While Coming To A Disappointing End, The Black & Gold’s 2021 Season Featured Grit, Drama And A Continued Community Connection

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As evening fell on Decision Day 2021, an uncomfortable reality set in among Los Angeles Football Club’s players and supporters: the team simply did not have enough to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. It’s not an easy thing to admit, especially for a club so accustomed to success in a short period of time. But it was a truth that head coach Bob Bradley faced head-on following LAFC’s 5-2 defeat to Colorado, which ended its season just shy of the playoffs. “The standards that we set for ourselves this year, we didn’t meet those standards,” Bradley said, calling that end result “hugely disappointing.”

And yet there were LAFC supporters still gathered inside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, cheering and singing for their team, even as Bradley spoke to reporters after the game. Similar scenes were playing out at viewing parties across southern California. Fans were celebrating, rejoicing in a club that had persevered through a difficult season, a team whose starting eleven against the Rapids contained only three players (Latif Blessing, Jesús David Murillo, and Diego Palacios) who were on the field when LAFC kicked off its season against Austin FC on April 17.

Of the 11 who stepped on the pitch in Los Angeles seven months ago, one is now playing in Turkey (Diego Rossi), two had been sidelined by injury (Eduard Atuesta, Eddie Segura), and two others had been moved to different MLS teams, including one (Mark Anthony Kaye) who was wearing a burgundy shirt on Sunday as he helped oust his former teammates from playoff contention.

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The expectations at LAFC are too high to admit such a thing, but there was victory in the Black & Gold and their supporters even making it to the brink of the postseason, defying obstacles that Bradley did not mention in his postgame comments, hurdles that first surfaced in that opening day match against Austin, when a mere 4,900 fans were in attendance at Banc of California Stadium due to COVID restrictions.  Back then, the country was emerging from the winter COVID surge, and a strange new phrase, “delta variant,” was being whispered for the first time.

The team looked different that first day. There was a new logo on the players’ chests, a big, block-lettered FLEX that foreshadowed the season ahead, a campaign in which each player would need to remain malleable, willing to shape-shift and go with the flow.

No one could have foreseen it when Austin forward Danny Hoesen put his foot into the ball to begin LAFC’s fourth season in MLS, but the Black & Gold were about to enter the dragon. Players would play unfamiliar positions in 2021. Circumstances would demand that they “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” a practice espoused by ancient Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius. They might need to look down at their chests from time to time to remind themselves not to break, but to bend. Anything brittle wouldn’t survive what lay ahead.

The challenges began just 22 minutes into that first match, when Carlos Vela, generally considered the most dangerous attacker in MLS, limped off the field with a quadriceps injury. He would start just 15 of LAFC’s remaining 33 matches, and would play less than half of the 2,726 minutes he’d played in his 2019 MVP season. The forward who came on to replace Vela, Mahala Opoku, would go down in May with a season-ending knee injury. After LAFC won that opener against Austin, they didn’t win again for more than a month.

And that was just the spring.

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By the time its do-or-die match with Colorado rolled around on Sunday night, LAFC’s starting eleven included six players who hadn’t even been on hand at Banc of California Stadium for the season opener, including a teenage Senegalese defender (born the same year that an adolescent Vela began attracting pro scouts), and a Colombian striker whose goal-scoring had fueled the Black & Gold’s unlikely run toward the postseason. Befitting LAFC’s identity as a multinational melting pot, none of the players who started against the Rapids on Decision Day were born in the United States.

Vela, the captain who had grinded through months of rehab sessions and meticulously managed practices, remarked after playing 60 minutes in Colorado that “in the end, it’s not only about this game, it’s about the season. It’s hard when you depend on one game to save your season.” Hard, indeed. Still, LAFC was riding a six-game unbeaten streak, a strong finish to a season whose ups and downs read like an EKG printout.

The month of May had included a crushing 2-1 defeat to the Galaxy (decided on a defensive giveaway in the 79th minute), a 2-nil loss in Seattle, and a corner kick by a shorthanded NYCFC side that was poked into LAFC’s net in the 90th minute, turning a draw into a defeat. June brought more of the same, including the concession of an 87th-minute game-winner in Kansas City.

There were moments of glory, too, like Vela single-handedly seizing a 2-1 win by booting a 79th-minute laser, at an impossible angle, past Real Salt Lake goalie David Ochoa. (Play-by-play man Max Bretos simply screamed when that happened, then rasped above the din: “A goal from the heavens!”) And there was Segura, one of the league’s best defenders, diving feet-first into his own net to clear a shot in the rematch against RSL to preserve a 1-nil victory. But these spikes on the EKG were merely signposts – teases as to what might have been had the Fates not been so cruel. Three weeks after Segura’s sliding save, he had season-ending knee surgery following a non-contact injury suffered in Portland. His absence would prove nearly as glaring as Vela’s.

That Portland game, on July 21, still haunted Bradley more than three months later, when he shook his head following the season-ending loss in Colorado and lamented “Mora’s header,” the 93rd-minute dagger from Timbers striker Felipe Mora that turned a road draw against a playoff-bound rival into a 2-1 defeat. Two draws followed (including a 95th-minute, Hail Mary equalizer at the Banc by Minnesota), then four straight losses, then a home draw versus Galaxy.

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“Such an improbable year,” Bradley told reporters after the Colorado loss, his arms folded throughout his postgame comments. His club, he said, had never been able to “get the momentum of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 games where we just kept going and getting results and results and results. I give the guys credit that in this last period – when we knew we were up against it – even when we lost certain guys, it was a good, strong mentality from the group.”

That mentality had been boosted considerably by the arrival of Cristian “Chicho” Arango, a 26-year-old striker who was signed from Colombia’s top-division in August, and went on a goal-scoring spree the likes of which MLS has rarely seen.

In 17 appearances, the Medellin native scored 14 goals, good for fifth-place in MLS’ final Audi Golden Boot standings, despite his midseason arrival. Each score was followed by Arango’s subtle wink-and-peace-sign celebration (inspired by his favorite manga character, Oliver Atom). His new teammates at LAFC began winking and throwing deuces themselves when the slick-haired Colombian scored, adding levity to a season that at times felt freighted with frustration.

Alas, Arango’s open chance inside the 6-yard box on Decision Day glanced off the post in the 26th minute, allowing the Rapids to hold their 1-nil advantage. The anguish on his face in the immediate aftermath of that miss was testament to his dedication to his new club, evidence of the burden of having a pro soccer club placed unexpectedly on one’s shoulders. For three months, Arango had carried that load with humility and charisma. But when Colorado’s second goal arrived in the 33rd minute, he and his teammates faced a steep climb against one of MLS’ stingiest defenses (33 goals allowed in 34 games).

“Listen, we’re gonna keep pushing this game ‘til the end,” Bradley told his team in the dressing room at halftime. That would mean exposing its back line, and centerback Murillo (who had played more minutes than any other player this season) by increasing pressure in the attacking half. The teenage defender from Senegal, Mamadou Fall, who had provided scoring skill in the air and tenacity in the back since filling in for Segura over the summer, was dispossessed in the corner, which led to goal number three for the Rapids.

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It was fitting, in a way, that the Black & Gold’s season was ending against a team playing in top form, a club that was fully healthy and now destined to win the Western Conference, a side riding a 15-game unbeaten streak at home. LAFC had worn a similar identity just two years prior. They were dented now, but undaunted. And here is where the spirit of this club differentiates it from most. LAFC kept playing as if it still had a chance. As if it expected to equalize at some point, then push in the game-winner, then somehow will Vancouver to lose and Real Salt Lake to at least tie and start preparing for their first-round playoff opponent. Maybe it was LAFC’s traveling supporters, whose singing could be heard both on the field and over the FS1 telecast, but LAFC still believed it had a chance. They played like they believed.

Vela had been called on to enter the game earlier than expected and was now roaming the Rapids’ half of the pitch on willing but tiring legs, looking for the angles and spaces that only his eyes can find. His mere presence contributed to the goals from Arango and Rodriguez that brought LAFC to within 4-2, at the 71-minute mark. “But we were unable to get the next goal and put pressure on them,” Bradley said afterward. “That makes me think a little bit of the season. Because of the inconsistent part where – at times we would feel like we were just about there, and then we make some big mistakes, not finish some chances, go back a little bit. And then gather ourselves and keep going.”

Bradley paused.

“I certainly speak directly to our fans,” he continued, “and say that we let you down. You’ve always been there for us. We had a good group of away fans tonight, and of course we thank them. But of course the standards that we set for ourselves this year, we didn’t meet those standards.”

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Other club standards had been upheld. Like its distinctive community of supporters. And its penchant for discovering and nurturing rising talents like midfielder Jose Cifuentes, the team’s best player for most of the season, and Raheem Edwards, a gifted disruptor and distributor who appears morally opposed to the idea of opponents possessing the ball.

Also intact: Bradley’s non-negotiable command to “push the game,” every game, no matter what. Watch the tape. Look at Vela, English Premier League and La Liga veteran, his team trailing the Rapids 5-2 in the 82nd minute, racing across the grass to retrieve the ball and set up a last-ditch corner kick, urging his team onward when lesser leaders would have conceded defeat. It was as if he were asking his team – asking anyone watching – “How tough are you? How resilient can you be?” Asking these questions in a time when each of us, in some way, seems to be asking them of ourselves.

The end result of LAFC’s 2021 season is not acceptable. Vela said as much after the final game: “I don’t feel happy about this season. It was a disappointing season. There’s nothing more to say.”

“But I feel proud about my teammates,” he went on, “because in a tough moment they worked really hard, they fought every single game, in not the best situations.”

The phrase “a season unlike any other” is usually reserved for campaigns that end with championships. But it holds true here, too. How else to describe a year in which a team without its leading attacker and top defender for more than half the season, finishes first in the league in expected goals and third in shots on target, allows fewer shots than all but three clubs (Seattle, KC, and NYCFC)— and fails to make the playoffs?

How else to characterize a season that was bookended by two emotional goodbyes? LAFC’s opener against Austin, you’ll recall, was dedicated to the memory of Mo Fascia, one of the founders of The 3252. On the night of its home finale, on Dia de los Muertos, fans built shrines outside the Banc where hundreds of candlelit, crying faces gathered en masse to remember those they’d lost.

During the seven months in between those matches, LAFC had given its supporters something to salve life’s melancholies, to distract them from the worrying events unfolding beyond the stadium walls. A two-hour counterweight that could re-balance, however briefly, all that the pandemic had taken. A reminder that there is great power in tenacity, in community, in hope.

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Michael McKnight is a Los Angeles-based author, screenwriter, producer, and Sports Illustrated feature writer.