LOS ANGELES, Calif. – After Tuesday’s tie with Antigua Barracuda FC saw the Los Angeles Blues finish their three-game home series against the Caribbean side at 1-1-1, the players’ and coaches’ initial disappointment was followed by a “never-say-die” reaction. The Blues now look to fight for maximum points in their upcoming visits to Wilmington and Antigua, as their goal remains to leapfrog USL Pro National Division leaders Rochester Rhinos in the standings before the end of the regular season.
Friday’s match against the Cudas saw Los Angeles suffer a frustrating 2-1 defeat behind goals by Antigua’s George Dublin early in the first half and Ranja Christian in the 66th minute, respectively. Chukwudi Chijindu’s temporary equalizer was not enough for the home side, as they came up empty-handed only about a week after successful road matches at Richmond and Harrisburg.
“It’s frustrating,” defender Carlos Borja admitted after the final whistle. “Everybody was confident and already thinking about our chances of winning the championship. Then, instead of moving forward and getting more wins, we concede a loss that’s part unlucky and part our own fault. After going down early, we came back to tie it and fought hard, but then we gave up another goal and it just threw us off. I think some of us tuned out after Antigua’s second goal.”
In the loss to Antigua, the Blues’ difficulty in dealing with a defensive-minded opponent became painfully obvious.
“Again, it comes down to finishing plays off,” former Los Angeles Galaxy man Israel Sesay said. “We kept the ball well, but we weren’t able to put it in the back of the net. I have a lot of respect for Antigua, but we should beat them at home. When other teams bunker down, we still have a hard time breaking through. We just didn’t have that killer ball, that ball that can penetrate the defense and break them down. We can’t afford to give away points like that.”
The sentiment was echoed in Associate Head Coach Shayon Jalayer’s postgame analysis.
“There have been a few times throughout the season where things didn’t go our way and we bounced back, so I don’t think we fear adversity or lack character,” Jalayer offered. “The real problem is that we still haven’t found solutions for an opponent that’s committed to just sitting back against us. It’s one thing to be patient in a buildup, but I don’t think we were playing with the urgency we need. Maybe at times we need to take the flair out of our game and be a little but more blue-collar by just starting to throw balls in the box.”
While acknowledging his side’s struggles to find goals against hard-working opponents committed to defending, Carlos Borja identified as the single most important factor Los Angeles’ vulnerability to being the first team to concede a goal. Point in case, Dublin’s 2nd minute strike that saw the Blues chasing the game early in the loss to Antigua.
“It’s always hard when teams drop back and commit to defending,” Borja said. “It’s hard to penetrate through spaces, so you usually just end up hitting crosses into the box that they have a good chance of clearing. So we need to be smarter early in the game and make sure we don’t fall behind in the first place. We need to keep the ball and then be the first ones to make moves and attack.”
Los Angeles would turn out to be able to do just that in Sunday’s rematch against the Caribbean side, a 2-1 win behind first-half goals by Akeem Priestley and former Cudas man Peter Byers, who looked dangerous throughout the ninety minutes. Justin Cochrane pulled one back for the visitors in the 90th minute of play, but it wasn’t enough as the Blues held on for the win.
“We did well,” recent signing Yeniel Bermudez assessed. “It was very important that we were able to take control of the game. They have pretty tough guys and play a very physical style, but I think we did well with the way we played. We weren’t ready to give them much of the ball, which was the key to scoring two goals and getting three points.”
After the final whistle, Blues Head Coach Charlie Naimo offered his analysis of the match from his side’s perspective.
“I’m happy with our overall performance,” he remarked. “We generally created the opportunities that we wanted to. In the first half especially, the boys remembered what we were looking for and continuously put the ball in dangerous spots. We got two goals out of it and created several corners and other set plays.
“Then in the second half, we kind of fell into Antigua’s game of slow tempo and tried to get too close to the goal again before looking for that final pass. We had some good looks that we probably could have done better with. At the same time, it’s positive that they didn’t get out of their own end much until they scored. Why we still couldn’t get the clean sheet again is beyond me.”
Fortunately for the home side, a clean sheet was not necessary to earn victory, thanks in large parts to the play of Byers, who scored Los Angeles’ second tally of the match and presented the Cudas with tremendous problems throughout the ninety minutes with his numerous dangerous runs in behind the defense. Byers had missed Friday’s meeting with Antigua due to a red-card suspension.
“Sunday’s game was very tough and required a spirited effort from us,” the 26-year-old commented. “After I wasn’t able to play in the first game, it seemed like they were really looking forward to facing me and came out fighting extremely hard. Fortunately, the guys were able to play some great balls over the top, which played to my strength. That really worked in our favor and as a result we were able to get a marvelous win. For me, it was an extremely joyful and special experience playing against my home team and scoring my first goal for the Blues.”
While being full of praise for the Antigua and Barbuda international forward, Charlie Naimo was sure to give several players credit for the day’s attacking success.
“Peter’s agility provided us with the added option of playing long balls over the top of Antigua’s defense, because he can hold the ball and allow others to join the attack,” the Blues Head Coach offered. “But we should also give (Byers’ strike partner) Jonny (de Leon) credit. He is incredibly smart and it was him who flicked a lot of those balls on to Peter.
“There were a lot of positives in the midfield as well. Akeem (Priestley) did a nice job on the outside, and so did Josh (Tudela) and Edwin (Miranda). With that said, there’s still room for improvement. We’re happy about a solid three points, and now it’s on to the next game.”
That next game came only two days later, with Los Angeles playing the visitors from the Caribbean to a disappointing 1-1 draw. After falling behind early once again to an Elvis Thomas strike, the Blues tied things up on a Byers goal halfway through the first period, the striker picking up his second tally against his former team in as many matches in 2011.
Shaking his head in frustration after the final whistle, Edwin Miranda confirmed his side’s difficulties in dealing with defensively-oriented opponents.
“With the players we have, we should be able to beat Antigua at home,” the Salvadorian said. “I don’t really have an explanation for why it didn’t happen today. We moved the ball around well, but then we can’t do the job inside the box and finish. We’re missing a lot of chances in every game. That’s what’s hurting us. They’re the type of team that sits back if they like the scoreline and we couldn’t find a way to deal with that. When you really need points and then you tie at home, it feels like a loss.”
Defender Cameron Dunn agreed, “It’s very disappointing to be looking at a possible nine points from three games against Antigua and only getting four. If we had come in and scored first, I think we would have been flying. But giving up the early goal made the game a lot harder than it needed to be. Overall, we could have done better on both sides of the ball, defending and finishing.”
While joining his players in their disappointment, Shayon Jalayer stressed the significance of bouncing back in the upcoming matches at Wilmington and Antigua if the Blues are to have any chance of winning their division.
“We’re certainly not happy,” Los Angeles’ Associate Head Coach admitted. “Even though we didn’t play well, we created enough opportunities to still win the match, but we’re walking out of here with only one point to show for it. That means now the mentality of the players has to be that we need six points from the road trip. Whether it will end up happening remains to be seen, but I certainly think it’s within reach and a reasonable request.”
In looking ahead to the upcoming road trip, Jalayer identified the key factors in the way of greater success in his side’s recent meetings with the Cudas.
“At times we play well,” he assessed. “As simple as it may sound, the bottom line is that we need to not give up soft goals but really make our opponents earn them. In recent games we’ve frequently given up early goals, so clearly there’s a lack of concentration there. In addition, we need to take care of our easy chances. It’s one thing to not finish half-chances, but when you’re given quality opportunities, you have to put them away.”
Being his usual competitive self, Cameron Dunn had already embraced Jalayer’s goal of earning two wins in the upcoming road games before even talking to the Blues’ Associate Head Coach.
“We have to put the disappointment behind us now and move on,” the 27-year-old said. “We have tough road games at Wilmington and Antigua coming up, so we have to go back, train hard and make sure we pick up maximum points. We have to put in a full ninety-minute effort for once. If we start putting away our chances and cleaning things up defensively, I believe we can be a much more successful team.”