Carlos Vela and Dénis Bouanga stood over the ball in the 64th minute with LAFC holding a tenuous 3-2 lead. The Vancouver Whitecaps had already equalized twice, but this free kick 25 yards from goal presented not just a pivot point in Saturday night’s opening-round, best-of-three MLS Cup playoff series, but an opportunity for the two most prolific single-year goal scorers in MLS history to collaborate.
Vela, the first and greatest player in the Black & Gold’s history, waited for the whistle, the cue for Bouanga, the 2023 MVP finalist and Golden Boot winner, to sprint behind him so Vela could sweep the ball into Bouanga’s path. The French-born winger then struck a ball that rolled low and fast past a dozen ankles, under Vancouver goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka’s glove, and into the net. Vela leaped into Bouanga’s arms, having secured the two-goal cushion LAFC needed to lock down an eventual 5-2 victory and 1-0 series lead.
LAFC’s defense of its first MLS Cup title officially began with the regular-season opener back in March, but after an arduous 34-game MLS schedule, plus three other competitions and fourteen more games, the final quest to repeat got underway on Saturday night when the MLS Cup Playoffs came to BMO Stadium. The Club responded with the first of the five victories it will need to become the first back-to-back MLS champion since 2012.
Saturday marked the first-ever playoff meeting between LAFC and Vancouver, and their fifth meeting of 2023. The Whitecaps were riding high coming in, having lost just three of their previous 17 matches (W7, D7), including a stirring home draw with LAFC seven days earlier. The Vela-Bouanga free-kick duet would not be the prettiest goal of the night (that honor goes to Bouanga’s impersonation of a Bugatti roadster in the 29th minute, when he received a headed flick from Diego Palacios near midfield, then zig-zagged past a ‘Caps defender at full speed and rifled the ball into the top corner) but it was the most impactful.
Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini said after the game that LAFC’s fourth goal “killed the game.” Whitecaps striker Brian White, whose first-half goal had briefly tied the score, called the Vela-Bouanga collab “deflating.”
It was one of four LAFC goals that came off set pieces, including three from corner kicks. LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said afterward that assistant coach Marc dos Santos “has been on top of set pieces all season long … In playoff time, tournaments, finals, and in all competitions around the world, set pieces unlock games and unlock results and [they] did tonight.”
Vancouver scored on a set piece of their own in the 40th minute, when Sam Adekugbe headed home a free kick to tie the game 2-2. LAFC had not given up two first-half goals in its previous 21 games, across all competitions, a stretch that dated back to June. It had only happened twice all year.
“We came in at halftime and without the coaches needing to say anything the team was discussing it amongst ourselves, what we needed to do and how to be better,” said LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead, who had scored the game’s opening goal in the 18th minute. “'You got 45 minutes to go win a game at home.’ You could feel the energy in the locker room at halftime that we were gonna come [out] and turn this thing around.”
Not only did LAFC hold Vancouver scoreless in the second half, but the Black & Gold did not allow
a shot of any kind – on target or off target. Hollinghead broke the tie in the 53rd minute, knocking in a free kick that was kept in the Vancouver penalty area by Bouanga. Eleven minutes later came the joint effort between Vela and Bouanga that made it 4-2 LAFC. It was Bouanga’s 35th goal of 2023 across all competitions, tying him with Josef Martinez for second place all-time among MLS players. Only Vela has recorded more goals in a calendar year (38 in 2019).
Center back Jesús David Murillo knocked in a header off a corner kick in the 80th minute to close out the scoring.
The 5-2 win marked LAFC’s third five-goal performance of the season (Aug. 2 vs. FC Juárez; Oct. 4 vs. Minnesota United). Although LAFC has scored at least four goals in each of its last seven wins, its defense remains the Club’s most reliable component.
LAFC has conceded just seven goals in its last eight matches (0.875 goals per match). On Sunday, Nov. 5 it will try and sustain its grip on the Whitecaps’ attack when these two teams step onto the artificial turf inside BC Place for the Caps' first home playoff match since 2017.
Cherundolo remains grounded when it comes to any discussion of repeating as champions. It’s not something he and the team talk about. “The only comfort you have by winning it last year is that you know we can do it,” he said Saturday night. “For us, it’s a new team, with different impulses … it’s a completely new journey.
“What I can share with the group – what a little over half the team can share with the ones who weren’t there last year – [is that] it’s worth it. It’s worth it putting in the effort and holding onto what is good after a very long and tedious season, for another hopefully four games.”
Hollingshead was more succinct: “Our goal 100 percent is to go up there [to Vancouver] and end the series.”
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.