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Northward Bound

As LAFC prepares to depart for British Columbia for Game 2, its supporters can reflect on the impressive performances of newcomers and veterans, and a regular season unlike any other

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What a difference a year – and a deep Concacaf Champions League run – makes.

This time last year, Los Angeles Football Club was preparing to play its 40th and final game of 2022—the MLS Cup title match against the Philadelphia Union.

The first week of November 2023 finds LAFC prepping for match number 50, an MLS record for matches played in a calendar year across all competitions. The Club hopes that three more matches will follow a potential win in Sunday’s Game 2 in Vancouver.

Behind The Score Line

LAFC has outscored Vancouver by a combined 6-3 over the last two games (a 1-1 draw in the Oct. 21 regular-season finale, and 5-2 on Saturday). Across all competitions, the Black & Gold have outscored the ‘Caps 14-6 in 2023.

Set pieces were the story in Game 1 of this series when the two teams combined to score five goals out of stationary-ball restarts. In their previous four meetings, each team tallied just one such goal apiece. The first came on April 5, in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal, when Carlos Vela scored on a first-half penalty kick. In an MLS match on June 24, Vancouver defender Ranko Veselinovic headed home a corner kick to open the scoring in an eventual 3-2 Whitecaps win, the club’s first-ever victory at BMO Stadium.

LAFC has been especially strong in the second half of its five meetings with Vancouver in 2023, outscoring the ‘Caps 8-2 after halftime, while holding a 6-4 scoring advantage in the first half.

Penalty Possibilities

MLS Cup playoff rules state that no extra time is played in Round One. Games tied after regulation go directly to a penalty shootout to determine a winner. So what do the numbers say about LAFC and Vancouver in such situations?

Whitecaps penalty specialist Ryan Gauld took two kicks from the mark during regulation time of the teams’ 1-1 draw on October 21. Gauld – who was 6 for 6 on PKs in MLS play coming into that game – watched Crépeau make a diving save on his first attempt. Gauld’s second penalty caromed off the crossbar. Those two moments will certainly be remembered if Sunday’s Game 2 needs to be decided by kicks from the mark.

“What a person, what a player,” Crépeau said of Gauld after the game. “I love him.”

Gauld is the only Vancouver player to attempt a regulation-time penalty this season. Where LAFC is concerned, Dénis Bouanga took three penalties in MLS play in 2023, converting all three. Carlos Vela was three of five on PKs in MLS. Mateusz Bogusz converted his only try.

A deeper look at the teams’ penalty performances reveals that in a July 21 Leagues Cup match against Club León, Vancouver found itself tied 2-2 after regulation before falling to the Liga MX club in a marathon PK shootout, 16-15. Gauld converted the Caps' first kick of the shootout and their twelfth. All eleven Vancouver players converted their tries that evening, except Andrés Cubas, Mathías Laborda, and Portuguese defender Luís Martins, who missed both of his attempts.

Two weeks later, also in Leagues Cup, Vancouver drew with another Mexican club, Tigres UANL, 1-1. Tigres won the ensuing penalty shootout 5-3, with Pedro Vite, Brian White, and Sergio Córdova (now playing with Turkish club Alanyaspor) converting for the ‘Caps. Gauld did not kick because he had been subbed off in the 80th minute. Veselinovic’s attempt was saved by veteran Tigres keeper Nahuel Guzmán.

Guzmán also played a role in LAFC’s penalty shootout with Tigres on September 27, which determined the Campeones Cup winner after the two sides drew 0-0 in regulation. Bouanga and Ilie Sánchez converted their penalties; Guzmán denied Ryan Hollingshead and Timothy Tillman.

On November 5, 2022, exactly one year before this Sunday’s Game 2, LAFC and Philadelphia Union squared off in an epic penalty session that followed 120 minutes of play and a 3-3 stalemate. LAFC winger Cristian Tello, who now plays in Saudi Arabia’s top division, had his penalty stopped by Union keeper Andre Blake. Bouanga, Hollingshead, and Sánchez made their attempts.

Shut ‘em Down

Without much fanfare, LAFC finished the regular season ranked first in MLS in xG Difference – the number of expected goals minus the number of expected goals conceded. A detailed explanation of xG can be found here, but in essence, xG Difference counts the number of quality scoring chances a club creates and the number it allows. LAFC created a lot of scoring chances and allowed very few.

The stat is closely aligned with wins and losses. The top four clubs in xG Difference in 2023 were LAFC (8th in the final Supporters Shield standings), Columbus (3rd in the Shield race), Seattle (7th), and Cincinnati (1st). LAFC’s 17.6 xG Difference this year was nearly a full goal better than Columbus’ 16.4

Despite the three Golden Boots LAFC players have earned since 2019, this is a club whose commitment to defending has played an unheralded role in its success. Take a look at LAFC’s first six seasons in MLS; the first four non-COVID seasons saw the club create more than 60 expected goal chances:

xG Difference (LAFC 2018-2023)
Year
xG
xGA
xGA Diff
MLS Rank
2023
55.6
38
(+17.6)
1
2022
62.2
34.6
(+27.6)
1
2021
65.7
44.7
(+21)
2
2020
43.3
31.8
(+11.5)
3
2019
80
39.3
(+40.7)
1
2018
64
52.6
(+11.4)
6

2nd place in ’22 was PHI (+21.3), 3rd was NYCFC (+20.4)

1st place in ’21 was MLS Cup champion NYCFC (+21.9)

1st place in the abbreviated 2020 season: MLS Cup runners-up SEA (+17.2); 2nd was PHI (+11.4)

2nd place in 2019 was CHI (+13.3), more than 30 goals behind LAFC

The point: over an unprecedented 50-game schedule, attackers’ legs can grow weary, and promising shots can sail wide. This year’s team needed its defense to step up, and it has.

LAFC ranks first in MLS in tackles won (392), and second in tackles + interceptions (975). The Black & Gold finished tied for first (with Nashville) in fewest defensive errors – mistakes that lead to an opponent’s shot.

Yes, a sprinting LAFC counterattack can be lovely to watch. But the team’s success throughout a challenging 2023 has been due largely to the guarding of its castle.

Battle Hardened

The evidence suggests that the adversity that LAFC has faced this season – a pair of one-goal defeats to León in the CCL final, the 3-2 loss to Monterrey in the final moments of the Leagues Cup quarterfinal and the heartbreaking defeat to Tigres in penalties in Campeones Cup, has prepared the team for a challenging tournament like the MLS Cup Playoffs.

LAFC is not the top seed in this competition, but if teams were seeded based on being battle-tested and united by its trials, it would be hard to place another team higher.

“I don’t know because I don’t see other teams,” Vela said last week. “But I know our team is ready, our team is really focused, really excited to win this title because we have had chances and we have missed chances to win titles [in 2023]. So when you have the playoffs, as our last chance, you have to bring everything, you have to be hungry to show that we want to repeat the championship.

“The team is in good shape, in a good attitude, in a good form, so we will work hard, we will keep fighting until the end and I hope that we can win the trophy again.”

Dénis Bouanga agreed with Vela, “Losing finals to Tigres and León made us stronger going into these playoffs,” Bouanga said. “It prepared us to advance to the [MLS Cup] final and win that final.”

You Best Not Miss

Vela was credited with an assist on Bouanga’s second-half goal in Game 1 of this series, giving the captain a club-record seven postseason assists. Vela has registered an assist in seven of LAFC’s eight all-time playoff games. These facts underscore the quietly effective regular season Vela turned in in 2023.

The Cancún native played in all 34 MLS games for the first time in his career and wound up tied for 7th in MLS in assists (12), reaching that mark in fewer minutes than anyone in the top 15. Vela notched 21 total goal contributions (9g, 12a) – one of just ten MLS players with more than 20 in the regular season.

“People are always focused on how many goals you score,” Vela said when presented with these numbers. “That’s how they say you have a good or a bad season. I do a lot of things for the team—not talking about goals … I’m happy with my season. Of course, I know I can do better. I know how good a player I am when I am healthy and when I am in my best shape … I still think I am one of the best players in this league so I will work hard in these playoffs to show that.”

Parting Thoughts

If LAFC’s first-round series with Vancouver goes to three games, the winner will have a two-week break before the Western Conference Semifinal.  During that break, some LAFC players are expected to compete for their home countries in international play, including Crépeau, who will join the Canadian National Team when it faces Jamaica in a two-leg quarterfinal (Nov. 17 and 21) in Concacaf Nations League.

The winner of the LAFC-Vancouver series will play the winner of the best-of-three matchup between Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas. Seattle currently holds a 1-0 advantage, with Game 2 scheduled for Saturday, November 4, in Dallas. Kickoff is at 6:00 p.m. PT.

Game 2 of LAFC’s first-round MLS Cup playoff series against the Vancouver Whitecaps will be played on Sunday, November 5 at 4:30 PT at BC Place in Vancouver. The game will be televised on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, FS1, and Fox Deportes.

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