When LAFC and Seattle Sounders FC kick off the Western Conference Semifinal on November 26, there will be more at stake than a place in the Conference Final.
The two clubs have each made it known through their on-field results that they are among Major League Soccer’s crown jewels. In the six years since LAFC joined the league, the Black & Gold and Seattle have battled back and forth for Western Conference supremacy and have forged one of the most competitive rivalries in the league, even if their clashes to this point have tested LAFC’s resilience.
The story begins in 2018 when the Sounders, who joined MLS in 2009, suffered a home loss to LAFC on March 4 in the Black & Gold’s first-ever match powered by a scintillating goal from Diego Rossi and a standout performance in goal by Tyler Miller. The following month the Sounders traveled South for LAFC’s inaugural home game and fell by the same 1-0 score, with LAFC legend Laurent Ciman delivering the game-winning goal on a blistering free kick in the final moments of the game to deliver a true Hollywood ending. But those two matches were merely a preface.
Things came to a head on the night of October 29, 2019. LAFC’s home stadium was filled, glowing at the city’s center with the belief that the Black & Gold’s magical, dominant, and record-breaking sophomore season was destined to end with an MLS Cup title.
LAFC, the Playoffs’ top seed, had reached that night’s Western Conference final by defeating the Galaxy 5-3. Another rival awaited.
Seattle had squeaked past FC Dallas in extra time in the playoffs’ first round, then defeated Real Salt Lake, 2-0, in the second. Seventeen minutes into their clash with LAFC, the Sounders conceded a goal on a 28-yard free kick by Black & Gold midfielder Eduard Atuesta (currently playing for Brazilian Série A club Palmeiras). Seattle responded with two goals over the next nine minutes, then added a third in the second half to turn the Black & Gold’s brief 1-0 advantage into a stunning 3-1 defeat.
It was just LAFC’s second home loss of 2019, and it didn’t just bring their dream season to a close – a season in which LAFC had set a league record for points, and Carlos Vela had won the Golden Boot and MVP awards – it brought it to a jarring stop.
That night, LAFC’s most dedicated supporters stood their ground inside their home stadium as Seattle was awarded the 2019 Western Conference trophy, singing and chanting in the packed North End as loudly as they had at kickoff two hours earlier. The following week the Sounders lifted the MLS Cup, defeating Toronto FC, 3-1.
A year later, inside echoing, COVID-emptied Lumen Field, LAFC fell to Seattle again, in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, by the same 3-1 score line. LAFC was missing four starters that night due to positive COVID-19 tests, including MLS Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi, as well as Brian Rodriguez, Diego Palacios, and Jose Cifuentes. LAFC Homegrown signee Christian Torres made MLS history when he became the youngest player to ever start a league Playoff game. (The Sounders would go on to fall to Columbus in the 2020 MLS Cup Final).
LAFC has played five postseason games since those painful, back-to-back playoff losses to Seattle, including the crowning moment of the Club’s history— its victory in last year’s MLS Cup final. During LAFC’s six years of existence, it has amassed the most wins, most points, and the top winning percentage among all Western Conference teams (minimum 190 games). Those statistics, and last year’s championship, are worthy accomplishments, as is LAFC’s 8W-5L-4T overall record against Seattle. But a bit of unfinished business remains with the Sounders, who rank just behind LAFC in those three categories since 2018 (wins, points, and winning percentage).
The 2023 season has brought adversity and success to both clubs.
Seattle endured a slew of injuries on its way to earning the second seed in the West. LAFC has grinded through an MLS-record 50 total games in all competitions (MLS, Concacaf Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, Leagues Cup, Campeones Cup, MLS Cup Playoffs), including two non-league finals, and stands as the third seed. Each team has had to rely heavily on its defending to reach this point.
Seattle’s organized, 11-man approach to goal protection conceded the fewest amount of regular season goals (32) in MLS this season. LAFC conceded just 39 goals in the regular season, tied for fifth in MLS.
The most convincing evidence of the two clubs’ superiority, though, is the “expected goals difference” stat (xGD), which compares the quantity and quality of scoring chances created against scoring chances allowed. LAFC and Seattle rank first and third in MLS, respectively, in xGD. That is, they create far more scoring chances than their defenses yield, and they do it as well as any club in the league.
To reach this Semifinal, Seattle survived a first-round, three-match brawl with FC Dallas, winning at home 2-0, losing in Dallas 3-1, then clinching in Seattle, 1-0. The critical moment in Game 3 was pure Sounders: Joao Paulo picked off a Dallas pass in the 36th minute and sent a first-time through ball into the path of teammate Albert Rusnak, who finished it for the game’s only goal. Veteran goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who started against LAFC in those two playoff battles in 2019-20 and who led MLS with 14 clean sheets in 2023, only had to make one save, a comfortable one in the 89th minute.
LAFC’s Game 2 win in Vancouver, which sealed their berth in this conference semifinal, played out much the same way. Golden Boot winner Dénis Bounaga scored on an early penalty kick, after which the Black & Gold defense smothered the Whitecaps’ attack.
“They’re going to be tough to beat,” Vancouver midfielder Ryan Gauld said of LAFC after the match. “With all they’ve got going forward [attacking], I think the most impressive thing is actually their defense, how solid they are. We saw that tonight, how tough it was [to score].”
And so the stage is set again. LAFC and Seattle will stride onto the turf inside Lumen Field on November 26—no strangers to one another, or to the high stakes that always seem to accompany their matches.
Maybe an outside voice can speak best to the drama that awaits. Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini, whose team played LAFC and Seattle a combined nine times this year, predicted that the team that survives this Conference Semifinal is “for sure going to win MLS Cup.”
LAFC will travel to 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).