Advancing in Seattle

LAFC Returns Home for the Western Conference Final

Los Angeles Football Club advanced past Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday night at Lumen Field, 1-0, to earn a spot in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference Final.

One of the biggest matches in LAFC’s six-year history, Sunday’s conference semifinal was played before a crowd of 33,649, including a large contingent of Black & Gold supporters who had traveled north from southern California and occupied a high, windswept corner of the Sounders’ home stadium. They watched their club finally defeat its postseason nemesis, the Sounders having beaten LAFC in their two previous playoff meetings (in 2019 and 2020). They also witnessed the end of the Sounders’ 19-game home unbeaten streak in the playoffs, tied for the longest such streak in MLS history. 

The Sounders’ last home playoff loss, in fact, came ten years ago this month, in November 2013—five years before LAFC would play its first-ever game.

That inaugural game, incidentally, was also a 1-0 LAFC win in Seattle. And just like that regular-season victory back in March 2018, the Black & Gold’s conference semifinal win on Sunday inspired the club’s traveling supporters to stay where they were, in Lumen Field’s upper reaches, long after the final whistle, singing, swaying, and celebrating.

Achieved on the road, against a higher seed, in 40-degree weather, and on an unfamiliar and uncomfortable artificial surface, Sunday’s win placed LAFC just two victories away from repeating as MLS Cup champions, something no team has accomplished since 2012.

Both teams knew that the opening minutes would be important, as Seattle sought to ride its home fans’ energy and LAFC sought to endure it. LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau made two difficult saves early on, the second one coming on a fourth-minute breakaway by Sounders striker Jordan Morris that a sprawling Crépeau somehow parried away with his left hand.

“When he made that save, in my head I was like, ‘It’s over, we just won the game,’” LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead said afterward.

LAFC forward Dénis Bouanga said that Crépeau’s denial of Morris “put us on alert.”

Bouanga, this season’s MLS Golden Boot winner, was not a factor in the early going, as Seattle dominated possession. Bouanga’s first touch of the game didn’t come until more than three minutes into the match— a heavy one that helped set up Morris’ breakaway. Bouanga’s tenth touch was a shot on goal that sailed just over the crossbar following a layoff from fellow forward Carlos Vela in the seventh minute.

Bouanga would not see the ball again for fifteen minutes after that, as Seattle executed its plan to remove the most dangerous man on the field from the match. 

In the 30th minute, though, Hollingshead played an errant Seattle pass away from LAFC’s penalty area and onto the feet of midfielder Timothy Tillman, who redirected it toward the left flank, where winger Cristian Olivera alertly sprinted past it, allowing it to find Bouanga as he made a run behind Seattle’s high back line. Bouanga received the pass with his 18th touch of the game, then came four more touches, dribbling at full speed, with defenders Alex Roldan and Yeimar desperately giving chase. Bouanga’s 23rd touch was a hard right-footed shot that zipped past Seattle goalie Stefan Frei and into the upper corner of the net. Bouanga celebrated his 37th goal of 2023, the second-most ever by an MLS player in a calendar year, not with his customary front flip, but with a primal yell, both fists clenched.

LAFC’s work was far from done, however. The Black & Gold spent most of the rest of the match protecting its goal from a Sounders side frantically searching for an equalizer. Crépeau, who had returned to the starting lineup late in the regular season after breaking his leg in extra time of last year’s MLS Cup final, made several leaping saves to keep Seattle scoreless.

“He wanted to come back and help us,” Bouanga said of Crepeau’s grueling ten-month rehabilitation. “We had low moments [this season] but Max was here today. He has a really strong mentality … If he hadn’t made that save [against Morris in the fourth minute] we would have been chasing the game.”

Crépeau credited his teammates, including 39-year-old center-back Giorgio Chiellini, who had started a game on artificial turf for just the second time in his 748-game career, and who snuffed out numerous Seattle attacks before they could reach Crépeau. 

In the end, though, all the obstacles, difficult circumstances, and previous struggles ceased to matter. “We came in with a mentality of getting it done tonight,” Crépeau said. “It’s really satisfying.”

LAFC will host the Houston Dynamo at BMO Stadium on Saturday, December 2, in the Western Conference Final. The match is scheduled to kick off at 6:30 p.m. PT and will be broadcast live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, and on radio on 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles and 980 La MeraMera.

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