“We got a taste of our own medicine tonight,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo after his side’s sixth league loss of the season. “We got outrun, out-pressed, we didn't create as many errors or mistakes from the opponent, and they capitalized on ours. There were also, to add into the mix, some pretty big defensive blunders which we haven't shown all season.
The Angelinos have been the class of MLS all season, their campaign at times looking more like a coronation than a fight, but all that changed in the sweltering central Texas heat. A Maxi Urruti brace, a masterful 1g/2a outing from Diego Fagundez and a ferocious collective intensity sprang the ambush, powering the upstart Verde to a comprehensive win over the league leaders in front of a euphoric home crowd.
Most notably, a technical side geared around head coach Josh Wolff’s meticulous positional-play model flashed the proverbial salt and vinegar. ATX got stuck in on their illustrious guests from Tinseltown, muscling their way to both a tactical and psychological advantage throughout a bruising, ill-tempered encounter with a pronounced Audi MLS Cup Playoffs vibe.
“There’s a mentality,” said Wolff postgame. “You want to come into it with a physicality, and you’ve got to invest emotionally as well. And these guys could feel it in the warm-up that this wasn’t an ordinary game. [LAFC] are the best team in the league for a reason, they have quality, they have power, they have speed, they have depth. So from the starting point, in these types of games, you’ve got to answer the physicality and the emotion of it and you’ve got to have some level of control as well. And then the footballing takes over.
“It was back and forth a little bit the first half, but I liked our control, and certainly our ability to build pressure, and that paid off quickly in the second half as well.”
In the run-up to this match, LAFC had made no bones about their desire to avenge their 2-1 home loss to ATX in May. The combination of that stewing mutual antagonism and some rugged early challenges ignited into open conflict as Urruti and Jesus David Murillo sparked an angry tussle in the first half.
Wolff declared that his team thrive on such moments – a stark contrast to their bouts of costly passivity in last year’s inaugural season – while the visitors had to admit they simply didn’t meet the moment.
“For sure, [a loss like this] now is better than the end of October,” said veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini, a second-half substitute on this night. “But I think that the mistake was not just on the pass or the control, on the shoot[ing], on the marking.
“The most important mistake was in our head, and the attitude, the concentration, the spirit. This is all the most important stuff on which we have to work. Then arrives the control, the pass, the shoot[ing], the marking – everything is less important than the attitude, than the emotion, than the right feelings, the fire that we have.”
Tiring out the opposition
With the heat index sticking in the high 90s even after sunset, LAFC looked flushed and flustered by Austin’s aggression and speed of play, with Gareth Bale struggling to impose himself in his first MLS start and Carlos Vela cutting a frustrated figure. Trailing 1-0 at halftime to Fagundez’s free-kick golazo, the type of second-half surge that Cherundolo has so often inspired this season never materialized, with the hosts blowing the match open instead.
“You’ve got to hurt them, you’ve got to make them run,” said Wolff of his plan for destabilizing the Black & Gold. “Punishing the front three is not just about bypassing them, it’s about moving them side to side, continuously asking questions of their back line and that middle three, to tire them out. And then now how do you either quickly attack them or set up attacks to, again, make them work and suffer?
“It’s a cumulative effect, is what we talk about. It may not get us there and get us what we want in the first 30 minutes, but we know as the game goes on, that should favor us. But the guys did a great job in the second half coming out with the right intensity, maturity, professionalism and ended it pretty quickly.”
LAFC’s flashy, busy transfer window has dominated the discourse around the club. But now their second consecutive loss presents them with a wake-up call, and a reminder they can still be caught in the standings. Austin and the Philadelphia Union are both now six points back in the Shield race, all three teams with seven games left to play.
"Everyone in the team is upset by the defeat. But I think that right now is where you really see the good team that we are. When you’re winning and everything is incredible, reality is lost a little,” said Vela in Spanish postgame. “I think that it’s here when we really have to move forward, to show that we are a great team, play with the personality that we have, change this dynamic.”