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Best In the West (Again)

LAFC lifts the Western Conference Trophy and sets its sights on its second straight MLS Cup championship

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It was just another corner kick—LAFC’s fourth corner in the first half of their Western Conference Semifinal matchup with Houston Dynamo FC. But it was also a moment of urgency.  

The Black & Gold had narrowly missed two chances in front of goal within the first twelve minutes, and now, in the 44th, it appeared the Dynamo had survived the first half and would go into the locker room tied 0-0—a familiar refrain for LAFC during a season that the Associated Press called “the longest, busiest, [and] most grueling in Major League Soccer history.” 

The defending MLS Cup champions had created more scoring chances than their opponents all season, but on occasion had allowed teams to hang around and pull off a draw or a victory. That’s what happened against this same Houston team back in June, a month in which LAFC played a leg-sapping seven games, including a 1-0 home loss to the Dynamo.

Three MLS veterans were about to make sure that didn’t happen Saturday night, not with a trip to the MLS Cup Final on the line. 

Thirty-four-year-old Club captain Carlos Vela floated a perfectly arced ball from the corner into the six-yard box, where 39-year-old defender Giorgio Chiellini muscled himself into position and headed it toward goal. Dynamo keeper Steve Clark made the save but did not secure it, which allowed 32-year-old Ryan Hollingshead to pop it in with his right boot.

LAFC would later add a second goal to secure a 2-0 victory and set up an MLS Cup Final date with the Columbus Crew on Saturday, December 9.

The phrase on the players’ lips after the game was, “One more.” And while lifting the league championship trophy next weekend remains the objective, it’s worth pausing in the wake of Saturday’s victory to appreciate what the club has accomplished since playing its first game in 2018. Five MLS playoff bids in six seasons; two Concacaf Champions Cup finals (2020, 2023); two MLS Supporters' Shields (2019, 2022); two Western Conference titles (2022, 2023); and one MLS Cup (2022)— with a chance for number two this weekend, thanks in part to an opportunistic defender who knows where to place himself on corner kicks.

“Steve Clark’s a phenomenal goalie,” Hollingshead said after the game. “He’s been in this league for a really long time. But he doesn’t like coming out on set pieces. He likes to stay on his line. And so I know … if we get something on target it’s going to be hard for him to hold it. There’s going to be a bobble. So I’m just taking my chances that something will pop out, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Dénis Delayed

Hollingshead’s game-winner, combined with another defensive clean sheet, eliminated the need for LA’s scoring machine, Dénis Bouanga, to find the net. The MLS Golden Boot winner’s impact on the game was immense, but Bouanga’s six-game goal-scoring streak came to a close, and his pursuit of Vela’s single-year MLS record for most goals across all competitions was put on hold until Saturday’s final. (Bouanga has 37 goals in 2023. Vela scored 38 in 2019.)

“We played our game,” Bouanga said. “We were really strong in defense. We know what to do … and we will do the same in Columbus.”

El Capitán

Vela also played an invaluable role in Saturday’s victory, despite the external chatter about his future. In addition to his assist on Hollingshead’s goal, it was Vela who penetrated Houston’s back line for those early chances. His impact “was not just with his offensive actions,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez pointed out, “but also defensively. He took care of both center backs and both defensive midfielders … He’s aware that we all look at him when things are tough, especially in big games … We all follow him.”

Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, following a Man of the Match performance in which he recorded his third straight clean sheet in these playoffs (and his sixth since rejoining the first team in August), echoed Sánchez’s sentiments. “Carlos, when you think about LAFC you think about him, since day one,” Crepeau said. “He’s the first leader … and we are all going with him. I remember a clearance in the first half against Seattle [in the conference semifinal], he clears it to the corner. What a hit. What a clearance. It’s those kind of details that just drives [us]. You don’t need words, you just need actions.”

LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said: “It’s my job not to think about what happens tomorrow … I’m shelving those feelings and emotions until after the Cup Final. Knowing Carlos, knowing Giorgio [Chiellini] … they will all do the same in order to raise another trophy and put another star on the jersey.”

Columbus Day

Saturday’s league final pits the third seed in the West against the third seed in the East. Columbus Crew pulled off a comeback win for the ages over FC Cincinnati on Saturday, thanks to goals from former LAFC forwards Diego Rossi (who scored the tying goal) and Christian Ramirez (winning goal). 

Early weather reports predict a high temperature of 59 and a low of 46 on Saturday in Columbus, with a 58 percent chance of rain. LAFC has not played in Ohio in 2023 but has played five road games in the upper half of the Central and Eastern time zones, drawing with Philadelphia in April (1-1 on three days rest), winning in Kansas City in June (2-1 on two days rest), drawing in Minnesota in July (1-1 on two days rest), drawing in St. Louis in September (0-0 on three days rest) and in Philadelphia three days later (0-0 on two days rest).

LAFC’s away record in MLS regular-season play this year was 4W-6L-7T. Columbus’ home record was 12W-1L-4T. To reach this point, both clubs won road matches in the conference semifinals against second seeds, with Columbus defeating Orlando and LAFC winning in Seattle.

Gratitude and Grit

Hollingshead took a moment to appreciate what his club has done in 2023 before returning to the task at hand. “There’s a moment where you just celebrate, and you look at the guys that are on the field with you and you take a moment and say, ‘Look what we’ve done.’ Any time you can get to a Cup Final it’s a huge deal, so you don’t want to take that lightly. We’ve got a day off [Sunday], we’ll enjoy it with our families, we’ll enjoy it with the guys, and then on Monday we get back to work and it’s all eyes focused on winning a cup.”

“Very proud of what we have been able to accomplish over the last two years,” Cherundolo added. “Very proud of the players who have been mentally through a lot this year— a lot of ups and downs on and off the pitch. And the effort they give in training, the focus they give when we ask them to … is special. It’s a special group. And I thank them for that every day. And tonight they were able to reward themselves, and we’ll look to do the same next week … It should be a fantastic final.”

LAFC will compete in the MLS Cup Final against the Columbus Crew at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, December 9. The game will kick off at 1:00 p.m. PT and will be shown live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, FOX, FOX Deportes, 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles, and 980 AM La Mera Mera.

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