LAFC showed why they’re on top of the mountain in MLS right now on Tuesday.
It might not have been their most dominant performance of the season, nor the most entertaining, but at the end of the day, they got the job done, snatching a crucial 1-0 win over DC United at the Banc of California Stadium.
With that, they were able to further extend their lead atop MLS’s Supporters Shield standings, climbing up to 57 points, nine points ahead of second-place Austin FC. Not only that, but they maintained their 2.28 points-per-game pace, too, which if they’re to hold, would help them finish the season with 77 points, shattering the all-time MLS record by four points (set by the New England Revolution last year).
Of course, it’s far too early to see if LA can make that happen, as they still have nine games to play in regular season play, but if they are successful in that quest, games like this one will be a big reason why.
On a day where they might not have been at their best, they saw the job over the line, showing why they’re an elite team in MLS, not just a good or even great one.
Yet, right from the beginning of this match, that pedigree would be on full display. To be fair, one was always going to expect that heading into the game, as this also happened to be a clash of first versus last in MLS, but at the same time, this is the exact sort of trap game that seems to get top teams each year.
Just take a look at how this game started, as an example. Despite the fact that a whopping 22 points separated these two teams in the standings at kick-off, DC United looked very up for this contest, coming out with a bold high line, a stark contrast to the typically conservative defensive set-ups that teams employ when they visit the league’s highest-scoring team.
And despite their boldness, it really paid off for them through the first 60 or so minutes. LAFC had a few sniffs on goal, of course, but so was DC, and theirs were arguably of higher quality, as the Expected Goals (xG) battle was pretty much even right up into the 60th minute.
But there, LAFC were able to find their breakthrough. Thanks to the sustained pressure that they had during the game, even if they weren’t able to turn it into any chances, they were able to turn it into a handful of yellow cards, something that would prove valuable when DC’s Steven Birnbaum picked up his second yellow of the game for breaking up a transition moment in the 60th minute.
There, the cost of their high line was finally paid, giving LA an insurmountable advantage in terms of that numerical difference, one that you just figured would rear its head in minutes, if not seconds.
Turns out, it ended up being minutes, but as expected, it happened, and it happened in style in the 68th minute.
Having found some space in transition, LA broke in on DC 3v2, where Carlos Vela, Chicho Arango and Kwadwo ‘Mahala’ Opoku would combine quickly and efficiently, putting together a move that finished with Arango slotting the ball over to a wide-open Opoku for an easy goal.
From there, the rest was never in doubt.
Well, not never, as DC did nearly shock onlookers when their leading scorer, Taxiarchis ‘Taxi’ Fountas somehow found the post from 30 yards out less than a minute after Mahala scored, but other than that, it was relatively smooth sailing for the hosts the rest of the way. With some shrewd substitutions, game management and aggressive tactics, they got the job done, keeping their quest for dominance intact.
And now, as they push towards their main goal, finally conquering the MLS mountain by winning MLS Cup, they’ll hope that what they showed in this game can be the reason why they’re best poised to finally get over that hump.
Having never made it past the final four in their four previous years of existence, something they did just once back in 2019, otherwise having to settle for first-round exits or even missing the playoffs altogether as they did last year, they entered this year on a mission.
They’ve had some good teams in their time in MLS (heck, they used to own the all-time points record back in 2019 before it got broken by New England in 2021), but it always seemed that they were one or two pieces away from making the breakthrough. As a result, not only did they come up short in a lot of big games, but did so in frustrating fashion, losing a lot of them because of a sloppy mistake at the back, or a big miss up front.
Now, however, they’ve built a team that they feel can best that. And so far, it’s been hard to contest that fact.
This game is a prime example of that. Despite not being to rely on the participation of TAM players Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale for the second straight game as they dealt with load management issues, denying them of two players that many teams in MLS would love to have as starters, they made sure that they’d leave this stretch of games with six out of six points in their back pocket.
“Credit to the players and the staff, they continue to stay hungry for any possible chance that we have to win games,” LAFC head coach, Steve Cherundolo, said after this game. “They’re hungry and they have this mentality that we started working on a preseason, and it’s been consistent.”
“I’m very, very pleased with that staying, no matter who’s on the field, and that’s been a pleasure to be a part of this year and to help build.”
Yet, that’s just a small example of LA’s ability to paper over the cracks that they saw in their roster over the past year, as they’ve mounted this push.
Not enough depth in midfield? Bring in Kelyn Acosta and Ilie Sánchez from within MLS to give them a boost there. Desperately in need of a new goalkeeper? Bring in Maxime Crépeau, one of the best in the league, to shore that spot up. Short a few depth players? Bring in Bale, Chiellini and new DP Denis Bouanga, scorer of 35 career goals in Ligue 1 across just over 100 games in France’s top flight.
There, they’ve really been able to separate themselves as a team to beat in MLS, as not only have they put together a good squad, but have done so smartly and efficiently, giving them a team that is both talented and deep at both positions.
And as they get set for the playoffs, of which they’re pretty not just guaranteed to make, but likely host all of their games in, that’ll be key. With the playoffs being a crapshoot, all of this hard work can be undone with one bad spell in an elimination game, of course, but typically, big plays from key players tend to be what you need to get things over the line.
No doubt, LAFC now has its fair share of those, at a bunch of key positions, and that might very well be the difference between them taking care of business in the big games that lie ahead for them.
Which, as they continue their push towards the playoffs, will be key for them. Winning the Shield for the second time in five years would be great, yes, but winning MLS Cup would be even sweeter, and while it might not feel like it at the time, these sorts of games like this DC one could be very well the sort of matches that could very well push them over the line in a few months time.
“It was not the worst lesson for us to have,” Cherundolo said of this game. “We were off our game, and that can happen in the playoffs. As much as I like to think that I have a crystal ball, I do not, but there will be nights where guys are off, and one could be in a playoff match when it comes down to one big play.”
“As I told the guys in the locker room, (for example), having a goalkeeper come up in moments like that (as Maxime Crepeau did,) or a defender comes up with a big play, or it’s an offensive player just makes the one play when nothing is going your way on the offensive end, those big plays in those matches are huge.”
“And I think that’s a lesson to be had from tonight and maybe moving forward, is that we might have a poor evening come playoffs, if we make the playoffs, of course, and if that happens, it’s just about mentality and finding a way to win.”
“And so far, we’ve done that this season.”