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LAFC is making a habit of faltering in big games. What's been going wrong?

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MLS is back, and so is LAFC as we know it.

The absence of reigning MVP and Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela didn’t seem to affect LAFC much in the first four matches of the league’s tournament in Orlando. Diego Rossi stepped up and netted what could end up being a competition-best seven goals. Big-name signing Bradley Wright-Phillips added four himself.

The style and command of Bob Bradley’s squad is what makes them so appealing to watch. They’re electric and they pile up goals. It’s earned them respect around MLS.

It’s also raised expectations for much of their existence. And Friday night down in Disney, the third-year club fell short of them yet again.

Say what you will about rest, weather conditions and other factors, but LAFC lacked its traditional magic in an elimination game, which is becoming an uncomfortable trend. The loss to Orlando City in the MLS is Back quarterfinals came courtesy of a 90th-minute equalizer by Joao Moutinho, whom LAFC picked No. 1 overall in the 2018 MLS Superdraft, and then a setback in penalties.

Considering what we’re used to seeing from LAFC, the game itself wasn’t pretty. Credit goes in part to the work new Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja has already done with his group. But LAFC’s starting lineup was the exact same as the previous game, when it thrashed defending MLS Cup Champion Seattle 4-1.

The disparity in energy between those two contests was oddly similar to the fate LAFC suffered in last year’s playoffs, after finally beating the rival Los Angeles Galaxy and then showing up flat against the Sounders in the Western Conference Final.

LAFC lost to Orlando City on penalties, the club's latest setback in an elimination setting. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
LAFC lost to Orlando City on penalties, the club's latest setback in an elimination setting. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Avenging that loss in this tournament seemed like a message, but that same attitude and the “football” Bradley harps on wasn’t present against Orlando.

“We just didn't do enough all around the field. We wasn't alert enough, our reactions wasn't great,” said Wright-Phillips, who was the only player to talk after Friday’s loss.

When asked about the lack of energy he added, “I'm not really too sure, but every player wasn't as sharp as they can be, and it showed definitely in the first half. That's the reason we don't get the result we want.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the blame. Jordan Harvey is hearing criticism after getting caught sleeping far post on the equalizer and also missing the only penalty of the shootout. But a sub that came on in the 77th minute doesn’t lose you a game.

Questions continue to be asked about why LAFC traded USMNT defender Walker Zimmerman earlier this year, but center backs Dejan Jakovic and Eddie Segura proved this tournament they’re a solid pair. Tristan Blackmon and Diego Palacios serve their purpose as wingbacks in that system perfectly, too. Of course there are moments of lapses that can lead to conceding goals, but the defense as a whole isn’t a problem.

Neither is the midfield trio of Latif Blessing, Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye, which is LAFC’s heartbeat. And while the team was missing Vela and Adama Diomande, who exited the bubble with a recurring right foot injury after the opening game, LAFC still scored 16 goals in five matches.

So what’s the issue? There seems to be an underlying identity problem that’s up to the coaching staff to fix. LAFC has a competitive edge they thrive upon and tactics they don’t shy away from, like controlling matches, playing with pace, etc. When that style isn’t working in win-or-go home situations — which also includes a home playoff loss to Real Salt Lake their first year and two U.S. Open Cup eliminations — LAFC hasn’t really had an answer, or expressed much willingness to change.

Maybe that’s the biggest issue: accountability.

Bradley operates under a Bill Belichick-esque demeanor that the players typically follow when speaking to the media. It's all about “us” and “our”, but that mentality of always playing their game has left them staring into the abyss in vital moments.

“I feel good about the way we went on the field and tried to play our football every match,” Bradley said. “We'll take the disappointment and we'll try to look at everything and see what comes next and be ready.”

The Athletic reported MLS has a tentative plan to resume the season in home markets on August 22. Bradley and the Black and Gold might get another shot at a trophy this season, but the pressure is starting to weigh on them the same way their inability to beat the Galaxy used to.

LAFC has overcome that. They’ve put themselves in position to be remembered as great. But it’s on them to start making the most of it, because by their standards, simply getting to that point is not good enough.

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