Comparisons in sports are inevitable. Sometimes they are even necessary to truly paint a picture. And other times they might seem a bit forced in a way of hanging onto a past that’s no longer reality.
LAFC right now falls somewhere in the middle of all that.
It does make sense why this team, which will be hosting the Western Conference final, right now is being talked about along with the 2019 squad. The similarities are hard to look past: won the Supporters’ Shield; earned a first-round bye in the MLS Cup playoffs; hosted and beat rival LA Galaxy in a wild first playoff game. That right there is exactly where the comparisons should end.
This LAFC is not the one of the past. It’s indeed a new era, trying to learn from prior mistakes but leave all that talk of 2019 where it belongs — part of history. Out of that roster that ran through the league in record-setting fashion, only three players remain: Carlos Vela, Eddie Segura and Latif Blessing. Let the captain tell you himself.
“No, I think we are really different,” Vela said. “Every single coach makes the team different. This time I think we have more experience in the group, more depth in our squad. I think everybody is a little bit more fresh because we rotate a lot. Everybody feels part of this group, feels important.”
The main factor that has this LAFC squad playing on a particular level is MLS Coach of the Year finalist Steve Cherundolo. Taking over the gig as a first-year head coach was never going to be easy, especially trying to live to the standard Bob Bradley created in his time in charge. But Bradley’s run in L.A. ended in a manner that had no more to give. It was his way and that’s it.
Vela’s comment about rotations and getting everyone on the roster involved alludes to the way Bradley ran things. He had his set group and perhaps due to a lack of depth or some stubbornness, that didn’t change much. What LAFC’s downfall eventually was, especially in 2019 when they lost the Western Conference final to the Seattle Sounders, was their football became one-dimensional and stagnant in the biggest moment.
Cherundolo’s approach has been a breath of fresh air and LAFC has benefited greatly. His demeanor and attitude ahead of Thursday’s game over 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 anticipated El Tráfico more buzz than it already had, he tried to calm a bit of the noise.
“Every year and season is different — every group is different,” Cherundolo said. “Definitely not one to draw statistics from past results or seasons. I really don’t see the point in it. I understand why it’s done, but I personally as a coach get nothing out of it and nor do the players.”
But after beating the Galaxy 3-2 in a thriller Thursday, that 2019 narrative was once again in full swing. Here’s the distinction: a few years ago that win over their rivals was a moment. It was a celebration because in five games against the Galaxy they had yet to beat them. It was more about finally getting past the Galaxy than it was about 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 that emotional rollercoaster took them for a ride.
Defeating the Galaxy this year was no longer that daunting task. The game was tense and pressure was high as it always is in El Tráfico, but the focus has and remains to be way beyond that.
“Recovery first, no celebrations going on,” Cherundolo said after the win. “This team is hungry, excited and very focused at creating a final here in L.A.”
LAFC already popped their champagne in Portland after sneaking out of Providence Park with a last-minute 2-1 win to clinch the Supporters’ Shield. Even that has already been put in the rearview mirror.
That trophy stamps the Black and Gold as the best team in the regular season. What can they do now, though?
This team caught MLS by storm this year with signings of world stars such as Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini. Yet it has been newcomer Denis Bouanga who has played the hero role and stolen headlines. He scored the Shield-winning goal in that Portland game, and Thursday he had a brace versus the Galaxy and his shot in the 93rd minute led to the rebound for Cristian "Chicho" Arango to bury the dagger.
That’s a testament of not only the firepower this squad has but also the depth. It took Cherundolo 78 minutes to make his first sub of the game. He admittedly was strategizing for potential extra time while also being confident in his players that were on the field at the time. That sub was Vela for 21-year-old Kwadwo Opoku, due to cramping issues for LAFC’s captain. Of course, it worked out perfectly for Cherundolo as it seemingly has all year. Opoku’s pressure on the ball in the last ticks of the clock resulted in forcing a corner kick which led to the winning goal.
If you look though the roster, there are a handful of players that are capable of being difference-makers. In 2019 the team was reliant on Vela, for good reason as he won the Golden Boot and set a MLS record with 34 goals. This iteration of LAFC doesn’t need Vela to be the main goal scorer or even focus of attention. He’s converted into more of a facilitator role, and that has boosted players like Bouanga, and in turn helped Arango have a stellar season that landed him as an MVP candidate.
“Denis did what he has shown from Day 1 here in LA, but he finished plays,” said Cherundolo of Bouanga. “He’s a threat 1v1, in set piece, in combination play. He’s physically and mentally a monster. I personally as a right back would not like to play against him, and I probably would not have looked very good against him either. So I’m glad those days are behind me.”
Cherundolo, a former USMNT defender, jokes about him having to play against his own attack. But his experiences as a player here in the U.S. and also in Germany remain a vital component of how he’s been able to relate to these players and create a specific mentality. Players have raved about him being so direct and situational in the way he coaches all season. If you ask him about it, though, he doesn’t want the spotlight. He’d rather credit his staff and team, often reverting to the “we-haven’t-accomplished-anything-yet”-type answers.
And in a way he’s right. Because the goal, as it was in 2019, is hoisting the MLS Cup in Los Angeles. A few years ago they fell short, but this year is different.
Now LAFC have to go out and prove that or else it’ll be different year, same result, and all we will have to dwell on are comparisons.