The magic that followed John McCarthy’s late entry into the MLS Cup Final 11 months ago did not produce the same result in Wednesday night’s Campeones Cup trophy match against Tigres. This time around LAFC’s opponent was the more clinical team from the penalty mark, and Tigres turned a 0-0 draw into a cup celebration by beating LAFC’s McCarthy on all four of their game-deciding penalties.
Prior to that, an emotional match was played, one filled with tension, physical confrontations, and critical refereeing decisions— but not many chances on goal. It was a true final— uncomfortable for both participants. LAFC left without the cup, but with an opportunity for continued growth on a journey not yet six years old.
Iron Sharpens Iron
“These matches make us better,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said following perhaps the most gut-wrenching loss in his team’s congested, 44-game schedule to this point. “I’d love to do more of these.”
Despite the disappointment of not raising the Campeones Cup in front of LAFC’s deserving fans, the home team can lean on the knowledge that it is a more experienced, battle-hardened group than it was before kickoff. There will be moments in the weeks (and years) ahead when hard-won grit will come in handy.
The Measuring Stick
There is always the temptation to compare LAFC to the strongest clubs in Liga MX, and despite three losses to Mexican teams in 2023, LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead chose to look at Wednesday night’s bright side; “We put ourselves in a good position to win the match. There are a lot of positives to be taken from it.”
Each team registered just three official shots on goal, but three of the four most dangerous chances on the evening came from LAFC, only one of which counted as a shot on target. First there was Cristian Olivera’s 42nd-minute zig zag through two defenders, which resulted in his errant shot over the upper corner. Eighteen minutes later came another direct attack from the 21-year-old Uruguayan that required a last-ditch, left-handed save from Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzmán. And in the 67th minute, Tigres defender Guido Pizzaro deflected Denis Bouanga’s goal-bound strike into the side netting, eliciting a facial expression from Guzmán that said,
Whew.And we’re not even counting the goal Bouanga scored in the 78th minute (against a team that was fully engaged and defending fiercely during the build-up) that was eventually disallowed by the referee for the alleged violation of the ball moving before the free kick was taken. It was a strange sequence that cost LAFC an invaluable 1-0 advantage, and quite possibly the trophy.
Opposing teams continue to struggle with the shiftiness and pace of LAFC’s newest addition. Playing a freestyle winger role that allowed him to switch sides with Bouanga when their defending and ball-winning duties required it, Olivera popped up all over the field and more often than not inflicted damage when he and the ball came together.
Olivera is only 21; he met his current teammates less than two months ago. The growth he’s experiencing in real-time is happening quickly, is aided by his fearlessness, and is fun to watch for neutrals and those aligned with his new team. Opponents aren’t enjoying it as much.
The same holds true for Mateusz Bogusz, who over the course of LAFC’s jam-packed 2023 has proven himself a capable replacement for attacking midfielder Jose Cifuentes (who left LAFC for Glasgow Rangers this summer).
Bogusz and Olivera are contributing to the mayhem that LAFC’s pressing, transition-oriented game model calls for. The payoff lies ahead.
Black & Gold Wall
The most promising observation from Wednesday’s Campeones Cup is that LAFC’s defense continues to play lights-out, and in a way that transcends the statistics. There were times Wednesday night when Tigres and its All-Star team of goal creators looked rattled, bothered, annoyed—and without ideas. The numbers tell a similar story. Over LAFC’s last three games, all clean sheets:
St. Louis CITY SC got 12 shots off, four on goal.
Philadelphia Union took four shots, zero on target.
Tigres attempted 13 shots, three on target, and only two were threatening (a first-half screamer from Luis Quiñones from 28 yards that would have missed the upper corner; and Andre-Pierre Gignac’s late poke from close range following a penalty-area scramble).
These three clubs represent the second- and fourth-place teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings, and the third-place team and defending champs of Liga MX. In this moment when LAFC’s attack is looking for goals, its defense has found a groove. And with MLS Cup playoffs less than a month away, it’s worth remembering what they say about defense and championships.
As with the June loss to León, LAFC has no time to lick its wounds. Four days after its Tigres disappointment, the Black & Gold will host Real Salt Lake at home (on Sunday, October 1) and continue its quest to finish among the top four finishers in the Western Conference. Those four clubs will have home-field advantage in the playoffs’ first round, a best-of-three series in a home-away-home format.
A win on Sunday, coupled with a St. Louis loss at home versus Kansas City, would place LAFC within five points of first place in the West. The top finisher in the West will play every playoff game at home following the opening round, except perhaps the MLS Cup final.
LAFC plays Real Salt Lake on Sunday, October 1, at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles. The game will kick off at 5 p.m. PT and will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, on FS1, and on radio on 710 AM ESPN Los Angeles and 980 AM La Mera Mera (ESP).