You got to love it when a plan comes together like it did on Saturday night at BMO Stadium.
Staring down a stretch of three matches in eight days, knowing you’ll have a fourth match just three days later, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo had to find a solution. It’s simply not physically possible to play that many games at a high level in such a short window. And all of this comes ahead of possibly the most important week and a half in LAFC history.
So, what does Cherundolo do?
Against San Jose – mind you, the only MLS team to defeat LAFC in 2023 – he rotates in the fresh legs of Erik Dueñas, Mateusz Bogusz, and Stipe Biuk. Three minutes into the match, he looks like a genius. Biuk opens the scoring and LAFC spends the first quarter of the match harassing the Earthquakes up and down the pitch, pushing for a second.
Now, nothing ever goes exactly to plan in real life. Adversity found LAFC in the 52nd minute. Miguel Trauco fooled John McCarthy with a cross hit so poorly it decided to be a shot and nestle itself into the side net.
With San Jose back in the match, Cherundolo didn’t waste much time executing the next phase of the plan. He sent Carlos Vela, Dénis Bouanga, and Timothy Tillman on 10 minutes after the San Jose goal. I’d love to know what went through the minds of the Earthquakes players, having gone down a goal on the road after three minutes, worked their way to a possible point, and then on the touchline are three of MLS’s best about to step onto the pitch.
To San Jose’s credit, they were battered but nearly held out until the very end. If it wasn’t for VAR, they might have gotten away with it. But ultimately, LAFC’s pressure was too much. Tanner Beason was caught almost literally red-handed, Vela converted from the penalty spot, and a seat top the Western Conference was the reward.
Operation “Rest & Three Points” was a success.
Here are the Takeaways from LAFC’s 2-1 win over San Jose:
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Decisiveness Is Key
It’s hard not to like Stipe Biuk. The 2022 UEFA Golden Boy finalist is soft-spoken and humble. He goes about his work without much fuss. And you can tell he takes it very seriously. Maybe too seriously.
In recent weeks, it’s felt like his lack of scoring has weighed on him. When he has the ball at his feet, you can tell he wants to do it all with one dribble, one pass, or one shot. That’s a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old to deal with.
Biuk scored in the third minute. Obviously, that will help with his confidence and the weight he’s been feeling. But it was the way that he scored that should be his path forward.
Receiving the ball in the box, Biuk hesitated just a moment to freeze his marker before making a quick cut to gain an angle and window to goal and then shot. It was a bang-bang play that didn’t give him time to overthink things and the resulting quick release beat JT Marcinkowski. It was decisive.
Biuk already has quick reflexes and a strong shot, but when he tries to overcomplicate things, he can get into trouble.
Here are two more examples from the match.
In the 35th minute, Biuk has the right instincts to run behind the high San Jose backline after a turnover and José Cifuentes sends him through with a great early ball. Instead of taking the advantage and using his momentum to go right at goal, he tries to cut the ball back. An Earthquakes defender recovers and easily dispossesses Biuk. Not decisive enough.
Then in the 66th minute, Biuk receives the ball in a similar area to his goal. On the left and inside the box, Biuk feints one way and takes his next touch directly to the goal, megging Paul Marie in the process. His left-footed shot forces a nice save.
Three plays. Two in which Biuk is decisive and quick to action. One play where he was not. If Biuk can trust his ability to execute in quick, decisive ways he’ll continue to contribute throughout the season.
Don’t Forget About Chiqui
It’s a shame that defenders in this league are almost always rated by goals and assists. And by that, I don’t mean limiting goals and assists of the opposition.
Last season, people around the league raved about Kai Wagner. “He’s the best left back in the league” and “Look at all those assists.” Never a word about his defending.
This is not a slight on Wagner. He’s definitely a Top 3 left back in this league. But don’t you dare forget about Chiqui Palacios!
What a luxury Palacios must be for Steve Cherundolo. You can put him against an opponent’s best player, like San Jose’s Cristian Espinoza, and you know he’s not going to give an inch 1v1 against even the most talented player. On top of that, he’s going to help with ball progression in build-up and make good decisions when springing his team on the counter. Where you won’t see him a lot is on the scoresheet. And that’s fine.
Palacios has played the most minutes of any LAFC player this season. I think that says something about his indispensability to Cherundolo’s side. Once again, he was rock solid on Saturday night. Now only if I could just see him in the MLS Team of the Week more often.
Love For Cifu
I want to talk about what I loved about Jose Cifuentes in this match. He was back to doing the things that ultimately resulted in his breakout season in 2022.
Against San Jose, Cifu was efficient and effective. It started in the third minute. He received a pass at the top of the box with time and space. Instead of trying to work the ball onto his right foot before winding up for a piledriver of a shot, Cifu used the right number of touches, keeping with the team’s tempo, and found Stipe Biuk in a more dangerous position inside the box. Biuk would go on to score, earning Cifu an assist. But it wasn’t the only time in the match that Cifu’s one and two-touch actions kept LAFC’s attacks humming along.
Last season, he was the guy that would start transition attacks with a quick pass and then arrive at the right time to finish off the play. He would act within the principles of LAFC’s attack. It wasn’t always flashy, but it played to his strengths and was effective for both him and the team.
The more effective he can be for his team throughout the season, the better it will be for all involved.