LAFC and Seattle Sounders FC have competed against one another for 180 minutes this season – and together have recorded just one goal. Their shared scoring drought isn’t because the perennial Western powers are poor in the attack. They wouldn’t have made it to Sunday’s Western Conference semifinal if that were the case.
Since the opening whistle in their first match six-and-a-half years ago the Black & Gold and their rivals from Washington state have neither asked for mercy nor have given any.
Even in that inaugural game in March 2018, the first match in LAFC history, they went toe-to-toe between the penalty areas for 90-plus minutes, with a single moment of surreal quality providing the game’s only goal. Carlos Vela’s assist and Diego Rossi’s strike were both executed under the wrestling-match conditions that have come to define this series.
Neither team has won more than half of the 17 matches they’ve played against one another. LAFC has scored 25 total goals in those games. Seattle, 21. The final scores average out to LAFC 1.47, and SEA 1.24.
Which is why we’re grateful for the advent of MLS Season Pass, which allows us to fire up Apple TV and dissect every minute of the two games LAFC and Seattle played in 2023— to ponder all that happened during those meetings, during the three months between them, and the four months since—to try and gain insight into the conflict that lies ahead.
The 2023 season has been quite an odyssey for both clubs.
LAFC played an MLS-record 48 games across all competitions between its regular-season opener and its Decision Day finale in October. An eye-opening two-thirds of those games were played on either two or three days’ rest— also unprecedented. Viewed in that light, LAFC’s record of 23W-16L-11T in all competitions in 2023 appears even more impressive.
The first time LAFC and Seattle faced off, back in March, the Black & Gold had just finished off Costa Rican club L.D. Alajuelense in the second leg of their Concacaf Champions Cup round-of-16 series. LAFC’s reward? Two days off and a flight to Seattle.
As a reminder of how long ago March 18 was—how demanding this season has been—Major League Baseball’s Opening Day was still two weeks away. The top stories in the sports pages were all the upsets in the first round of March Madness. The Super Bowl had been played five weeks earlier— and here we are in Week 12 of the next NFL season, with the MLS Cup playoffs just gathering steam.
The Sounders started their usual four-headed monster up front that day at Lumen Field, with attackers Jordan Morris, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Cristian Roldan playing behind the tip of their attacking spear, Raul Ruidíaz. Albert Rusnák and Joao Paulo comprised Seattle’s starting midfield, as per normal. The back line was also predictable: Nouhou, Yeimar, Ragen, and [Alex] Roldan. Stefan Frei started in goal for the 268th time in a Seattle jersey.
This lineup would change quite a bit over the season, mainly due to injuries, but is back at full power for this Sunday’s clash, when Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer will send a similar if not identical Starting XI onto the same field, although with more at stake.
LAFC’s lineup on March 18, by contrast, marked the only time it started these 11 players in 2023: Bouanga, Vela, Opoku, Acosta, Sánchez, Tillman, Palacios, Long, Murillo, Palencia, and McCarthy.
Speaking of seeing the future, an LAFC free kick in the 42nd minute gave us an early peek at the partnership that would develop between Bouanga and Carlos Vela in 2023. (Eight of Bouanga’s 20 Golden-Boot-winning goals were assisted by LAFC’s captain.) A bit of eye contact between them just before the free kick sent Bouanga on a run and sent Vela’s ball right into his path, although Bouanga’s low shot was smothered by Frei (and was followed by a prolonged pushing and shoving session at the goal mouth— because it’s LAFC-Seattle).
After a scoreless first half (because it’s LAFC-Seattle) the Black & Gold made three substitutions in the second. Seattle made four. Scoring chances remained few and far between, the vibe remained chippy. Bouanga’s best moment of the day came in the 89th minute and would be repeated in some form throughout 2023. Drifting down the left wing, his feet flicking the ball, hesitating, feinting, then jetting past Roldan to fire a low cross that Opoku connected with on the doorstep but sent over the crossbar. Two minutes later Frei made a point-blank save following another Bouanga entry pass. It has to be mentioned here, however cruel it may seem, that if LAFC finishes either of those chances, they are probably playing at home this weekend instead of in Seattle.
The final whistle sounded after a fierce seven minutes of stoppage time. Expected goals for the match stood at LAFC 1.2, and SEA 1.3. Irresistible force meets immovable object. Defender Aaron Long – the only LAFC player with a connection to the Sounders, having played for Sounders 2 in 2015 – put it best during the postgame presser: “It was a tough game at the end of a long week.”
During the three months before their next meeting, Seattle would go 6W-6D-3T in MLS play, with starters Ruidíaz, Ragen, Roldán, Roldán, Morris, and Lodeiro missing several games due to injury.
LAFC went 6W-3L-4T over that span, but they played eight matches in other competitions as well, most of them on two or three days’ rest. The most critical of those fixtures, of course, were a pair of one-goal losses to León in the final of the Concacaf Champions League, the prestigious, 60-year-old competition that LAFC had prioritized above all others.
When LAFC hosted Seattle on June 21, the club sat in a two-way tie with St. Louis City SC atop the Western Conference standings and had just become the fastest club in MLS history to reach 300 total points.
Seattle, meanwhile, had won just two of their previous 10 matches (2W-5L-3T) and had slipped to third place in the West.
Because of his team’s workload, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo started two center backs (Giorgio Chiellini and Denil Maldonado) who had not appeared against Seattle back in March. Opoku made what would be his final start for the Black & Gold that day, while another attacker continued his ascent.
Twenty-one-year-old Polish international Mateusz Bogusz had impressed to that point in the season with his work rate and creativity going forward, but his first MLS goal in the run of play had yet to arrive.
It came within seconds of the opening kick, in a transition moment when Bogusz’s shot from the top of the penalty area glanced off a defender’s hip and nestled into the low corner past a diving Frei. The second-fastest goal in LAFC history marked the only time these two clubs scored against one another in the 2023 regular season.
Each team managed just two shots on target all day, with McCarthy making two last-ditch saves against Ruidíaz. LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes (who would be transferred to Rangers F.C. of the Scottish Premier League two weeks later) headed a Bogusz free kick into the visitors’ net in the 76th minute, but after VAR review the goal was disallowed due to a handball violation.
When the final whistle sounded, LAFC had won the expected goals battle, 1.1 to 0.5, and more importantly had won sole possession of first place in the West. Head coach Steve Cherundolo called the victory “a small step forward to where we want to be,” adding: “We’ve been thrown through the gauntlet. It has been really difficult physically and mentally to get everyone ready in a three- to four-day rhythm.”
Those words sum up LAFC’s 2023 season. Despite an unparalleled quantity of games, and not much rest between them, the defending MLS Cup champions are still “where we want to be”—specifically, in a winner-takes-all playoff game against a worthy opponent—perhaps the most worthy opponent of all.
Black and Gold Notes:
- LAFC has lost just one of the seven games it has played against since Seattle since the Sounders’ victory in the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs. (LAFC’s only loss was a 2-0 defeat at Lumen Field on May 21, 2021.)
- Lodeiro and Ruidíaz have each scored five goals in the series, tops among all players. Lodeiro’s six yellow cards also rank first.
- Two of John McCarthy’s eight clean sheets in MLS play in ‘23 came against Seattle. He faced just six shots on target against the Sounders this year.
Los Angeles Football Club will face the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field in the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinal on Sunday, November 26. Kickoff is set for 6:30 P.M. PT. The game will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles, the ESPN LA app, and 980 AM La Mera Mera (Spanish).