The individual media sessions that LAFC and Seattle Sounders FC hosted this week ahead of their Western Conference Semifinal clash on Sunday had a common theme: mutual respect. The r-word was mentioned several times by members of both clubs on Wednesday, along with another one.
“Rivalry?” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said with a smile when asked about the Clubs' competitive history. “Sure. I don’t like Ante Razov.” (Razov, LAFC’s assistant coach, was on Schmetzer’s Seattle staff in 2016, and they remain good friends.) Schmetzer then turned serious: “It feels like a rivalry in a sense that it’s two of the biggest clubs in the league. We have high ambitions, and high goals, and so do they. So do they.”
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said of the Sounders: “They know how to play big games. [Seattle is] the only organization I’m aware of that’s had that many big games over the last ten years since Brian’s been in charge. They understand big games. I think the biggest reason is they’re just a good team. They have a lot of good players.”
“It’s a rivalry against a good team,” said LAFC captain Carlos Vela. “It’s special because you always want to beat the best teams, and Seattle is one of those teams.”
According to Sounders’ midfielder Albert Rusnák, this LAFC side looks different than the one Seattle faced in March and June. “They changed a few starting players since we last played them,” Rusnák said, alluding to LAFC winger Cristian Olivera, who joined the Black & Gold in August. “They added players who became starters right away … I think it’s more about how they played their first series against Vancouver than when we played them.”
The player the Sounders mentioned more than any other was one who helped push LAFC to the MLS Cup title last year, Dénis Bouanga. “He has scored, what, 36 goals this year in all comps?” said Schmetzer. “It’s pretty impressive.” Both sides expect Bouanga’s matchup against Sounders right-back Alex Roldan to be a critical piece of Sunday’s semifinal. “We’ll certainly help Alex as much as we can,” Schmetzer said. “He’s gotta win those individual duels … but they have other weapons as well. We can’t just forget about everyone else and focus on one player.”
Sounders forward Jordan Morris said of Bouanga: “He’s so direct … his first action when he gets the ball is, ‘I’m gonna take it towards goal, beat someone, and try to score’ … I was with him at the All-Star Game and he did the Skills Challenge and it was just— a different level, you know? He really is an incredible finisher.”
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei concurred: “Obviously he has bagged a ton of goals this year … and they’re not all PKs, they were not easy goals. I think he has created a lot of goals. He has earned the respect of a lot of players who have had to face him this year, me included.”
Seattle is one of just four Western Conference teams Bouanga has not scored against during his season-and-a-half with LAFC. (Colorado, St. Louis, and Houston are the others.) Right now he’s riding his hottest streak of the season, with nine goals in LAFC’s last five games. Only eight players in MLS history have matched that pace.
Bouanga didn’t slow down over the international break, either. He scored for Gabon’s national team in both of its World Cup qualifying victories in Africa, the first goal coming on a nearly impossible angle, the second one a bit simpler
When the MLS MVP finalist returned to LAFC’s training facility on Wednesday, he was asked whether he’d prefer to win that award or a second MLS title. “I would rather win the MLS Cup with my team,” Bouanga replied in French. “I already have an individual award, the Golden Boot. Of course, I would love to have MLS MVP, but I prefer to win our second MLS Cup because it represents the work of an entire team.”
It’s Not LA
As of this writing, Seattle’s weather forecast calls for lows in the 30s and highs in the 40s on Sunday, with an eight percent chance of rain. “Hopefully it won’t be so cold in Seattle on Sunday,” Giorgio Chiellini said with his trademark smirk. “I don’t know. I saw the weather expectation. It’s not L.A.”
Seattle’s winter weather helps explain why the Sounders are currently tied with the New England Revolution for the longest home unbeaten streak in MLS playoff history (19). The artificial surface at Lumen Field is another reason. Like most players and coaches across MLS, Cherundolo isn’t a fan of fake grass. “It’s something we accept and will try to master on Sunday,” Cherundolo said, “but if you’re asking me, in a hypothetical world, if I’d want to play on turf, absolutely not.”
Bouanga wasn’t the only LAFC player who thrived during the nearly three-week break in the MLS Cup playoffs when several players across the league competed for their home countries.
LAFC defender Denil Maldonado played every minute of Honduras’ 2-0 win over Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League, then played more than 110 minutes in a wild second leg at Estadio Azteca on November 20 (which Mexico won on penalties).
LAFC midfielder Filip Krastev played all 90 minutes for Bulgaria in their hard-fought draw with Hungary last week, a game that was played in an empty stadium due to Bulgarian fan protests and clashes with police outside the stadium before kickoff. Krastev added a critical assist in Bulgaria’s 2-2 draw with Serbia on November 19.
Cristian Olivera’s Uruguay team defeated Lionel Messi and Argentina, 2-0, in World Cup qualifying. Olivera did not appear in that match, but he started and played 87 minutes in Uruguay’s 3-0 win over Bolivia. LAFC winger Stipe Biuk played 66 minutes for Croatia’s U-21 team in its 1-0 win over Belarus. LAFC goalkeeper Max Crépeau was available but did not play in Canada’s two matches against Jamaica in the Nations League quarterfinal.
Three Sounders players joined their national teams during the window, compared with LAFC’s six. Midfielder Josh Atencio was with the United States U-23 team; defender Stuart Hawkins was with the USA U-17s; and starting left-back Nouhou Tolo competed for Cameroon but played only eight minutes of his country’s two World Cup qualifying matches in Africa.
Last Man Standing
Carlos Vela is the only player on LAFC’s current roster who played against Seattle in the first game in Black & Gold history, back in March 2018. Four current Sounders players appeared in that match – Frei, Nouhou, Cristian Roldan, and Nicolás Lodeiro. Alex Roldan was on the bench.
Over the 17 games LAFC and Seattle have played against one another since 2018, only two players have scored more goals than Vela’s four. (Lodeiro and Rául Ruidíaz have scored five each.)
When asked to name his favorite moment in the rivalry, Vela replied: “The best moment was the first game in the history of the club, when we went to Seattle and we won the game. That was a really good moment for us because it was the start of something special. And we always have that in mind.
“Of course, I also have bad memories of when they took us out two times in playoffs [in 2019 and 2020]. But it’s not all about good or bad moments. [It’s about] enjoying the moment, [doing] your best when you have the chance. And Sunday we have a really good chance to enjoy and go to Seattle to win another game.”