Carlos Vela is one of five players remaining from the 2019 LAFC team that won the Supporters’ Shield and broke the MLS record for points in a season. So with the team once again leading the league, running just four points off the pace it set in 2019, Vela was asked this week about the similarities.
There aren’t many, the team’s captain said, which goes a long way toward explaining this season’s success.
“We are a really strong team, more mature, more experienced,” he said.
“If you see the same faces every [day], motivation is hard to find. This year with many changes, the way we are playing, [we’re] always in a good spot to really trust what we are doing and get that motivation to really dream big.”
LAFC’s offseason makeover saw 10 players leave and eight come in, and two of those additions played important roles in Friday’s sloppy 3-2 win over the Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium, with Kellyn Acosta setting up the first goal with a corner kick and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau making four saves, one off his season high.
The first two scores, one in each half, came from José Cifuentes, the first multigoal game of his MLS career, and the third was scored by Cristian Arango, his 28th in 36 games with LAFC.
The victory, the fifth in the team’s last seven MLS games, moved LAFC (12-4-3) five points ahead of Austin in the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shields standings, and the three goals extended the team’s league lead in goals and goal differential. The result also ended LAFC’s five-game winless streak against its local rival.
“The result, it was a huge one for us,” Acosta said. “To finally get that monkey off our back was actually a huge accomplishment.”
For the Galaxy (8-7-3) the loss, their first this season against a team in the top six of the league standings, left them just a point over the line separating the conference’s playoff teams from the nonqualifiers. The three goals allowed also matched a season high.
Yet for all the changes LAFC general manager John Thorrington has made on the field — six of Friday’s starters, among them Arango, weren’t with the team at this time last season — the most important difference might be in front of the bench, where the laid-back Steve Cherundolo has replaced the fiery Bob Bradley.
“They are like two opposing sides,” Vela said. “Bob is really an intense coach. He wants everything perfect.”
But with Cherundolo, “it feels more chill, more cool,” Vela said. “He’ll let people just enjoy [the game]. He’ll say, ‘Come on, follow some rules. But after that, just show your skills, your talent, and do your best for the team.’”
That worked Friday, with LAFC opening the scoring in the 17th minute when Cifuentes came free on a corner kick to head in Acosta’s cross from the edge of the six-yard box. That was a good omen since LAFC has won the eight previous games in which it scored first this season.
But sloppy passing plagued the team all night, allowing the Galaxy to tie the score on Samuel Grandsir’s first goal of the season in the 55th minute.
Another Cifuentes header put LAFC back in front in the 70th minute and Arango scored two minutes later on a breakaway, a goal that proved to be the winner when Raveloson scored on a header of his own with nine minutes left in regulation.
But that was as close as the Galaxy would get.
“Tonight,” Cherundolo said “we have a little bit more than they did.”
However Vela, who picked up his team-leading seventh assist on Cifuentes’ second score, warned that the team’s success heading into the second half of the season will mean little if LAFC doesn’t finish the year in the MLS Cup. The record-setting 2019 season ended with a loss in the second playoff game, leaving the team with some unfinished business to attend to this fall.
“The most important part of the season is coming,” he said. “We have to be ready to show how good we are in the toughest moments.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.