The MLS Is Back Tournament is over for LAFC. Just three days after trouncing the defending MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders in the Round of 16, the Black & Gold’s time in the Orlando bubble came to a stunning, sudden end in the quarterfinals, as they were eliminated by Orlando City 5-4 in penalty kicks.
“We obviously weren’t ourselves tonight,” LAFC forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “We just didn’t do enough all around the field.”
It was the second loss in a penalty kick shootout in Club history, made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that LAFC was just minutes away from moving into the next round, leading 1-0 off a 60th minute Bradley Wright-Phillips goal. But Orlando evened the match in the 90th minute with a striking header off a corner kick from João Moutinho, the first-ever draft pick in LAFC history, who was traded to Orlando in 2018 for Mohamed El-Munir.
Pancho Ginella buried the first penalty kick for LAFC, and Mauricio Pereyra made his for Orlando. LAFC defender Jordan Harvey stepped up and slammed the second penalty kick off the cross bar. It proved to be the only miss of the night, as Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez and Latif Blessing all buried their shots, but Vermeer could not come up with another big save and it was Orlando that moved on to the semifinals.
“It was hard,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. “I thought we could still get through and have a little bit of time to recover for the next match, but unfortunately that late goal and then we lose in penalties.”
LAFC did not record a shot attempt in the first half Friday night vs. Orlando. It was the first time in Club history that the Black & Gold did not record a shot attempt in a half, and it was indicative of the struggles LAFC felt all game as they attempted to build up momentum and capture energy on a quick turnaround from Monday’s victory over Seattle.
“I think you could see from the start that physically, we weren't at our best tonight,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. “It's a lot of games in a short amount of time. We spoke at halftime to see if we could raise the level a little bit. We did. But it certainly wasn't our sharpest football night, either.”
Wright-Phillips had a goal called back for being offside in the first half and tried to inject some energy in the club with his goal in the 60th minute, but it was not enough to provide the win.
“We weren’t alert enough,” Wright-Phillips said. “Our reactions weren’t great. But, we had still done enough to get a goal, and I think we’ve just got to see it through out there.”
Pressure, energy, and quick movements are key to the LAFC style of play, and the Club expended a lot of emotion and in getting past the rival Sounders. Bradley knew it was going to be difficult for the Black & Gold to summon that same intensity in the heat vs. the Lions.
“A night like tonight, I’m really so focused on our team just trying to see if we can raise our level,” Bradley said. “See if we can get to the kind of football that we are normally able to play.”
Wright-Phillips could also sense that it was not going to be a perfect night for the Black & Gold.
“It wasn’t just one man,” Wright-Phillips said. “Every player wasn’t as sharp as they can be, and it showed definitely in the first half. That's the reason we don't get the result we want. I think if we're sharp, we win that game.”
It appeared they would be able to pick up the pace in the second half and do just enough to squeeze into the semifinals before Moutinho’s late goal.
“At the end, we just don’t defend the corner well,” Bradley said. “We allow João to get in there towards the back post. We left a space and didn’t attack the ball.”
GK IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer made a huge diving save in the 77th minute vs. Seattle to help LAFC advance to the quarterfinals, and he responded once again to numerous tests throughout the quarterfinal match vs. Orlando, as he was peppered with a total of 18 shots.
Vermeer’s biggest save of his LAFC career came in the 58th minute, when he dove to his right and stonewalled a penalty kick from Nani. Diego Palacios had fouled Ruan in the box setting up the penalty.
It was the first penalty kick that Vermeer had faced since Dec. 19, 2019 when Robin Maulun of SC Cambuur scored on him in the Dutch Cup. It was his first PK save since Sept. 19, 2019 when he stopped a James Tavernier shot in the Europa League vs. Rangers.
The save appeared to change the game, as Bradley Wright-Phillips scored another goal for LAFC just two minutes and 35 seconds after the stop to give LAFC a 1-0 lead.
“Kenneth makes the save on Nani and then we score,” Bradley said. “We have a couple of advantages where if we are a little sharper, we can get the second goal.”
Despite several good chances for Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez and Jordan Harvey, LAFC could not get another goal, and Vermeer was not able to stop another penalty kick in the shootout.
It was the second time LAFC had ever been in a penalty kick shootout in Club history. The Black & Gold suffered a heartbreaking loss in the 2018 U.S. Open Cup Semifinals when the Houston Dynamo pulled out a PK win.
CHIQUI ON THE SIDE
Heading in to the quarterfinal matchup with Orlando, all eyes were on the right side of the field to see how LAFC defender Diego Palacios was going to be able to deal with the Lions difficult attacking combination of Chris Mueller and offensive-minded defender Ruan. It was a difficult night for Palacios, as Mueller created some nice opportunities before leaving due to an apparent injury, and Palacios was called for a penalty after getting caught on a late slide tackle in the box on Ruan.
The experience in the Orlando bubble was definitely unique. Bradley spoke numerous times about establishing a routine and using every opportunity for the players and the Club to get better and to focus on utilizing each training session and game as a chance to enjoy and play their football.
“I believe our guys have handled this tournament well,” Bradley said. We stepped on the field every game to try to take the initiative in the game and push things.”
In the end, it wasn’t enough to advance to the semifinals, but Bradley was proud of the way LAFC performed overall, and displayed a unique, attacking mentality.
“The time here, our players have done extremely well,” Bradley said. “I feel good about the way we went on the field and tried to play our football every match. We'll take the disappointment and we'll try to look at everything and see what comes next and be ready.”