Prior to the 2014 season, Toronto FC found out that Michael Bradley wanted to play for their squad. Unfortunately, TFC were already at the three designated player limit: Jermain Defoe, Gilberto, and Matias Laba. It quickly became apparent that Laba was going to be the odd-man out. On February 25th, Laba was traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps for future considerations. I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was visiting a friend and a notification popped up on my phone and I jumped with joy! I then explained to him what had happened and why it was a big deal.
When Matias Laba came to the Whitecaps in 2014 there was reason for excitement. No, he was not going to go out and score goals. But, at the time, he was a premiere defensive midfielder. Maybe even the best in Major League Soccer. He was someone the Caps could rely on to lockdown the area in front of the back line. In 2014, Matias Laba led the league in tackles per match with 4.9. The next closest was Diego Chara at 4.4 and Osvaldo Alonso with 3.6. He was also first in dribbles past per game, with 2.1. Again, the next closest was Marcelo Sarvas at 1.5. Finally, he was 17th in interceptions averaging 2.8. It was clear that acquiring Laba made a huge difference for the Vancouver Whitecaps defense.
In 2015 and 2016, Matias Laba continued his dominance. Once again, he led the league in tackles (5.0 and 4.1), dribbles (2.2 and 2.5), and was 49th in interceptions (2.7) in 2015. As usual, 2017 has been much of the same: leading the league in tackles (4.3) and dribbles (2.8), and 37th in interceptions (1.9).
Despite Laba’s dominance there seem to have always been question marks about whether he was worth his DP status. This is strange, given the statistics I have provided above. The position of defensive midfield seemed to be evolving in MLS, with flashier players arriving, like the man who replaced him in Toronto Michael Bradley. Sure, there wasn’t anything flashy about Laba, but he was reliable and consistent.
In Whitecaps land there has been a lot of frustration about the lack of acknowledgement Laba has received in MLS. Some have argued that he is the best, or at least one of the best, defensive midfielders in the league. Yet the past two seasons have seen the luster wear off of Laba around the league. Since I reside in the United States, I rely on MLS Live to watch Whitecaps matches. As a result, I tend to hear a lot of US broadcasts. It is interesting to hear them talk about Laba, as they note his flaws (e.g., he can be pulled out of the midfield to pursue a tackle that can leave a hole). The comments are not unwarranted.
While Laba has some weaknesses, the same could probably be said about most, if not all, MLS players. If their weaknesses were minimal to non-existent, they would be playing in a bigger league (e.g., Europe). One weakness Laba seems to have worked on is getting forward. In April, Laba scored twice to lift the Whitecaps to a 4-2 victory over LA Galaxy. This season, Laba has averaged 0.8 shots per game. This is twice as many as his next highest in 2015 of 0.4 per game. Considering the Whitecaps difficulties in attacking, it is important that their defensive midfielder(s) join the attack.
Given Laba’s prowess at tackling, dribbling, and intercepting, many fans have questioned why Carl Robinson continued to play two defensive midfielders. Why not have Laba play the position alone and have an additional player in attack. This season, it seems Robbo has heard the cries of fans as we have seen Laba play alone as a holding midfielder. However, even in those situations, traditionally defending midfielders Andrew Jacobson and Tony Tchani have been on the field. While the two join the attack -Jacobson has two goals this season, while Tchani has three- it means that the Caps are still playing with multiple defense-first midfielders.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, rumors began to circulate that the Whitecaps were interested in Canadian Atiba Hutchinson. This rumor did not come to fruition. In the waning hours of the secondary transfer window, Vancouver made an unexpected move, acquiring Egyptian Aly Ghazal. Unlike the acquisition of Hutchinson, Ghazal’s signing led to speculation that Laba may be on his way out. Part of the reason for this speculation was Ghazal and Laba’s similar playing style. Both are 25-year-old stay-at-home defensive midfielders, who are not going to join the attack too often.
During Saturday’s match against New England Revolution, Matias Laba suffered an injury to his knee. After the match, Carl Robinson noted that it did not look good. Laba will have an MRI done to determine the amount of damage, but Robinson has said that “it’s a serious injury”. Although the Whitecaps will have to survive with a defensive midfield tandem of Jacobson and Tchani for the next few matches, expect Laba’s injury to lead to Ghazal entering the picture sooner rather than later. If Tchani picks up a yellow card in Saturday’s match against Houston, I would expect to see Ghazal start the following Wednesday against Seattle, as Tchani would be suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
update: Laba suffered a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligaments of his right knee. He will miss the remainder of the season and will next be available next spring.
Despite the injury, The Province reported that Argentine club Racing are interested in acquiring Laba and have made a formal offer. Although today, news of the cruciate ligament injury may have stalled talks. The news of a potential transfer may explain the sudden appearance of Aly Ghazal to the Whitecaps (although it is worth noting that Robinson was interested in Ghazal prior). Laba’s contract is up at the end of this season, with a club option for 2018. Is the arrival of Ghazal, and the interest from Argentina, a sign that Laba may be on his way out of Vancouver? Is it possible that the New England match will be his last as a Whitecaps?
Feelings seem to be mixed about Laba. It appears that fans appreciate him and want to see him remain with the club, but at the same time, are not heartbroken at the prospects of him moving on. I tend to be part of this group, but after writing this article, and seeing what Laba contributes (in numbers form), I am not sure I am still a part of that group. The argument many appear to make is that while Laba is good, he is not anything special. Continuing to lead the league in multiple defensive categories seems somewhat special to me, but maybe I am wrong. If Ghazal is the same type of player, maybe people are correct. That other Laba-type players can be found. Again though, if that were true why have other teams not found them? The closest appears to be Chara in Portland. I am excited for Ghazal and I hope that he is successful. I see him as, potentially, a key piece of the Whitecaps. At the same time though, I pose the question of IF Ghazal is like Laba, and the Whitecaps have Laba, why take a risk on an unknown with the potential to be like Laba if you already have the original? If Ghazal brings more, sure, but if he is the same, why not keep with the known quantity? Unless the Caps hand is forced by Laba wanting to return to Argentina (which could be the case).
What are your thoughts on Laba’s contributions to the Whitecaps, his potential transfer to Argentina, and the arrival of Ghazal and what it means for the Caps going forward?