LAFC with a historic rift en route to the CONCACAF Champions League final


LAFC newcomer Denis Bouanga immediately championed the reigning MLS Cup champions. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

LOS ANGELES — Once again, LAFC is about to do something special.

It’s quickly become a habit since the team played its first game in 2018. An expansion club in a city like Los Angeles always had ambitious expectations for the jump. Having one of the most accomplished coaches in American football history, Bob Bradley, at the helm of the project was great. After that announcement with Carlos Vela as the team’s first signing, it was monumental.

And everything that has followed since has been more good than bad for the Black and Gold.

Major League Soccer’s record-breaking 2019 season is, of course, marked by Vela’s absurd 34 goals en route to MVP and Golden Boot – an addition to LAFC, who won the Supporters’ Shield, the club’s maiden trophy. This glorious campaign fell short of the ultimate goal of winning the MLS Cup.

Just three years later, LAFC would do just that, adding another Supporters’ Shield as well.

Most impressively, the organization under first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo, who took Bradley’s place last season, managed the double. He will be the first to admit that much of his success has been due in large part to the strong foundation Bradley and company have built over the years. Cherundolo didn’t come in to shake things up, he just wanted to build and continue to push the boundaries of how great LAFC could be.

Turns out he’s a damn good builder.

Tuesday night at BMO Stadium was another example as LAFC defeated Philadelphia Union 3-0 in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals to advance to the final for the second time in club history.

The Black and Gold under Cherundolo particularly excelled in this tournament, beating their opponents 14-3 in three rounds. Usually, MLS teams that go on long CCL runs struggle in league play due to busy schedules and roster-building challenges. That’s the norm that people are used to. However, LAFC does things in its own way.

It was a perfect balancing act as LAFC currently remain the only undefeated team in MLS with a 5-0-3 record and are also widespread there with 16 goals scored and a league-low of six conceded.

What the team achieves is not just a random success story or happy moment. This is historical.

“I have a lot of respect for what this club is about here in LA,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin after the defeat. “[LAFC is] probably the best team, one could argue, in the history of our league”

Kwadwo Opoku (right) celebrates with midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defenseman Aaron Long after scoring against the Philadelphia Union at BMO Stadium on Tuesday. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

With all due respect to the Toronto FC 2017 squad, LAFC will be just that if they are able to beat León in the final. Liga MX teams have traditionally dominated CCL, winning 16 of the last 17 titles. But last year, Seattle Sounders stepped up and defeated Pumas UNAM to become the first MLS team to lift that trophy.

After the Sounders won the 2022 Finals, head coach Brian Schmetzer said something that resonated. “There are a lot of talented coaches in MLS, that would happen eventually. Yes, I feel fortunate that I’m with a really strong, forward-thinking, proactive organization and that I’ve had the chance to do it. But I think there will be more success after our success.”

Cherundolo was one of the specific coaches he mentioned by name when praising his peers. At this point, Cherundolo was only a few months into his new gig at LAFC. That should tell you everything you need to know. And now, a year later, it’s no surprise that Cherundolo and LAFC will have a chance to fulfill Schmetzer’s foreboding.

But again, this is no strange territory for the Black and Gold. In 2020 they reached the CCL Finals and watched it slip away in the closing minutes as the Bradley-led squad lost 2-1 to Tigres UANL. This tournament was unusual due to a long hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn affected the format and resulted in single-elimination matches being played at a neutral venue rather than the traditional home-away series.

The experience and performance of reaching that level still counts, especially considering LAFC had to face all Liga MX competitions that year. This time is different as her final opponent will be her first Liga MX challenge.

The contrast between those years is endless as this version of LAFC is no longer as dependent on Vela as it was in the past. The new era that Cherundolo and his coaching staff have orchestrated revolves around a certain mindset.

“It’s about LAFC, it’s not about individuals, a coach or a player. It’s about this organization,” Cherundolo said. “That message has been delivered and acted upon by these players loud and clear week in and week out.”

LAFC players celebrate after Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Union at BMO Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

It speaks volumes that the guys with big impact are new acquisitions like Timothy Tillman, who Cherundolo was familiar with before he came to LA and helped recruit. And Denis Bouanga, who leads the tournament with six goals and is currently the MLS MVP leader with seven goals in league play.

But there are also veterans like Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead who have stepped in to solidify the group. The success on the pitch is evident and directly reflects how great LAFC has been at attracting players and conveniently engaging them into the system while shopping.

LAFC has gone from being a new MLS team to becoming a role model for the league and now the entire continent. Strong aspirations translated directly into Black and Gold prosperity.

“We are thrilled to be in the final of this competition. It’s a competition that has been highlighted on our calendar,” said Cherundolo. “So far we have achieved the goals we set ourselves.

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