For the entirety of this MLS is Back tournament, Carlos Vela's absence will loom large. It's only natural. He's arguably the league's best player and brightest star featuring for arguably the league's best team, Los Angeles FC.
There's no way to replace that. Vela is, aside from maybe a handful of players that have graced this league over the years, nearly impossible to replicate. LAFC's attack will need its other stars to step up if last season's Supporters' Shield winners want to leave Orlando with a trophy in hand.
Monday night looked like it could be a long night for the Vela-less LAFC. They were battered in the first half by the Houston Dynamo, whose dynamic counter-attacking performance sent them into halftime with a 3-1 lead. In the second 45, though, we saw a different LAFC, one led by two young stars who may just use this MLS is Back tournament to emerge from Vela's massive shadow.
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After their first-half beating, LAFC scored twice in the second half to seal a 3-3 draw, starting the MLS is Back tournament with a draw against a very game Dynamo team. The two big goals came from the Uruguayan duo of Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, a worrying sign for the rest of MLS despite the overall shakiness that LAFC showed at the back in this tournament-opening match.
For fans that follow MLS, Rossi is one of the league's familiar faces. The attacker has been absolutely electric since joining the club from Penarol, scoring 30 goals through his first 70 MLS matches. Throughout LAFC's short history, Rossi has been the perfect Robin to Vela's Batman, establishing himself as one of the league's top goalscorers on a team that already has one of the league's top goalscorers.
On Monday, cast in the leading role himself, Rossi provided the game-opening assist and the game-changing goal. After conceding early on to Memo Rodriguez, who himself had a breakout match for the Dynamo, Rossi was able to slide perfectly-placed cross to Bradley Wright-Phillips, leaving the New York Red Bulls legend with a tap-in finish. It was LAFC's lone first-half highlight, as they were undone three separate times by the Dynamo, with Memo Rodriguez scoring on two of those occasions.
With his side chasing and with the Dynamo nursing a two-goal lead, the 22-year-old Rossi provided the moment that only stars can create. Rossi's finish was an absolute missile from a difficult angle, bringing LAFC within a goal. It was the type of hit only a few players can provide, and Rossi is one of them. There's a reason Rossi was reportedly the target of a seven-figure offer from Fiorentina.
While Rossi has been prolific throughout his MLS run, his Uruguayan compatriot, Rodriguez, has not. When LAFC paid a club-record fee for Rodriguez, the club expected something special. The forward had earned his first senior cap for Uruguay as a teenager, after all, while emerging as one of the brightest talents at powerhouse Penarol.
However, throughout his limited MLS run, Rodriguez has done little to justify that massive $11.5 million fee. Through the first 13 matches for the club across all competition, Rodriguez had provided exactly zero goals. He provided just one assist, albeit a spectacular one as he fed Carlos Vela after a dazzling run in LAFC's 5-3 wins over the LA Galaxy in last season's playoffs.
With Vela sitting out the MLS is Back tournament, LAFC will need Rodriguez to play like the player that commanded the third-most-expensive fee in MLS history, behind only the Atlanta United duo of Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo 'Pity' Martinez. And, on Monday night, Rodriguez finally got his long-awaited goal and a potential much-needed turning point to his LAFC career.
It was Rodriguez that fired the equalizer in the 69th minute, providing the calm and cool finish that has alluded him so far in his MLS career. The hope will be that its the moment that ignites the forward, who earned six caps and scored three goals for Uruguay before the age of 20.
If Rodriguez does ignite and if Rossi continues to shine, the rest of the league will have reason to be concerned and Vela's absence could just become a blessing in disguise. This tournament could be the moment Rossi turns into a second superhero rather than a sidekick. And this tournament could be the moment that Rodriguez finds the confidence that he has lacked throughout his early MLS run. Add Vela to that mix and you get something frightening.
And even as Vela watches from home, LAFC will have a chance in every game during their time in Orlando, even if there were reasons for concern. LAFC remains the league's most entertaining team, and that isn't always a compliment. Monday's six-goal thriller was the highest-scoring game of this tournament so far. Those three goals conceded are certainly a reason for frustration, even if you'd an attribute some of it to rustiness and the rest to a wonderful counter-attacking effort from the Dynamo.
Still, on Monday, LAFC did send a message, even if they settled for just one point: this certainly isn't a one-man team and these two young stars may just be ready for their own time in the spotlight.