U.S. Open Cup chase cut short for LAFC in quarterfinals

Jul 10, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala (33) takes the ball away from Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) during the first half at Banc of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 10, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala (33) takes the ball away from Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) during the first half at Banc of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing sat near midfield with their heads down. The visiting players were in the far southeast section of Banc of California Stadium celebrating with the traveling supporters of Timbers Army.

It’s not the setting they imagined.

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LAFC continues to steamroll through MLS, setting records and dazzling opponents. In fact, the Portland Timbers were recently one of the victims, falling 3-2 in the home opener of newly-renovated Providence Park on June 1. Wednesday night they returned the favor, spoiling the party in the heart of L.A, defeating the black and gold 1-0 in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal.

Chasing that trophy was a goal for LAFC after being bounced from the tournament in last year’s semifinals by eventual champions Houston Dynamo. The redemption shot was halted abruptly by a pesky Timbers squad quickly becoming a bitter rival.

“The stat that says everything — I’m not big on stats — is in the first half we didn’t have a shot on goal and in the second half I think we had one,” said Bradley. “We weren’t able to win balls in ways that we could get Carlos [Vela] and Diego [Rossi] more on the move through the middle.”

Going into the match LAFC knew to expect a defensive effort that would try to stifle the high-powered offense they like to boast. Despite the home side controlling the majority of the first half, Portland did exactly what it set out to - slow LAFC down.

Vela, who grabbed at his leg and limped around gingerly after hitting the ground in the beginning of the second half, struggled to find spaces and connect on passes. Strikers Christian Ramirez and Adama Diomande couldn’t escape the grasp of a solid backline to create any net front presence. The midfield, as in sync as it usually is, was limited to move horizontally instead of vertically.

“All of them are playing at such a high level,” said Timbers defender Zarek Valentin of LAFC’s abundance of attacking options. “We have to be aware of everyone but we believe in ourselves. I would consider this the best defensive performance as a Timber.”

To the black and gold’s credit, their defensive output was up to par as well. Streaking goalscorer Brian Fernandez was unable to break down the wall with his diagonal runs. Sebastian Blanco was met by a swarming bunch every time he touched the ball. Captain Diego Chara played a nearly invisible offensive role throughout the 90 minutes.

But in an elimination game of high intensity it always seems to come down to one standout play. Portland got its moment in the 84th minute when LAFC defender Jordan Harvey deflected a ball towards his own net, which landed at the feet of crossing Jeremy Ebobisse, who impressively lifted a one-time flick right past keeper Pablo Sisniega.

“Tonight we weren’t as sharp as we usually are,” explained Kaye. “It ended up biting us because the game stayed 0-0 for so long and a team like Portland lives off that. They just need one opportunity - they got a lucky bounce and put the ball in the back of the net. In a day where it seems like we’re controlling everything but the finished product isn’t there, it hurts you if you don’t end up scoring early.”

Putting numbers on the scoreboard is part of LAFC’s DNA — they lead MLS with 50 goals this season — yet they were only able to land one shot on target in an elimination game. That’s a direct reflection of Portland’s physicality and ability to clog things up in the center of the field. Maybe the Timbers just laid out the blueprint for the rest of the league.

“We have to understand that there’s more to play for and our season isn’t over yet,” Kaye added. “After tonight we have to forget about it and keep going forward because we got a lot of games left.”

The players and coaches will dwell on the missed opportunity in their own ways. The afterburn will sting a bit extra considering the circumstances of exiting the Cup chase in front of their always energetic home fans, which cheered well beyond the final whistle. Truthfully, there isn’t much time to sit on it because they turn around and travel to Houston for a league match against the Dynamo in less than 48 hours.

Luckily LAFC could look at the MLS standings and put a smile back on their faces.

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