Phillips, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “The number one thing is his ability to find chances and finish, but we also felt that there were some things that maybe were different than he heard before, that could help still improve. We always want players to come with an open mind to work together and see if we can make them even better.”
Wright-Phillips has been able to show that he can produce at a consistent level in his eighth MLS season. In the MLS is Back Tournament, he scored four goals for LAFC to prove that he can still find the back of the net in the 17th season of his professional career. He has featured in each of the team’s 14 regular-season games since the restart back in August, adding five more goals to his tally along with four assists.
In Sunday’s El Trafico match against the LA Galaxy, Wright-Phillips came on as a substitute in the 70th minute and made an impact as he gave an assist to Vela in the 90th minute for LAFC’s second goal of the game, sealing the game for LAFC while killing any hopes of a late tie for the Galaxy.
His assist helped Vela score his first goal since coming back from his MCL sprain and his first since March of earlier this year. At age 35, Wright-Phillips continues to impress as one of the league’s bright players, only now he’s doing it in a black and gold uniform.
“I think with the position I play on the field, [scoring] is always going to be a responsibility of mine,” Wright-Phillips said. “It’s not the mind frame I go out there with, there’s tons of other jobs we have within the 90 minutes. I obviously want to score goals, but I think the most important for us is, I don’t think we’re a team that has to worry about scoring goals or nice attacking football, I think we’ve got to get the little things right. We’ve got to look for a good start, we’ve got to show intensity. And I think that’s what I try and bring if I’m playing.”
Through their first two years, LAFC has remained one of the most dominant teams in the league. That was obvious when they won the Supporter’s Shield last season with a league record 72 points in 2019. But the team had never faced issues like they have this season. Losing a player of Vela’s caliber and having to regroup as a result along with minor slumps throughout the season have put LAFC in unfamiliar situations where they must overcome adversity.
Now in possession of a playoff spot in fourth place with 28 points, LAFC has been able to rebound and get back to its winning ways after some minor bumps on the road. The team will be better equipped to make a deep playoff run this season now that they have dealt with unfamiliar situations and learned not to rely so much on Vela when other players can come in and perform well when asked.