Match Preview

Difficult Draw With San Jose Precedes Best In The West Clash 

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Mamadou Fall is 20. It isn’t an excuse for the LAFC defender’s imperfect 2023 MLS debut against San Jose on Saturday night. It’s merely a fact—an easily forgettable one given Fall’s advanced athleticism and the clamor around his return to LAFC’s lineup Saturday night.

Cristian Espinoza, on the other hand, is 28, with more football experience than Fall and a greater quantity of recent reps, having played 630 MLS minutes since Fall last appeared in a competitive game (on May 27 in Spain’s second division). 

This came to light in the 28th minute of Saturday night’s matchup at BMO Stadium, when Espinoza beat Fall on the dribble and whistled a shot just wide of the far post. A minute later Espinoza found himself in an identical position – in LAFC’s box and with only Fall to beat – before seizing the space the youngster gave him and sending a left-footed shot into the corner he had missed a minute earlier. 

For a team struggling to score, Espinoza’s goal brought cold consequences to LAFC, in this case, a 1-1 draw at home. “I think it was terrible defensively from me,” Fall said afterward, bearing the weight of the single point LAFC earned instead of the much-needed three.

The word moments gets thrown around a lot in football. Two adversaries; a single tick of the clock. Maybe two. In this case, the game’s pivotal moment pitted an MLS All-Star in his prime, seasoned over three seasons in Europe and Argentina, with 140 career MLS appearances under his belt (including 21 starts this year), against a developing talent.

LAFC head coach Cherundolo addressed the matter after the game like a regretful parent. “Throwing Fall in right away without a proper preseason and having to play 90 minutes is never easy.” 

But Saturday night brought a bright side as well. Given the magnitude of Espinoza’s goal, it’s easy to forget Fall’s quality over the game’s other 89 minutes. 

After invading San Jose’s half at the 81-minute mark, Fall rifled a through-ball to Carlos Vela that broke two lines and created a one-v-one shot from LAFC’s captain that required a sprawling save from Quakes keeper JT Marcinkowski. 

By that time, however, Fall was gassed, a factor that surely contributed to the aerial header he missed in the 89th minute, a scoring opportunity that the North End faithful had seen him finish regularly during his first stint with the Black & Gold. Afterward, Cherundolo said that he’d had little choice but to place the recently arrived Senegalese in his starting eleven.

“Normally you would prefer to start the same back four every week,” Cherundolo said. “That just hasn’t been the case.” 

In fact, LAFC has started the same backline just twice over its last 10 MLS games—and none consecutively. The club has gotten just three total starts over that span from its two most experienced MLS center-backs, Jesùs Murillo and Aaron Long (due to injuries and Long’s USMNT service). Fullback and chance-creator Sergi Palencia has not appeared in an MLS game since May (due to injury). 

“We’re fighting that a little bit at the moment,” Cherundolo added, smirking at the understatement.

If there’s an unheralded hero to this point in the season, it may well be LAFC’s training and performance staff, which has been massaging, stretching, and bandaging players – and ordering them to rest – during the club’s unprecedented stretch of 30-plus games through early July.

That team within the team must now prepare LAFC’s depleted roster for Western Conference leaders St. Louis City FC, for a match that will kick off at BMO Stadium just 70 hours after Saturday night’s final whistle. A game that, despite the hard lessons LAFC has learned of late, can vault the club to within two points of first place.

“We’re close,” Fall said. “We’re close to a winning way right now.”

His youthful optimism will be tested against a St. Louis side that has won three straight games – its third such streak this season. St. Louis is five points ahead of LAFC in the Western Conference table but has suffered seven losses in MLS play to LAFC’s six.

LAFC has played six matches against first-year expansion teams and has won all six, outscoring their opponents 14-1.  

LAFC and St. Louis will kick off at 7:30 p.m. PT on Wednesday, July 12 and can be seen live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

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