Los Angeles Football Club’s fiftieth game of 2023 – the most ever for an MLS team in a single calendar year – was a momentous one for reasons other than the victory that pushed the club onto the Western Conference semifinal. The game not only decided the club’s best-of-three, opening-round series with the Vancouver Whitecaps, but it also fell on the one-year anniversary of the Black & Gold’s thrilling victory in the 2022 MLS Cup final.
The record crowd of 30,204 in Vancouver on Sunday night was not interested in celebrating with its guests. After a contentious and hard-fought 90 minutes, the defending champions emerged with a 1-0 result and advanced to face the winner of the Seattle-Dallas series, with a spot in the Western Conference final on the line. (The date and time of that single-elimination semifinal will be announced after the Seattle-Dallas series is decided. The teams have won one game each, with the deciding Game 3 scheduled for Friday, November 10.)
Shuffling the deck
Sunday night marked the sixth meeting between LAFC and the Whitecaps this calendar year. LAFC held a 3W-1L-1T advantage over Vancouver in their previous five clashes, but on Sunday entered a stadium in which the ‘Caps had lost just three times in 17 regular-season matches.
To weather the storm inside BC Place, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo made three changes to the lineup that had earned a 5-2 victory in Los Angeles in Game 1. His alterations achieved the desired effect, he said afterward.
“We thought Vancouver would be very direct,” Cherundolo said of his choice to start Aaron Long at center back (alongside Game 1 starter Jesús Murillo). Cherundolo also wanted to give Game 1 starter Giorgio Chiellini a break and spread minutes across more players “leading into the most critical part of the season.”
Selecting midfielder Kellyn Acosta for the starting XI, Cherundolo explained, was intended “to give us more defensive thinking as opposed to Mati [Bogusz].” Of his choice to insert Mario González at center-forward, Cherundolo said: “Mario did his part … he earned a penalty and worked his tail off. We were happy with his performance.”
One of the club’s constants over the last month-and-a-half has been the play of Maxime Crépeau in goal. Game 2 marked Crépeau’s tenth straight start across all competitions since his return from the leg injury that occurred exactly one year earlier in the MLS Cup final. The 29-year-old keeper has conceded just nine goals in those ten games.
Sunday night also marked Crépeau’s second match in Vancouver (where played from 2019 to 2021) in fifteen days. As with the Oct. 21 meeting at BC Place, the home crowd booed their former keeper each time he played the ball; Crépeau responded by turning in arguably his strongest performance since his return.
“If the fans here knew Max, they wouldn’t have reacted that way to him,” Cherundolo remarked after the game. “He loves that and he feeds off that and it makes him actually stronger and more focused and better.”
Crépeau was not called upon during the first half in which Vancouver failed to register a shot on goal. The hosts put five shots on target over the game’s final 45 minutes, however. Crépeau stopped them all. His five saves were the most he has collected in a single match since he returned to the pitch on September 16 against the Galaxy.
His final save came on Vancouver’s last kick when midfielder Ryan Gauld sent a well-struck volley to Crépeau’s right that Crépeau snatched out of the air at full extension. He then punctuated the final whistle with a two-handed spike into the turf, then rose to embrace teammates past and present.
“Vancouver holds a place in my heart,” Crépeau said afterward, noting that he played for the ‘Caps before, during, and after the trials of COVID, and adding that his daughter was born during a Whitecaps’ road trip to Salt Lake City and was raised in Vancouver for the first few months of her life. “We built great relationships here over the years.”
Regarding the state of his body and his team, Crépeau said: “I feel good and I’m hungry for more.”
Forward Dénis Bouanga’s goal from the penalty spot in the first half gave the MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist nine goals over his last five matches – the hottest five-game scoring stretch of Bouanga’s scorching 2023 campaign. Only eight other players in MLS history have scored nine times over a five-game span.
In his six matches against Vancouver in 2023, Bouanga scored seven goals. The Whitecaps, as a team, scored six.
“I think the whole team wants to continue in this state of form, winning game after game, and we hope to go all the way to the final and keep this title at home,” Bouanga said.
He and Crépeau are among a handful of LAFC players who will depart Los Angeles to play for their home countries during the approximately two-week break before the MLS conference semis. Bouanga’s national team, Gabon, will face Kenya on Monday, November 13, in a World Cup qualifier, and Burundi one week later.
“My state of mind is always the same,” Bouanga said of his imminent travels. “I'm going to try and go to Gabon to win these two World Cup qualifiers and come back with the same desire and determination to win this semi-final.”