Why the 2022 LAFC run is drawing comparisons to 2019 — and why they’re wrong
Comparisons in sport are inevitable. Sometimes they are even necessary to really paint a picture. And sometimes they seem a bit forced to cling to a past that is no longer reality.
LAFC is somewhere in the middle of all of that right now.
It makes sense why right now this team set to host the Western Conference Finals is being talked about alongside the 2019 roster. The similarities are hard to miss: won the Supporters’ Shield; earned a first-round bye in the MLS Cup playoffs; hosted and defeated rival LA Galaxy in a wild first playoff game. That’s where the comparisons should end.
This LAFC is not the one of the past. It is indeed a new era, trying to learn from past mistakes but keeping all the talk of 2019 where it belongs – part of the story. Only three players remain from this record-breaking roster: Carlos Vela, Eddie Segura and Latif Blessing. Let the captain tell you himself.
“No, I think we’re really different,” Vela said. “Every single coach makes the team different. I think we have more experience in the group this time, more depth in our squad. I think everyone is a bit fresher because we rotate a lot. Everyone feels part of this group, feels important.”
The main factor in this LAFC roster playing at a certain level is MLS Coach of the Year nominee Steve Cherundolo. Taking on the role of first-year head coach has never been easy, especially when trying to live up to the standard Bob Bradley set during his tenure. But Bradley’s run in LA ended in a way that had nothing left to give. It was his way and that was it.
Vela’s comment about rotations and getting everyone involved in the roster alludes to the way Bradley ran things. He had his steady group and perhaps due to a lack of depth or some stubbornness, that hasn’t changed much. What ultimately was LAFC’s downfall, particularly in 2019 when they lost the Western Conference Finals to the Seattle Sounders, was their own Soccer became one-dimensional and stagnant at the greatest moment.
Cherundolo’s approach was a breath of fresh air and LAFC benefited greatly from that. His demeanor and attitude ahead of Thursday’s game against the Galaxy, his first playoff game as a coach, said it all.
When asked if it was the biggest coaching moment of his career, he answered no. Instead of giving the expected El Trafico even more hum than it already had, he tried to calm the noise a little.
“Every year and every season is different – every group is different,” said Cherundolo. “Definitely not one who pulls stats from past results or seasons. I really see no point in it. I understand why that is, but personally as a coach I don’t benefit from it and neither do the players.”
But after beating the Galaxy 3-2 in a thriller on Thursday, that 2019 narrative was back in full swing. Here’s the difference: A few years ago, that victory over their rivals was a moment. It was a celebration as they had yet to beat the Galaxy in five games. It was more about finally getting past the Galaxy than winning a playoff game. And it showed when they had to turn around and face the Sounders a few days later. They were gassed and this emotional roller coaster took them for a ride.
Conquering the galaxy this year was no longer such a daunting task. The game was tense and the pressure was high as always El Traficobut the focus must and remains far beyond that.
“First rest, no celebrations,” said Cherundolo after the win. “This team is hungry, excited and very focused on making a final here in LA.”
LAFC was already popping its champagne in Portland after sneaking out of Providence Park with a last-minute 2-1 win to capture the Supporters’ Shield. That too has already been put into the rear-view mirror.
This trophy recognizes the black and gold as the best team of the regular season. But what can you do now?
This team took the MLS by storm this year with the signing of global stars like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini. Yet it was newcomer Denis Bouanga who played the hero role and stole headlines. He scored the Shield-winning goal in that game in Portland, and on Thursday he had a brace against the Galaxy and his 93rd-minute shot rebounded for Cristian “Chicho” Arango to bury the dagger.
This is a testament not only to the firepower of this squad, but also to the depth. Cherundolo needed 78 minutes to make his first sub of the game. He was admittedly planning for a possible extension but also had faith in his players who were on the field at the time. This sub was Vela for 21-year-old Kwadwo Opoku, due to convulsions for LAFC’s captain. Of course, it worked out perfectly for Cherundolo, as it seems to have done all year. Opoku’s pressure on the ball in the closing bars of the clock resulted in a forced corner kick that resulted in the winning goal.
If you look at the roster, there are a handful of players capable of making the difference. In 2019 the team depended on Vela for good reason as he won the Golden Boot and set an MLS record 34 goals. This iteration of LAFC doesn’t need Vela to be the top scorer or even the center of attention. He has morphed into more of a go-between role and that has given a boost to players like Bouanga and in turn helped Arango have a stellar season that landed him as an MVP contender.
“Denis did what he showed from day one here in LA but he finished the games,” said Bouanga’s Cherundolo. “He’s a threat in 1v1, set pieces and combination play. He’s a monster physically and mentally. Personally, as a right-back, I wouldn’t want to play him and I probably wouldn’t have looked very good against him either. So I’m glad those days are behind me.”
Cherundolo, a former USMNT defenseman, jokes about having to play against his own offense. But his experiences as a player here in the US and also in Germany remain an integral part of how he managed to relate to those players and create a specific mentality. Players have raved about how direct and situational he is in the way he trains all season. However, if you ask him about it, he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He prefers to praise his employees and his team and often falls back on the “we haven’t done anything yet” response.
And in a way he’s right. As in 2019, the goal is the MLS Cup in Los Angeles. They fell short a few years ago, but this year is different.
Now LAFC has to go out there and prove that or it will be a different year, same result and all we have to do is compare.