The same 'football' that lifted LAFC to new heights let them down when it mattered most

LOS ANGELES — LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller stood in disbelief with his hands at his waist while former teammates joyfully sprinted past him.

In section 217, green flags and scarves whipped through the cool air at Banc of California Stadium. The Seattle Sounders were right below on the field celebrating a surprising 3-1 victory over LAFC in the Western Conference final.

It’s not a familiar sight to see visitors enjoying what the Black and Gold have become accustomed to at home.

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The relief of beating the Galaxy a few days ago turned into sorrow Tuesday as a trophy ceremony complete with confetti and fireworks marked the bitter end of a historic campaign for the second-year club.

“It’s a season where there’s a lot of good things but it ends in a disappointing way,” said manager Bob Bradley. “It’s really frustrating to have a home game in a semifinal with a chance to host a final and not get it done.”

Head coach Bob Bradley and LAFC reached new heights in MLS this season, but it will end without the ultimate prize. (Getty Images)
Head coach Bob Bradley and LAFC reached new heights in MLS this season, but it will end without the ultimate prize. (Getty Images)

If you paid any attention to Bradley’s comments throughout the year, you probably heard the term “our football” more times than Carlos Vela scored goals. Yet, it was that same football that ultimately cost LAFC a chance at MLS Cup. They looked like a shell of the team so often referred to as the best in MLS history this season.

Sure, they dominated with 69.1% of possession through the 90 minutes, but they also only mustered four shots on goal. The concepts of controlling the game were there but Seattle’s smash-mouth relentlessness never allowed the home side to get comfortable.

From the opening whistle it was clear Brian Schmetzer’s message to his squad was to hit them and put bodies on the ground. The Sounders were bullying and outmuscling their opposition at every fight for the ball. So much that the roughness forced midfielder Latif Blessing — who left the stadium in crutches — out of the game in the 45th minute with a leg injury.

At that point Seattle had already gained complete control behind goals from the South American tandem of Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro.

“The physicality part is something teams think they can bring to kind of screw everything up,” said Mark-Anthony Kaye, who replaced Blessing. “It wasn’t a surprise to us at all, we knew coming into the game what it was going to be like and we just didn’t match it enough.”

Therein lies the biggest problem. Knowing what type of game plan the Sounders were going to present, the Black and Gold’s football was simply not good enough. The attack responsible for 85 goals this season was nonexistent. Didn’t matter if Vela was playing that false-nine role or out wide. Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez swapping wings, as they typically do, created few moments to cheer for. Adama Diomande’s introduction to the game was quickly drowned out by a sea of green jerseys.

Praise typically overflows for Bradley’s command of this LAFC juggernaut, but the football, during the most important moment in the club’s short history, was one-dimensional. And as Kaye mentioned, it wasn’t because of anything shocking the Sounders did.

“As you become more experienced you know how to deal with these things better,” Kaye elaborated. “I’m not going to blame it on inexperience because that’s not the right thing to do. We’re capable of winning games like this. We let this one get away from us.”

This year's U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal slipped past LAFC in similar fashion — a home loss, where they had 61% of possession and finished the game with just a single shot on target. That July defeat sparked discourse about the ability to step up in those monumental moments. Now, almost four months later, they suffered the same fate and resurrected the conversation, a playoff win over the Galaxy last week notwithstanding.

Carlos Vela and LAFC will have to wait another year to try and complete their ultimate objective. (Getty Images)
Carlos Vela and LAFC will have to wait another year to try and complete their ultimate objective. (Getty Images)

But it’s unfair to say LAFC’s season was a disappointment. The Supporters’ Shield is the first piece of hardware in club history, and will be forever.

“We had a dream year, but if we finished without MLS Cup we knew we would leave with a bitter taste, and that’s what happened,” Vela said in Spanish. “Of course, there are many positive things we can analyze but we weren’t able to accomplish the main objective we set. All that means is we still aren’t the team we want to be and there’s still work to be done.”

Falling short of that ultimate prize due to a lack of football might linger more than those five winless games against the Galaxy used to. LAFC had the stingiest defense in MLS during the regular season, and then six allowed goals in two single-elimination playoff games.

How different will that LAFC back line look next year? Should Pablo Sisniega be challenging Miller for that starting keeper spot? After watching Peruvian international Ruidiaz play spoiler, do the Black and Gold need another striker or will Dio suffice?

All those questions will likely be addressed as they prepare for Year 3. Being “not good enough” when it’s all on the line isn’t an acceptable answer, though.

Credit Bradley and company for not deflecting blame and owning up to the loss. The lasting image of the historic 2019 squad will be green, blue and white confetti littering the grass in L.A., flying beers from a select few idiots in the stands and some fans heading toward the exits before the final whistle.

Whether or not you still consider LAFC one of the best teams in MLS history despite not winning the Cup is an endless debate they aren’t interested in entertaining.

“I don’t think we care what people say,” Kaye said. “There’s going to be an MLS Cup winner and it’s not going to be us. So, there’s that.”

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