Los Angeles Football Club's 2019 and 2022 seasons have a lot in common. Both iterations of the club notched 21 wins, both had brilliant home records, both won the Supporters’ Shield and both will open their respective Playoff runs in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Galaxy. LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo and the members of the 2022 roster would love to replicate the 5-3 scoreline the 2019 team earned in that match, but are hoping that this season's postseason has a much happier ending than the 2019 tale that ended abruptly in the Western Conference Final.
"Every season is different, every group is different,” Cherundolo said. “I'm definitely not one to draw statistics from past results or seasons in the past. I really don't see the point in it. I understand why it's done, but I personally, as a coach, get nothing out of it, and neither do the players."
The good news for Cherundolo and the LAFC players is that the past, whether in reference to the 2019 team or the 2022 Supporters’ Shield, means absolutely nothing when LAFC take the field on Thursday at Banc of California Stadium. The coach and players spoke to that at Tuesday's media day, expressing similar sentiments of the importance of living in the moment and putting all the focus on the task at hand: winning MLS Cup.
"Every game in the playoffs is the most important because if you don't win that game, you don't have another one. It doesn't matter who you play against,” LAFC captain and forward Carlos Vela said. “Every single game in the playoffs is the most important for our club, our players. We are preparing for that. It's not about playing against the Galaxy. We're playing a playoff game. If we want to win the championship, we have to win three games. We will focus on these 90 minutes and how we can finish the 90 minutes. If we do that, we will have a chance to win."
A Different Galaxy
The Los Angeles Galaxy spent its entire regular season campaign on the fringes of the playoff picture, and the club's success includes two home victories against LAFC, one in the league and one in U.S. Open Cup play. The team evolved significantly over the course of the summer and ended the season in strong form, vaulting into the fourth seed in the West. The Galaxy only lost one of its final ten regular season matches, and eliminated Nashville SC 1-0 to open postseason play. The catalysts of this run are newly imported midfielders Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman. Containing them and limiting their ability to affect the game will be paramount for LAFC.
"The [Galaxy] have changed some pieces, but it's still the same game. It will still be a close game, it will still be a hard-fought game,” Cherundolo said. “I wouldn't say they've changed a whole lot. They changed a little bit in their progression, in positional play, and obviously a few names, but I don't think it changes the general idea. At this stage in the season, nobody is trying to reinvent themselves. I think they have a little more confidence than they had in the middle of the season. I think you'll see a tight game, a lot like we've seen before."
For LAFC, neutralizing Puig and Brugman will be a team effort, but Ilie Sanchez and Kellyn Acosta figure to be their primary combatants. Sanchez has been a rock in the number 6 position all season, and Acosta's versatility has aided and strengthened LAFC in 2022, but now, with the season on the line, the two midfielders will have to be at their best and most mobile in order to thwart the Galaxy attack.
Acosta says they are up for the challenge. "The Galaxy are a revamped team. They've added a few additions that have changed the entire dynamic of their team,” Acosta said. “We have to be up for the test. It's going to be a big test, but I see it in training. Everyone is focused, everyone is dialed in. We're ready for Thursday. The two new additions have really changed the game for them. The midfield wins games. It's important to win that battle and if we do I think we can have a positive result."
A Captain's Mindset
Nobody remembers LAFC's 2019 more fondly than Carlos Vela. LAFC's captain won the season's Most Valuable Player award on the strength of 34 goals and 15 assists, the best individual season in MLS history. However, it is a bittersweet memory because the club failed in its ultimate goal of winning the MLS Cup. Fast forward three years, and Vela, coming off another season of double-digit goals and assists, sounds like a man on a mission.
"When you are young, maybe you have more feelings of [excitement] because in big games everybody gets nervous, excited, maybe a bit too much and you play in a bad way," Vela said. " For me right now, I'm at a good age. I've played in many important games in my career. I get excited in a good way. I'm ready for this playoff game. We will bring everything we have for the victory."
The lessons learned in the 2019 playoffs and the run to the 2020 Concacaf Champions League Final have imparted a focus upon Vela previously unseen. He has always been dynamic, always been a leader, but Vela sounds like a player hellbent on redemption, one that understands the moment and exactly what needs to be done. Entering the 2022 postseason, Vela is healthy and surrounded by a superior roster than that 2019 squad. If the game is half mental, Vela is halfway to victory before kicking a ball. The captain is primed for a big MLS playoff run.
"We are different this year. Every single coach makes the team different. This time, I think we have more experience in the team,” Vela said. “We have more depth in our squad. I think everyone is a little more fresh because we rotate a lot. Everyone feels like a part of this group, important to this group. I think we did a lot of good things but of course, we know in this league, all the things we did in the past, in the season, doesn't matter right now. We have to focus ourselves for three more games, and we have to work for that.”