LAFC’s Mamadou Fall, 19, could mature into one of MLS’s best defenders

At this point in Major League Soccer’s existence, the league has helped develop a number of extremely talented players at a number of different positions.

Alphonso Davies, formerly of the Vancouver Whitecaps, is an elite fullback for one of the best teams in the world in Bayern Munich. Tyler Adams is a valuable defensive midfielder for RB Leipzig, although he may be on the move this summer. There are other midfielders, wingers and forwards that have developed on MLS teams, or used MLS as a springboard, before making a move abroad.

Some center backs have been part of this as well, but none have been as talented as Mamadou Fall. He has been one of the standout players in MLS this season – and could grow to become one of the best defenders to ever spend time in MLS.

Fall is a regular starter for the best team in the league in Los Angeles FC, as a teenager. The 19-year-old has clearly impressed manager Steve Cherundolo and is undoubtedly catching the eyes of major European clubs with his on-field performances.

Let’s dive into what makes Fall such a promising young center back.

Strengths

Fall is good at a lot of things, but when you watch him play for LAFC, his comfort on the ball is probably the first thing that stands out. Because he plays for one of the most ball-dominant teams in MLS in LAFC, the defender has consistent opportunities to impact games in possession, and he takes full advantage of those opportunities.

According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added (G +) metric, which attempts to measure a player’s total on-field contributions, Fall is the third-most valuable center back in MLS this season. Zooming in on specific offensive categories, G + ‘s passing category and its dribbling category both rate Fall positively on a per-96 minute basis (96 because it’s the average length of an MLS game with stoppage time accounted for).

With his dominant right foot, Fall is a threat to break down the opposition’s defensive shape with line-breaking passes. Per FBref, Fall is in the 91st percentile among center backs in MLS in progressive passes per 90 minutes. That means that he is one of the most aggressive, forward passing central defenders in the league.

You can see that in this clip, where Fall strides forward, picks out a pass to Carlos Vela between the lines, and hits him in stride.

Granted, the Colorado Rapids’ defensive shape was far too soft in that clip. But even when Fall is under more pressure from opposing defenses, he stays calm on the ball. In this clip, he’s being pressured from behind by Austin FC’s Maxi Urruti. Unfazed, Fall plays a simple line-breaker to Brian Rodríguez to advance LAFC’s possession.

On top of his passing, you can see Fall’s propensity to drive the ball forward in the two clips up above. Per FBref, he is in the 90th percentile among center backs in MLS in successful dribbles per 90 and the 93rd percentile in carries into the penalty area per 90.

Now, those numbers are slightly inflated for a couple of reasons. First, Fall plays for an aggressive LAFC team. If the average MLS center played back for LAFC, they’d probably dribble a lot, too. Second, Fall has also played some minutes at right back over the last year, which gave him even more chances to get into the attack. He’s not a natural at the right back spot, but he can deputy there when needed.

Even with those two explanations though, the numbers and the film both still clearly paint Fall as a potentially elite ball-carrying center back.

This clip of Fall driving forward is just one example of his skill. First, he recognizes an opportunity to apply pressure and quickly does so; his presence of mind pays off as a loose touch gifts him the ball on the run. That alone would have been a fine defensive play, but Fall turns it into something more, dribbling past midfield, through pressure, then plays a well-weighted through ball for Rodríguez. This is jaw-dropping stuff.

Any player who can knife through defenders on the dribble has value. That player has even more value when they’re a central defender. Top teams all over the world want defenders with technical quality and the skill to keep and progress the ball under pressure.

There aren’t many center backs at any age in MLS with his combination of passing, dribbling, and athleticism.

Areas to improve

With all that said, Fall’s primary area to work on is also the most important aspect of his position: defending. With long legs, a 6-foot-2 frame and a high level of athleticism, the teenager has the potential to be a world-class one-v-one defender. He’s even shown glimpses of that in MLS over the last year. But there are moments when Fall’s youthful exuberance – which paid off in the dribbling clip above – shows itself a little too much while he’s defending.

At times, like on this play against the Rapids, Fall dives in and fouls when he would be better off using his frame to simply stay between his man and the goal. Here, he fouls Gyasi Zardes, giving the Rapids a free kick and the chance to eat up some clock towards the end of the game.

Here, Fall steps in front of Khiry Shelton to try to stop a Sporting Kansas City attack. He misjudges the header, which allows Shelton to move past midfield.

With Jesus David Murillo back providing defensive cover, Fall’s header attempt was a calculated risk. Still, you want to make that play.

It’s not always Fall’s aggression that causes him problems: Sometimes it’s his frame. The LAFC defender likely has some growing – or at least some filling out – left to do. You can see a little of the natural awkwardness that comes with being a teenager in some of his defensive moments this season.

In this clip from LAFC’s game against the Philadelphia Union, Fall steps forward to pressure Cory Burke just outside of his own box. His body shape is a little too rigid, which allows Burke to nutmeg him and break into the box.

To my eye, most of Fall’s defensive errors look like they’ll happen less and less once he gains more on-field experience over the next couple of seasons. Once that happens, we’ll start seeing Fall’s mobility put to use in an increasing number of defensive moments.

Even with some of his defensive immaturity, Fall is clearly a player to keep your eye on in MLS. Given his skill on the ball and his defensive potential, though, don’t expect him to stick around for long. The 19-year-old has the ability to be one of the best defenders to ever set foot in MLS.

(Photo: Sam Navarro / USA TODAY Sports)

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