A New Black & Gold Chapter vs. Messi

Several LAFC players - and head coach Steve Cherundolo - are no strangers to competing against Lionel Messi at the club and international level

The story you’re about to read – a story that will resume on Sunday night when LAFC hosts Inter Miami at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles – began way back in 2008. That was the year Lionel Messi, then a 20-year-old rising star, met LAFC’s Carlos Vela, 18 at the time, on a soccer pitch for the first time in Spain’s top division, La Liga. 

It wouldn’t be their last meeting. Vela and Messi would play against each other 13  times over two continents.

LAFC’s on-field interactions with the game’s most decorated player run deeper than the Black & Gold’s captain, however. Giorgio Chiellini, Denis Bouanga, Diego Palacios, and head coach Steve Cherundolo all have faced off against Messi – and the stories of these meetings are woven here into one thread, with its next chapter to be written this weekend, when the hottest club in Major League Soccer visits its defending champion at BMO Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 3.



Vela and Messi played against one another just one time during that 2007-08 season, a 1-0 Barcelona victory that took place almost half their lives ago, on Feb. 3, 2008. To give readers an idea of that time and place: Thierry Henry started for Barça. Messi, his long hair flopping on the number 19 on his back, was replaced in the second half by … Ronaldinho. 

Eighteen-year-old Vela, wearing an orange, number 21 Osasuna shirt, was taken off in the 84th minute, just after Xavi (currently Barcelona’s head coach) entered the game. Xavi’s goal from distance at the 87-minute mark is what provided the final 1-0 margin.

Following that initial match, Vela played the next three seasons in the English Premier League, while Messi and his club (and its coach Pep Guardiola) conquered all of Europe. Barça finished first in La Liga in each of those three seasons and played in every Champions League as well, lifting the coveted trophy twice. This may have been why Real Sociedad acquired Vela from Arsenal in 2011—to try and slow the gold, blue, and red tide. 

Vela would score 73 goals for Real Sociedad over the next six years. His club played Messi at least twice each season, engaging in a series of gripping matches that were often played in front of crowds exceeding 80,000.

Real Sociedad has won only 11 of the 68 games it has played against Barcelona in history, according to, a winning percentage of .162. Four of those wins, however, came in games in which Vela appeared. In the 11 games Vela played against Barça during the 2010s, Real Sociedad’s record was a respectable 4W–5L-2D (.364).

The highlight for Vela in terms of goal scoring came in 2012 – the year Messi scored an unprecedented 91 goals across all competitions, still one of the most unbreakable records in sport. That February, at historic Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, the home side took a 1-0 lead when(future LAFC player and 2022 MLS Cup champion) Cristian Tello found the net for Barcelona. Messi added a goal in the 72nd to make it 2-0, but seconds later Vela finished a 1-v-1 opportunity against Barcelona’s keeper to cut the deficit in half. A final flurry of chances from Vela and his teammates proved fruitless, however, and a 2-1 loss was the result in a game that is also remembered because of an ugly gash that Sergio Busquets (Messi’s teammate at the time, and currently with Inter Miami) suffered to his right leg.

In 2015, Vela and Messi convened in Arlington, Texas, for a friendly between their respective home countries, Mexico and Argentina. Tata Martino – Inter Miami’s current manager – helmed the Argentine side, which endured goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (currently with Galaxy) and Hector Herrera (Houston Dynamo) and found itself trailing, 2-0. Vela replaced Chicharito in the 77th minute, but could only watch as legendary Argentine striker Sergio Aguero scored to make it 2-1. Then Messi struck in the 89th minute to salvage a 2-2 draw.


Four months after Vela’s and Messi’s first on-field meeting, Steve Cherundolo, then a 29-year-old defender for the US Men’s National Team, started against Argentina in a friendly at Giants Stadium on June 8, 2008. There were actually two future LAFC head coaches on the pitch that day. Bob Bradley was in charge of the USMNT, having tasked his team with containing 20-year-old Messi and an Argentine side that was ranked number one in the world at the time.

More than 78,000 fans witnessed the match, which was intended to help the two sides prepare for World Cup qualifying. Cherundolo and Messi did not interact often during the 45 minutes they were on the field together. (Messi came off at halftime.) But Cherundolo did make a critical defensive play that would help the Americans secure an important 0-0 draw.


Before he joined LAFC, Denis Bouanga played for St. Etienne in France’s top division (Ligue 1), a stint that coincided with Messi’s two-year run at Paris Saint-Germain. These were not glory days for St. Etienne; the club would be relegated the following season, opening the door for Bouanga to join LAFC. But despite St. Etienne’s form, Bouanga shone brightly when matched up with PSG, a perennial power in Ligue 1. 

On a snowy November afternoon in 2021, Bouanga scored in the 23rd minute to give the underdogs a 1-0 lead over the Parisians. He turned in his usual 90-minute shift that day, contributing a team-best three blocked shots, but it was not enough to stave off Messi, who assisted on all three goals in PSG’s 3-1 win.

Nearly identical events unfolded three months later, when Bouanga scored the breakthrough goal in the 16th minute, stealing the ball from a PSG defender and rifling it past goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to put St. Etienne up, 1-0. Then Messi contributed two assists (both finished by Kylian Mbappe) in an eventual 3-1 win. C’est la vie.


Another player affiliated with LAFC met Messi on the pitch in 2021, when defender Diego Palacios started for Ecuador in the Copa America quarterfinal against Argentina, with Messi posting two assists and a goal in the Argentines’ 3-0 victory.



In 2017 Barcelona did its usual steamroll routine on the way to the Champions League quarterfinal, where it met Italian giants Juventus. LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini played all 90 minutes in the first leg of the two-leg competition, even scoring on a header to provide Juventus with the final 3-0 margin of victory. More importantly, Chiellini helped negate the impact of Messi, who in 90 minutes took just 4 shots— one on target.

Four days later, Barcelona played a league match against Vela and Real Sociedad, a hard-fought 3-2 victory in which Messi scored twice. Unfortunately for Barça supporters, the game probably played a role in Barça’s somewhat fatigued performance four days later in the second leg against Juventus. Chiellini’s side secured a 0-0 draw in the return match, with Chiellini, fellow center-back Leonardo Bonucci, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon stifling the lethal front line of Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. Juve advanced to the UCL semifinal on aggregate – thanks in part, perhaps, to Chiellini’s future LAFC teammate.

Speaking of Vela, that summer he was introduced in Los Angeles as the first designated player in LAFC history.


April 25 of last year marked the last game Chiellini would ever play for his home country, Italy. The legendary defender made that announcement leading up to what would be a 3-0 defeat to Messi and Argentina in the 2022 Finalissima—an intercontinental match between the reigning champions of South America and Europe.

The match at London’s Wembley Stadium was Chiellini’s 117th international appearance, making him the fourth–most capped player in Italian history.

Six weeks later, LAFC announced it had signed Chiellini. And now, this Sunday, he and a few of his teammates – not to mention his coach – will reunite with Messi and pen the next installment in this tale, one that they hope includes Messi’s first defeat in an MLS uniform.

LAFC and Inter Miami will kick off at 7:00 p.m. PT on Sunday, Sept. 3. The game will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles, ESPNLA App, and 980 La Mera Mera (ESP).